The combined effects of homelessness, mental illness and addiction are familiar to Herb Wesson, Jr. For the past few years, he’s witnessed his eldest son battle all three and the winner of the fight is yet to be determined.
Wesson, known throughout California as a skilled politician, has experienced multiple success as an elected official, serving as the 65th Speaker of the State Assembly and becoming the first African American to be elected president of the Los Angeles City Council, a position he’s held since 2011. He is also campaigning to fill L.A. County’s second district supervisorial seat.
His wife, Fabian, is equally accomplished. A veteran community advocate, she previously was a senior advisor to State Senators Kevin de León and Darrell Steinburg, and Assemblymember Mervyn Dymally. Currently, she is an assistant deputy executive officer for the South Coast AQMD and a board director and trustee for the California Science Center.
Together, the couple raised four sons whom they fervently love – two are married with children and the youngest one is building his career. However, the oldest son, Douglas, causes pain and anguish for Herb and Fabian due to his turbulent lifestyle plagued with mental health issues, substance abuse, periodic incarcerations and chronic homelessness.
Sadly, the Wessons story is similar to many families around the world, but despite the agony they often experience, the council president remains thankful that Douglas is “still alive. We are happy that he is in our lives.”
“Even though we go through this trial, we have to be thankful for all of the other things that we have,” he noted. “We have to pray for him and continue to help him and then maybe God will bless us with victory.”
Recalling how he initially responded to his loved one’s erratic behavior, Wesson said a series of reactions engulfed him – from denial to resentment to embarrassment.
“For families that experience this, you are on an emotional roller coaster. The first emotion is anger. You ask, ‘how could you do this. All that you have been given in your life, how could you do this to us,” questioned Wesson, who said Douglas had a normal upbringing with engaged parents and siblings.
Douglas was even part of the Crenshaw YMCA youth basketball team, coached by Wesson that won a championship. That was just one of many childhood episodes that puzzled Wesson about Douglas’ conduct as an adult.
“Looking back, I questioned myself. ‘Oh my God, could I have done more? Should I have seen something earlier? Maybe I shouldn’t have whipped him or maybe I should have whipped him more.’
“Another emotion is that you try to divorce yourself from the situation, almost as if they do not exist. But a week or two passes and your emotions change again. Your emotions never stay constant,” he admitted.
Douglas would be in a sober living facility, Wesson said, and then his family would be told that he left. As worry set in with no contact for days from his son, Wesson knew he had returned to living on the streets, likely without shelter or medication or regular meals. Yet, Wesson and his wife refused to give up on Douglas.
“We can’t give up on our families. This is a kid that I have raised since he was 10-years-old. Sometimes, my wife would be more upset at him than me, but I would always try to do what I could to help him. I’m determined to give him every chance that I personally can,” said Wesson.
One of the healing actions that the Wessons took to assist Douglas was to openly discuss the situation with their eldest son as well acknowledge his problem to other friends and colleagues and even constituents. To carry out the task, Wesson had to ignore the Black community’s cultural practice of ascribing to “your business is your business, outsiders don’t need to know.”
“But, once me, my wife and Doug started to open up, we all felt better. We learned that he (Douglas) felt bad and felt guilt and felt mad and felt betrayed,” Wesson said. “Every emotion that we went through – denial, anger, sadness, pain –we recognize now that his emotions go up and down like that, too.”
In addition, they took advantages of resources offered by various mental health and homeless assistance nonprofits. Many organizations provide free services and professional staff to guide families seeking to aid their troubled loved ones.
“Open up and talk to people. You can get support and it helps you,” he said. “People have to understand that this is probably the most challenging issue that we are going to have to deal with because it has so many layers to it. It has a criminal justice reform component, homelessness and housing, addiction and lack of opportunities.”
Wesson is furthering opening up with a new ad, which began airing this week, which illustrates his recent search for Douglas among the Skid Row community. Although the ad starts by featuring the words, “Herb Wesson for Supervisor,” the spot totally focuses on issue of homelessness and its impact on families and the society we live in.
The ad concludes with inviting viewers to contribute to four organizations – Jenesse Center, a domestic violence shelter that also assists homeless women; LA CAN, a Skid Row-based homeless support group; United Way, a leader in building affordable and permanent supportive housing; and the Weingart Center, which provides comprehensive services for the homeless on Skid Row.
“Every time I go to the Skid Row area, it always amazes me how the people treat you. Probably 98% of them respect the fact that I am there trying to find Doug and they do what they can to assist me. It is a community as well and when they know that I am there with a genuine desire, then they are unbelievably helpful. My commitment to try to help Doug makes me more committed to try to help them as well,” Wesson said.
“It is a community without walls and we need to try to put them in an environment where they have walls. I am not saying that we should give homeless people free reign. What I am saying is that we should try to do everything that we can to get them a safe place where they can stay and sleep,” he explained.
“Now, when the conversation around homelessness comes up, I can say that I understand what you are talking about. My oldest son is on the streets right now, so I know what you are going through,” added Wesson.
“I’m thankful that this country was built on the belief of second, third, fourth, fifth, and even 100 chances. So, I am optimistic that one of these times will be the charm for Doug.”