Searching for Polin Hem
After loading up the car, Polin Hem took a deep breath. He stood there in his matching gray sweatsuit and beat up Sperry’s, looking at the trunk full of items he was bringing along for a day at the park. Smiling, he looked down at his pet dog and mohawked soulmate, Melfina, anxiously waiting to be loaded in the car next.
He turned his gaze to his girlfriend, Stephanie, who gestured toward the car, keys in hand. Everyone was ready to go. Polin picked Melfina up and set her in the back seat, making sure to roll the window down.
They set out on their way down Anaheim Street, making a quick pit stop at Jack in the Box to pick up the day’s picnic meal. Once at their destination, MacArthur Park, Polin unloaded the car and set up a tent to help keep them dry. Despite the light drizzle in the air, Polin thought it was a truly beautiful day. Besides, he had seen it so much worse here.
Polin and Stephanie spent the day talking about everything- their lives, what their futures held, and how excited they were that Polin for the first time ever has his name on an apartment lease.
After some time, Polin laid there, one arm around Stephanie and the other around Melfina, empty Double Jack wrappers staring at them from the corner. He basked in the peace he felt in that moment.
This was more than just a day in the park for Polin. In fact, this corner of MacArthur Park was all too familiar to him. Just five months ago, Polin was unhoused, and this was the very spot where he and Melfina lived in a tent even smaller than this one.
Today, he was at the park visiting old friends, sharing the good news that he had turned his life around. After living in a shelter bed for the past few months, he was about to move into permanent housing for the first time in nearly three years.
Polin’s story to attain permanent housing started on a rainy day much like this one.
It was November 2022. Polin, 39, woke to the sound of rain drumming against the vinyl of his tent. Dazed from a week-long bout on methamphetamine, he slowly began to register that he and all his possessions were soaked. The only item he managed to keep dry was a cigarette, his final one. He exited his tent, lit the end of it, took a deep breath, and looked over to Melfina as she sleepily stumbled over to join him.
“I thought to myself ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” he said. “I can’t even help myself. How can I help anybody else? No matter how much I try to help, I don’t have the resources to do it.”
Polin contemplated his situation. He remembered his time in the Marines learning about discipline and hard work. He remembered falling in love with a wonderful woman, marrying her, and welcoming their son into the world. He remembered wanting nothing but the best for them both. He remembered getting accepted into college and looking forward to building that future for them. He remembered adopting Melfina, completing the family. He remembered being the man he always thought he should be.
He also remembered losing both his mother and father to cancer within four months of each other. He remembered mourning not only their loss, but the fact that he never got to know his parents well enough for it to hurt like it should. He remembered looking to parties and drugs as coping mechanisms, and despite this, managing to maintain his good grades and graduating with a degree in behavioral therapy. He remembered striving to stay afloat, working odd jobs in between his house calls as a behaviorist for children with autism. He remembered thinking he had full control over his drug use, but realizing, as his wife and child packed their bags, he was wrong about that. He remembered getting scammed out of the last of his savings in an investment gone wrong. He remembered living in his car until losing that as well. He remembered the day he arrived at MacArthur Park.
He remembered it all. It was then, with a big drag from his cigarette, he decided he would muster up all his Marine discipline to find housing for himself and Melfina.
“I decided the first chance I get, I gotta get out of here. I gotta get strong, I gotta get sober, I gotta get right. I just had that mentality. No matter what happens, I’m just going to keep on fighting. As long as my dog’s safe, I don’t care about being right or wrong. I just gotta keep her alive,” Polin said. “That’s when Teresa pulled up again.”
Teresa Stewart, an outreach worker with the City of Long Beach Homeless Services Bureau, had been engaging with Polin for over a month, ever since he started living in MacArthur Park.
She was conducting outreach at Mark Twain Library and decided to try and connect with Polin again. Up until now, he had always refused her help. But in this moment, much like the cigarette clutched between his fingers, Polin felt her warmth. Polin accepted services that day.
“Polin is a smart, bright kid,” Teresa said. “But he wanted to do things on his own for a long time. But I lived on the streets for 15 years, so I know you sometimes have to get on someone’s level if you want to help them.”
Teresa quickly went to work. She grabbed his drenched documents from his tent and spread them out in the outreach vehicleto dry.
Because Polin is a military veteran, Teresa started making calls to get him connected to services and resources. She connected him to a crisis bed at the Colonial Hotel while she worked on linking him to interim housing.
“Teresa is my guardian angel,” Polin said. “I probably wouldn’t be here without her.”
Polin began working with a counselor with City partner U.S.VETS, whose mission is the successful transition of military veterans through the provision of housing, counseling, career development and comprehensive support. U.S.VETS helped link him with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), where he was able to secure a Housing Choice Voucher through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program. While he began his search for an apartment, he moved into a shelter bed on the U.S.VETS campus.
Over the course of the next few months, Polin committed wholeheartedly to the task of securing housing. Not only did he accept all services and work closely with his case managers, but he enrolled in various programming at U.S. VETS, including cognitive behavioral therapy and classes in financial readiness, life skills, relapse prevention and housing readiness. He spent his free time lifting weights, reading books from the library, playing chess and revisiting everything he learned in college.
But perhaps the most important aspect of Polin’s journey was his commitment to finding and maintaining a sense of community. He began going to church meetings, building a support system around himself, and accepting that sometimes what we go through isn’t totally within our control. This was a pivotal moment for him.
“I couldn’t even cry when my mom died. But when I started going to these meetings, I finally let go, accepted the fact that I was sad-- sad about not having a family, sad that my parents were gone, that I was on my own.”
Polin also began to recognize that he had done some things he regretted while living at MacArthur Park. He made it his priority to right the wrongs he believes he brought into the world-- to use this opportunity and employ his knowledge. He plans to become a social worker and help people experiencing homelessness find permanent housing.
“I was hurting the community, selling drugs, making people worse,” Polin said. “Maybe God sent me here to try and help people. I feel like this was my calling. The need, the requirement to help people-- I’ve always felt it within me.”
Polin struggled for months to find a housing provider who would accept his application. But a Marine doesn’t quit so easily. He continued going to classes, working closely with his case managers and applying for units. Through sheer force of will, Polin was finally accepted into a modest studio space in Long Beach, and soon moved into his first permanent housing in nearly three years.
“He was so grateful and appreciative [to secure permanent housing], but it took him about a week to come out of his shocked state,” said one of Polin’s case managers at U.S.VETS. “Today he is thriving and has had his first VA medical appointment with his primary care physician. He learned that taking care of his health should be his number one priority in order to take care of Melfina.”
For the last few months, Polin has been reflecting on the man he was before homelessness: the self-sufficient man who was fresh out of college, degree in hand; the disciplined man who learned in the Marines all about hard work, conviction, and courage; the positive man who gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. Despite all his progress, he wondered If he’d ever truly be that man again.
But lately he’s been thinking maybe that man never really left-- he just evolved. This new man has experienced more in nearly three years than many do in a lifetime. He has a newfound zest for life, a fresh set of eyes and deep-set empathy for his struggling neighbors.
That thought gives him some peace.
To Polin, MacArthur Park never looked so hopeful as it does now.