Homeless Yale alum sees bright life ahead after 'angel' finds him
Since graduating from Yale University in 1988 and Yale Law School in 1992, Kim Hershman has kept close ties with other African-American alumni who formed a small, close-knit group at the elite Ivy League school.
So just after 8 a.m. Sept. 17, she was awakened by messages from black Yale alumni across the country — from Texas, New Jersey, Tennessee. Had she seen CNN?
That day, there was a story about Shawn Pleasants, 52, who graduated a year behind Hershman and also is African American. He had worked on Wall Street but was now homeless in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles, west of downtown.
What happened next gave Pleasants all the reasons in the world to be thankful this year. He’s in drug rehabilitation in the Tarzana Treatment Center, looking forward to putting his life back together.
“She walked into my world and it’s never been the same for me,” Pleasants said in an interview, using his counselor’s phone. “I think she is an angel amongst us. It’s a debt I will gladly spend the rest of my life trying to repay.”
What Hershman, 53, did was head down to Koreatown from her home in an L.A. suburb to look for Pleasants, the day after hearing his story. He wasn’t in his usual spot, but he was well known to the other homeless people in the area for his willingness to help others.
“If you just say, ‘Where’s Shawn?’ everybody knows him,” said Hershman, a lawyer and business consultant in the television industry.
Standing only 5 feet, 1 inch tall, Hershman was accompanied by two male Yale alums, one of them her significant other. She wore a Yale cap. “I said, ‘Shawn?’ and he said, ‘Kim Clayton?’ I was just blown away ... and then I just sat down.”
Hershman was surprised Pleasants recognized her because they knew each other only slightly at Yale. But Pleasants, too, said he was “blown away. She showed up with a lot of authority. She owns the world.”
When Hershman sees a need, she acts. She took in four children when a neighbor was terminally ill, in addition to raising two sons. She’s remained involved at Yale, staying active in the Yale Black Alumni Association and helping to bring on Dean Risë Nelson as director of the Afro-American Cultural Center.
Since meeting Pleasants, Hershman has marshaled Yale alumni and others to help him, first to get him into detox, then rehab, to help cover treatments for his severe glaucoma, even to bring coffee and doughnuts to Pleasants and his partner, David Mariscal, and the other homeless people in Koreatown.
While Hershman was working to find a treatment center for Pleasants and Mariscal, “unbeknownst to me, she would just drive by to see if we were still there,” Pleasants said. “Within 20 days she had us off the street,” he said.
“I have always stepped in,” Hershman said. “That is a no-brainer that I would step in if I could. This story, it just hit me.”
Hershman also realized that she had been passing the spot where Pleasants camped out for 10 years, on her way to the hairdresser or doctor. But when she finally found Pleasants, she didn’t just take over. It was up to Pleasants whether he wanted help or not. “I said, ‘Shawn, what do you want to do? ... If you know what you want to do, I will do what I can to help you.’”
She told Pleasants and Mariscal they didn’t have to go to rehab. But, she said, “if neither of you go, I don’t think I can help you.”
Pleasants recalled Hershman saying, “‘If you don’t want to be here, then I’ve got you.’ ... We shook on it and she said no ... and we hugged on it.”
In addition to his vision problems, Pleasants said, he was born with a club foot, but despite that ran track at Sam Houston High School in San Antonio, Texas, where he was valedictorian.
After graduating from Yale in 1987, Pleasants had worked on Wall Street. He went into photography and filmmaking in Los Angeles and made a great deal of money in the adult film industry. But he said a business partner ripped him off and he lost his house. His mother, “the only thing that made the pain go away,” died of cancer. He became addicted to crystal meth and ended up on the street for 10 years.
“The fact that Shawn survived for 10 years is pretty miraculous,” Hershman said. “You don’t survive on the street for 10 years; you just don’t.”
The reason Pleasants was featured on CNN was because of something President Donald Trump had said about the homeless. Pleasants was interviewed to “counter Trump’s statement about how the homeless had desecrated California ... and therefore he wanted to ship us off somewhere to a federal armory in Modesto, California,” Pleasants said. “It sounded pretty ominous to me.”
Pleasants wanted people to know that anyone can become homeless. His Koreatown comrades included a photographer for the Smithsonian Institution and a world-famous harmonica player, he said. “Most of the people who had helped myself and David ... were on the street with us now” because of skyrocketing housing costs. “It’s disheartening,” he said.
To make things worse, sanitation workers, accompanied by police, would come through and throw out the homeless people’s belongings. “Why was the issue of homelessness assigned to sanitation?” Pleasants asked. “In my mind it should be assigned to the housing authority.”
He had done several radio interviews about the situation. “I was quite outspoken. ... I was quite unhappy with what people had done to the homeless.” So he was a natural for CNN’s Dan Simon.
Homeless services lacking
Helping Pleasants get back on his feet is just the beginning in Hershman’s efforts to help make life easier for homeless people. She’s been talking to the agencies and case managers and realizing “there are big gaps” in services for the homeless.
“We’re not getting people off the streets and have these wonderful case managers who are young people out of college or people my age who are addicts and they don’t know how the system works,” she said. “The case managers are not being trained.”
Hershman believes “every person who is homeless needs addiction mental health treatment. ... Even being on the street will give you PTSD. When you try to get them a bed you get the runaround, runaround, runaround.”
She has plans — literally a floor plan — for the first Shawn E. Pleasants Homeless Help Center. A Yale School of Architecture graduate offered to help create it. It would offer showers, phone-charging stations, laptops, mailboxes, TVs so homeless people can watch the news. Otherwise, from a homeless person’s perspective, “I don’t know what’s going on in the world. I then become cut off from society. I become invisible,” she said.
“We think homeless people are one category of people, but in reality it’s just people who have lost their home,” she said. “Let’s get them back to their life. We’re not even valuing our capital here by letting homeless people rot in the streets.”
“I think it’s great what Kim is doing, more than great, because it’s something that’s unheard of around this time,” said Mariscal, who had surgery to replace a heart valve after he got clean from crystal meth, which was hiding his symptoms. “Another month, he would have been dead,” Pleasants said.
Pleasants sees Hershman as a lifesaver. “If she hadn’t come into our lives, he would have been deceased and I would have been blind,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. She came from nowhere. So much has been changed. So much has been made the better.”
It will take a lot to help Pleasants and Mariscal with their medical bills and treatment. She created a page on Facebook, “Shawn Pleasants Medical Fundraiser,” that has brought in more than $28,000. Her goal is $92,215.
Pleasants wishes there were more like her, and that with 13 million people in the Los Angeles area, there shouldn’t be 60,000 who are homeless. “Why did it take the city a year or years to help someone when this private citizen did it in 20 days? It makes no sense whatsoever. It shouldn’t take so many strings to get things done.”
Pleasants’ counselor, Leticia Tye, said he is making quick progress. “He’s doing great. From the first day he got here he’s had a goal and a purpose,” she said,
When Hershman visited Pleasants in the treatment center recently — she can only visit on Sundays — she found his personality to be brightening from the drug-induced low he had been on. “He was so solid and on and clear-thinking,” she said. “He was just so grounded and focused and driven, that he’s on his way.”
Pleasants assessed his progress cautiously: “I’m doing all right. I’m doing pretty ... I’m actually doing pretty darn good.”