On Being Homeless: From the Law Firm to the Streets to the Law Firm Again


I never thought I would grow up to be homeless. In fact, “homeless” wasn’t a word in my vocabulary when I young. My daughter, however, learned the word when she was about ten. That’s how old she was when her father became homeless.

Most people don’t like to see homelessness, and if they do see it, they rarely acknowledge the magnitude of the problem. One tends to look away. There is also a great deal of misconception and misinformation regarding homelessness.


L.A. County Jail 2005

  Back in his law firm today

For example, one may think that because I was homeless, I must be uneducated, lazy, and chose not to work. All those assumptions are false.

I hold a B.S. in Engineering from California State University at Northridge, and a J.D. from Southwestern University School of Law. I have worked since the age of fourteen, other than the period of time when I was homeless.

I was in the top ten percent of my class for the first two years of law school, which was quite an accomplishment considering I also worked fifty to sixty hours a week at a national insurance carrier. And I had an hour drive from my home in Palmdale to work, an hour drive from work to school, and another hour drive from school to home each night. On a typical day, I left my house at 4:00am, arrived at work by 5:00am, then left for school at 4:00pm, Monday through Thursday. I didn’t get home most week nights until 11:00pm.

I stranded a wife and a toddler all week, except on Friday nights and Saturday, when I cared for my daughter while my wife went to school for a teaching credential. I did homework when I got home at night and when I could on Saturdays. I also received superior reviews at work, five stars, which was a review many coveted and few received.

I was invited to join Southwestern Law School’s Law Review after my first year because of my high grades.This added another ten to twenty hours of work per week to my already busy schedule. I was also honored to have my article published (Abating the Flood: How the California Legislature Stopped the Reign of Estrada v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, 28 Sw.U.L. Rev. 677, 1999). Lucky me -- more hours required to edit and perfect my article.

My first job was washing dishes when I was fourteen. I worked through high school and I put myself through college, working. I’ve always worked. I am not lazy, and I am not uneducated.

I am an alcoholic and an addict, but had an eight year period without a drink. I started law school during that period, when I had been five years sober. But then I started taking prescription medicine while in law school as a result of an automobile accident and perceived stress: Soma, Xanax, and Midrin. Backaches, stress and headaches. I became addicted. I suffered. I was sober, but not clean…

I suffer from major depression, recurrent, perhaps as a result of enduring child molestation for eight years when I was a kid. That diagnosis makes me mentally ill (DSM-IV 296.35) and a “mental health patient,” though I’m better now that I consistently take medication as prescribed, instead of to get high.

I began my career as an attorney in 1999, working for small firms that practiced workers’ compensation defense law, which is the industry in which I worked while going to Law School. I had a successful career, a six figure salary, a home, and a beautiful relationship with my daughter. (My wife and I were separated and eventually divorced.) But I was still taking the pills, and my abuse eventually caught up with me. I entered a rehabilitation facility in early 2001 to detoxify and get off the pills.

A week after emerging from rehab, I realized I was getting “clean and sober,” and that I had not had a drink in eight years. I was clean and sober for about a week, but unfortunately, I saw a flashing liquor store sign immediately before going into rehab to get off the pills, and that image stuck with me when I got out. After getting off of the pills, I made the foolish decision to have a drink, and that led to another seven months of hell, alternating between pills and alcohol. Toward the end of that run, I was introduced to crack cocaine. 

Given my history, I should known better than to smoke crack. After all, I passed the bar on my first attempt and I have a B.S. in Engineering with an emphasis in Thermal Fluids. That’s rocket science--so one would not characterize me as a fool. But then again, most would think that only a fool would give up his house, six-figure salary, and a wonderful relationship with his daughter, all for the sake of a drug.

I am not a fool--but I am an addict and alcoholic, and addiction is an equal opportunity disease.

