Walking with Kenny: A Story of Finding Permanent Housing
Kenny Watkins is not a man of many words. He wakes up every morning at 4 or 5 a.m., savors the solace of the dawn quiet, and consumes enough coffee to wire a city block. Kenny is an artist, and he loves to walk – a lot. He travels through every corner of Long Beach to dwell in the peace that only a private hike can provide, to visit old friends, and to hunt for discarded toys and trinkets to add to his art collection. On the days not spent walking, he repairs and paints these found treasures in his new modest studio space.
Up until January of this year, Kenny, 63, was unhoused for over 30 yearsafter facing difficulties re-entering society following his time in the foster care, juvenile justice and correctional systems. In December, he was matched with the City’s Cabrillo Gateway program and has now moved into housing at the Century Villages at Cabrillo. His story to find permanent housing is one about determination, creativity and the importance of relationships.
“I lived a rough life, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Because I learned a lot,” Kenny said.
Addressing homelessness requires building and fostering relationships through trust, patience and resolve. Data show that some people are contacted more than 10 times before becoming open to receiving services.
For Kenny, this was no different. He lived under the 6th Street Bridge on the riverbed for three years before accepting services in March 2022. Through close, careful collaboration between Homeless Services Bureau (HSB) outreach staff and partners Healthcare in Action, Kenny was connected to services, including housing-focused case management and vital health care for his health issues.
“We first saw Kenny on the riverbed. He didn’t want services at first, but we kept returning and began to build a relationship with him,” said Allison Kripp, a Homeless Services outreach workerfor the City of Long Beach who worked closely on Kenny’s case. “We noticed he had difficulty standing and would say that he forgets things often. When he finally accepted services, we immediately started the process of getting him the help and documents he needed.”
For stories like Kenny’s, there are a plethora of City and County resources and departments that all come together to form a conglomerate known as the Interdepartmental Team. This team then works collectively to view homelessness in a systematic way and creates a multi-pronged approach that understands homelessness is not about just providing services and scoring housing.
During his time experiencing homelessness, Kenny tapped into his creative side. For years, he has been working on a beautifully chaotic collage of repurposed toys hot-glued to a baby stroller. The piece is more than just a hobby to him, and it has traveled with him everywhere he walks, even today.
“That’s my life. That’s my American Express card. Never leave home without it. I put all that stuff on there because it brings back memories for some people,” said Kenny. “I don’t do it to get famous, I do it to get smiles. That’s what makes me happy.”
Fast forward nine months to January of this year, and Kenny is now living in his first stable housing in decades. His journey was not an easy one. Kenny had a hard time, at first, getting acclimated to a roof over his head.
“I’ve been on the streets my whole life. I was ready to leave the first day I got here [in permanent housing]. I didn’t like it. I hated it . . . I had to learn how to do this . . . You have to commit to it,” Kenny said.
The relationships that are built through outreach, and the human bonds that are formed as people work together, are instrumental in the process of linking people to permanent housing.
Kenny was worried that permanent housing would mean saying goodbye to the people he’d come to know in Homeless Services.
“I don’t like making friends and then they leave,” he said.
But the dedicated staff who engage in this work are passionate about continuing to foster relationships even after housing is secured. They understand that the path associated with gaining and maintaining permanent housing and true stability can be a long, meandering one, and being there to help navigate that journey is sometimes critical.
That holds true of the City’s nonprofit partners, too. Healthcare in Action, a part of SCAN Healthcare, provides medicine and healthcare connections to people experiencing homelessness. They have worked closely with Kenny, helping to support him through his many efforts and accomplishments.
“I do not know where we would be without the help of Healthcare in Action,” said Allison. “I want to thank them for their hard work and diligence.”
Kenny’s long journey forward has also afforded him the opportunity to take a look back. While at one of his Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) appointments with a peer navigator from Healthcare in Action, a familiar voice called out from the line. Kenny turned to find his sister, whom he had not seen in over a decade.
“It had been years since I seen her. We see each other every week now,” he said.
Kenny always had a knack for finding treasures.
One of the keys to addressing homelessness is to accept that Kenny may be on to something. Solving this crisis is not always a sprint to the finish line. Like Kenny’s many walks, some cases take time. They require a slower, more methodical pace led by trust, and they are accompanied by creative solutions, much like Kenny’s found treasures.
“We fell in love with Kenny,” said Allison. “There were times when we thought we lost him to the streets again, but I am so proud of him for committing to this.”
In his new fridge, Kenny has an unopened bottle of champagne. It has only been a couple months since he moved into his new place, but he anticipates that as time goes on, he will start to feel like he is home. Maybe then, when he has his sister or one of his old friends over, he will have an excuse to pop that cork, sneak in one of his rare smiles, and celebrate how far he has come.