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Twin Sisters Find Home After Months On The Streets

Published: 6/13/2018

Huddled in the restroom of Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Central Long Beach, where they had been sleeping, 58-year-old twin sisters, Karleen Watley and Kary Cook, who had been experiencing homelessness for seven months, made a decision that would ultimately change their lives for the better.

They had been approached by City outreach staff offering help multiple times, so they knew where to go—the Multi-Service Center (MSC) was just over the bridge along Anaheim, across the Los Angeles River—but the decision, even with Kary having a broken arm and the constant threat of danger two women alone on the streets face, wasn’t easy.

Trust and hope had both been lost and putting what little control they had over their lives into the hands of strangers prompted far more questions and concerns than it did answers, and caused more anxiety than relief.

“We were just kicked out of our place,” Cook said. “We weren’t dopers, we weren’t addicts, we paid our rent on time… We were frustrated and we felt like there was little we could do after being betrayed by a slumlord. But we stood there, in that bathroom, and asked ourselves, ‘Are we going to do this? Are we finally going to try to get off the streets?’”

Without being under the influence, their decision was clear-headed but nonetheless scary: they had to choose whether they would be around strangers for their every move, during every second of sleep, or whether they would continue to face the harsh realities that come with being women on the street.

It was then that the pair of sisters, along with their service dog of 11 years, a miniature cocker spaniel named Yum-Yum, trekked through the rain and into the MSC.


Assisting people who are experiencing homelessness to get into permanent housing is not an easy endeavor. It can involve accessing an often-complex set of City and County resources and departments, including the MSC, local shelters, income support programs, transportation programs, and non-profit and faith based organizations. 

Another resource to address homelessness is the known as the Interdepartmental Team. This team is comprised of City departments, which include: Health, Police, Fire, Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Library Services and the City Attorney’s Office. The team is led by the Health Department and works to approach homelessness in a systematic way. It meets monthly to proactively address the impacts of homelessness including identifying data trends, planning and implementing best practices, coordinating outreach efforts and charting the overall progress of their efforts.   

“We use our individual department’s expertise to create a dynamic approach to alleviating the experience of homelessness,” said Shannon Parker, Homeless Services Officer for the Department of Health and Human Services. “We’re actually present on the streets, working in teams, and reaching people across the city.  It is an essential part of how we create better lives for everyone in our community, both those who are housed and those who are still working to find a home and stability.  Collectively, we are offering people who are often marginalized an opportunity to access permanent housing with a sense of dignity.”

And perhaps most importantly, it requires an immense degree of trust between the dedicated workers of these departments and the people who find themselves without a home and currently living on the street.

Officer Armand Castellanos was familiar with the twin sisters, Kary and Karleen, because he had interacted with them on several occasions as he was working to address quality of life issues for the City. One day on an early morning outreach, he and Parker found the sisters sleeping on the bathroom floor of a local park.  They stood to greet him, Kary clutching a small dog in her arms and Karleen cradling her own broken arm in a sling, both looking sleepy but defiant.  He knew that he needed to gain Kary and Karleen’s trust if he hoped to make progress in helping them access services and housing.  As an officer assigned to address quality of life issues, he is afforded the time to develop relationships with people on the street, as opposed to a patrol officer who is kept busy responding to calls for service.  This additional time gives Officer Castellanos a larger understanding of the complex issues that lead to homelessness.

“Not all people experiencing homelessness are committing crimes—and understanding that on a practical level helps me do my job,” said Castellanos.   “It’s been a process of learning what services are available, how to coordinate with the MSC and other service providers and developing relationships with them in order to improve people’s living situation.  Sure, enforcement—ticketing, for example—is one way to go about it but it doesn’t really resolve much if you don’t know the individual and the services they need.”

When it comes to quality of life issues, it affects more than just the people experiencing homelessness; it affects families and residents who visit parks or live near homeless encampments and it affects the way in which we, as a society, interpret public space.

In other words: quality of life issues are everyone’s issues.

When focusing on the specific situation of the twins, Castellanos immediately understood that it wasn’t an issue of addiction or mental illness, but rather, an issue of trust.

Castellanos said, “I knew from talking with the twins that they weren’t abusing drugs, alcohol or committing crimes. It was really about building a relationship to understand their motives behind staying or not staying on the street—and there were a lot of trust issues. It could stem from negative contacts and past experiences, which, comes down to building trust and letting them know that I am here to help them. It is important to understand that each person is unique.”

Kary and Karleen openly admit that they can be “very difficult to work with”—a comment said with a healthy dose of humor—but that ultimately, it was a friendship that led to getting them into the services they need.

“He was determined to help us,” Cook said, choking up slightly. “He really weathered the issues we had with trust… The most beautiful thing is that after all was said and done, we had to show up to court for some tickets Officer Castellanos had given us for camping in the park—this was after we got help. And Officer Castellanos insisted they wash away all our tickets… He really just wanted to see us in a better place, God bless him.”


The first month inside the MSC was, in the words of Cook, “a very humbling experience” filled with “countless blessings”—but not without a sense of fear at the possibility of the sisters being separated.

They were put into Project Achieve, a women’s shelter in Long Beach. Over the course of the next month, Kary and Karleen would have IDs, Social Security cards, birth certificates—documents that many experiencing homelessness lose or never even had but are essential for getting into services—along with the completion of a program that taught life skills ranging from communication with those in the public to shopping to Internet usage.

Shortly after that, they heard the news of a lifetime: after getting their Section 8 vouchers, they had scored an apartment thanks to the dedicated work of Catholic Charities, which operates Project Achieve, Lutheran Social Services and the case management staff at the MSC. 

It was all, at times, overwhelming; Kary and Karleen both openly admit to having mini-breakdowns—tears of joy and happiness—at things many take for granted, like the ability to simply stay inside or to go shopping, or to take a walk knowing that it would end inside a home.

And they know it is not the same for their friends still out there, some of whom have passed away and some of whom the sisters have lost track of.

“There’s more to life and life is too short to spend a single second of it on the street—you get to a point where you don’t know if you’re going to wake up breathing,” Cook said. “So every day, after thanking God for our own blessings, I pray for all the people I knew.”

Sharing a safe haven with each other—despite the sad and recent loss of Yum-Yum—has proven even more inspirational for the pair beyond praying.

They attempt to visit the parks and encampments when they can, telling others—distrustful and weary as they once were—of the life they could achieve if they were to accept help. They both admit that it is not always a winning situation.

“It doesn’t always work out, trying to help—you have to make that conscience decision yourself,” Cook said. “We’re honored to be a part of that because we knew how much it meant to us… But mostly, we want others to see that the folks out there are people. They are humans. And nobody—nobody—can put a toe in my shoes, nobody knows what I’m going through. Maybe if they tried to understand that, even a bit, the world would be a better place.”


Officer Armand Castellanos is a Long Beach West Division Patrol Resource Officer who is assigned to address quality of life issues within the city. 

Photo: (from left) Karleen Watley, Officer Armand Castellanos, and Kary Cook.

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