Spotlight

Marrisa Axelrod

 

This week, we interviewed Marissa A., who graduated from Beit T’Shuvah in 2000 and now serves as the Director of Community Nursing for the Health and Wellness Department at the People Concern, one of L.A. County’s largest nonprofit social service agencies. She told us how she went from being homeless on Skid Row to protecting L.A.’s homeless population during the pandemic.

What’s your connection to Beit T’Shuvah?

I came into the house around 19 years ago by way of a Chabad telethon. My parents called in, but Chabad only had a rehab for men at the time. They told my parents that there was this other place, also Jewish, that took women. That place was, of course, Beit T’Shuvah.

I was homeless living on skid row at the time. I was close to my end. I was miserable, sick, tired, and strung out. I went to a needle exchange and they got me into detox, and that’s when these two guys came out and interviewed me for BTS. I went to the house, and when I got there, the reality of my struggles still existed. I wasn’t ready to listen to what people told me; I broke the rules, used in the house, took off after a couple of months, and ended up back on the street. It’s what I knew and where I felt comfortable.

Eventually, I called my family and told them that I wanted to come home. They took me in and my sister told me, “If you walk out of this house one more time, don’t ever call us again. One day, I’m going to get married and you’re not going to be there. My life will go on without you and that’ll break my heart.”

I called BTS asked if I could come back. I came in for a meeting with all the staff, and I told them I’d be back in a week because I still had a week’s worth of drugs left. A week later, I called and came back.

What was that like, coming back?

They told me to stop wearing the clothes I was wearing, to cut my hair, to stop wearing a mask that wasn’t mine. I needed to listen to what they had to tell me. I stayed, but I ended up taking some pills while I was in the house that weren’t prescribed to me, so I ended up changing my sobriety date (to February 3, 2001).

I stayed, I listened to what they told me to do, and I built back up a relationship with my family. Because the needle exchange had helped me get into treatment, I started volunteering there a couple of months in.

Volunteering at the needle exchange led to a position at the CDC, doing work with injection drug users, and conducting research. I kept seeing people who needed serious medical care; they had abscesses, and I wanted to do more. Hepatitis C was increasing in prevalence, and I wanted to do more. I started writing educational material for Homeless Health Care Los Angeles. I was also still working with the needle exchange and their doctor, doing hep C care.

Then I decided to go to nursing school. When I graduated, I went to work at LAC+USC Medical Center for four and a half years. At that time, I still maintained connections with social services within LA county, and from there I went on to take a job running a homeless clinic for Northeast Valley Health Corporation and was eventually presented with a job at OPCC, which is today The People’s Concern. I was the first medical nurse brought on.

My job was initially to oversee 12-13 medical beds. I’ve since been able to build the health and wellness department there, where I have an entire team of navigators working with high utilizer homeless patients.

A lot of this job today is administrative. I work with the police and fire departments and with emergency rooms throughout Los Angeles. It’s my job to disseminate information about what’s going on at the county level to the hospitals.

How has your work changed during the pandemic?

There is a lot of changing information on a daily basis. It is my job to make sure that information gets to all the hospitals so that they can best treat our homeless population.

There are a few different options to treat the homeless right now. Rec centers have opened and winter shelters still open. We also have Project Roomkey, A first-in-the-nation initiative to secure hotel and motel rooms to protect homeless individuals from COVID-19. Hotels are open and available for people over 65 or with chronic medical conditions. All of those hotels are being run by one of the social service agencies; our agency opened up two yesterday.

Then you also have quarantine locations at hotels throughout the LA area, and in the Valley, Pamona, and Bell Gardens. These sites are for people who have been exposed, are symptomatic, or have tested positive and don’t have ways to self isolate or quarantine, homeless or non-homeless. I work weekends as a charge nurse at the Bell Gardens location. I oversee the medical staff there and the care of the patients.

How badly has L.A.’s homeless population been affected by the virus?

One of the things I keep saying is we’ll see what happens next week. We’ve been pretty good so far, but when you’re looking at places like Skid Row and densely populated areas, we have been seeing positive cases within the homeless population for the last few weeks. Extensive testing is now being done there and at our shelters and encampments.

On the West Side, we haven’t really seen it hit as hard yet, but we’re starting to see some symptomatic patients in the homeless population there. In terms of people having it and dying within our population, I have not seen it yet, which is good and we’re hoping it obviously stays slow within the homeless population, but we do anticipate that once it does spark, it will become a wildfire. The Department of Health of Health Services, the LA Homeless Services Authority, and the Public Health Department are putting forth extensive measures to protect our homeless populations and get them off the street and out of the congregant areas.

My belief from what I’m seeing at the People Concern is we’re doing a phenomenal job doing symptom checks and protecting staff at such a challenging time.

Have your colleagues been infected?

I know people personally that have had COVID-19, who’ve had it and recovered. I foresee that in the next few weeks, we’ll start to see more people within the health care field here in Los Angeles coming down with it. I know some first responders who’ve had it, or have it.

What are some factors that have allowed LA to avoid some of the issues we’ve seen in NYC, for example.

Our geographic layout is obviously way different than somewhere like New York, which is a small geographic that’s built up, instead of out. You have large apartment buildings with people utilizing elevators and touching the same surfaces, unlike what we have here. We have apartments in downtown like that, but not to the extent of New York. We can be a little more spread out, and we don’t live in such large, congregant settings. We don’t use public transportation in the same way.

That said, there are people out there who don’t believe this is a big deal, there are people who think their constitutional rights are being taken from us, and I’m seeing that a little bit more this week than in past weeks. I think people are getting really tired of staying at home, and it’s starting to affect them. They’re saying, “We’re not seeing the curve they way they said it was going to be.” Well, we’re not seeing the curve because everyone’s been doing a fairly good job of staying in. I have noticed that traffic is much worse this week.

Every night in my neighborhood at 8 pm, and in neighborhoods throughout the city, we hear people banging on cowbells and shouting, all in praise and gratitude of our health care workers.

My neighborhood is not participating in that, it’s actually very sad! I told my next-door neighbors about it, and yesterday they texted me at 8 pm, saying thank you, which was nice!

What has your experience been like staying sober during the pandemic?

When AA moved online, it provided an opportunity to see friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. In the first few weeks, I was going to meetings every day. That has since kind of slowed because I’m so tired at the end of the day. Even when I’m working weekends at the quarantine site, I’m able to jump onto my homegroup and see everybody. I get to see everybody’s face that I love so much and feel connected to them. I’m also a member of Al-Anon, and that’s been my primary program for the last year or so.

I’m so grateful for Zoom and for AA to step up and activate so fast.

Working the insane hours that you’re currently working, how do you stay sane?

Every morning, Monday through Friday, I wake up, walk my dogs, work out, and then I go to work. The last two nights I went skateboarding after work. I surf, so this is tough on us surfers.