I lost my job when the crack pipe became more important than my clients, more important than my employer, more important than having a place to live, and more important than my daughter. I sold my house when I couldn’t pay my bills because I wasn’t working. I wasn’t working because I got fired. I thought I was sick. Perhaps I was. Too sick to work? Perhaps not. Regardless, I used some of my profit from the sale of my home to pay six months of rent for another house and pay off all of my bills, thinking I could get off of the drugs and rebuild my life by not having the burden of work or monthly bills.

Unfortunately, drug addiction doesn’t make life easy or so simple, and I eventually wasted the rest of my money on drugs and alcohol, for me and a slew of people I thought were my friends. I stopped seeing my daughter, I didn’t see old friends, and I didn’t see family. They didn’t understand, but my new “friends” did. I bought a lot of drugs for my new friends. I also bought them a lot of food and cigarettes and alcohol. And I gave them a place to live, at least until I got evicted, which happened when I ran out of money. True, I had my priorities mixed up. True, I should have known better. But I had stopped caring. I was suicidal.

Then I did the unimaginable. I became one of them. The word many of us don’t associate with anyone we know personally. Perhaps a word that we know, yet do not wish to acknowledge. It’s a dirty word. They’re dirty. Lazy and on the streets because that is where they want to be.

And I was one of them. Homeless.

For six months of my life, from May 2005 through November 2005, I slept behind the dumpster in back of the Salvation Army Store, or in the park, the desert, and in the rain. I slept in county jail or the psyche ward, or in the psyche ward at county jail. I didn’t have a car to sleep in because I no longer had a car. I didn’t care, I learned to ride the bus instead. I learned to panhandle, so I could buy food and alcohol. I showered at the public pool, and I ate Kentucky Fried Chicken out of a dumpster left over from the night before.

I also had a drug conviction, which occurred before I was homeless, and I had a habit of missing court. As a result of missing court, I would often end up in the county jail after being picked up on my “no bail” warrant. On one of those occasions, I was given a Good News for Modern Man New Testament Bible, and I actually started reading it, something I had not done before in my life. I had been raised as a Lutheran, and I attended church regularly on Sundays; however, the extent of my Bible reading was the weekly lectionary verses in the church bulletin.

I met Lester on one of my last trips to county jail. One night he asked me a random question, “What separates man from the animals?” I offered that it was because we could speak and reason and hold conversations. Lester disagreed. He told me the difference was that man has dominion over the rest of the animal kingdom. I disagreed with that assessment, but I accepted it in the interest of ending the conversation. That night I read my Bible, and specifically saw the verse: “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man….” ( James 3:7)

I couldn’t believe it. There, in black and white, was proof of what Lester had said: that man has tamed, or has dominion over, the animals, birds and creatures of the sea.

I immediately read the passage for Lester, and said “what a coincidence.” Lester smiled calmly and said, “No, it’s confirmation.” I saw the face of God when Lester looked at me, and immediately I felt a sense of calm. I came to believe after that experience that God speaks to us in many ways, “confirming” various paths for us in life. But we must have our eyes, ears and minds open.

As a result of my drug conviction, I also was able to get into rehabilitation for my drug addiction, the cost of which was paid by the State. I ignored that opportunity for the duration of my homelessness, until my only other option after missing court for the sixth time, was to go to state prison. Entering rehab seemed a much better alternative that entering the state prison. So on November 17, 2005, I admitted myself to the Tarzana Treatment Center in Lancaster, California.On November 18, 2005, I became clean and sober for what I hope will be the restmy life. I currently have been off of alcohol and drugs for over ten years.

Tarzana Treatment Center offered me a warm bed, a shower, and three meals a day. I don’t know why I didn’t afford myself of that opportunity sooner. All I can say is that as a member of the homeless community, however brief, I understand now that one tends to accept homelessness as a way of life. But I do not believe any homeless person would turn down the opportunity to sleep in a warm bed each night and have three meals a day; it’s just that it does not seem to be a viable option when one is on the streets.

I was in the Tarzana Treatment Center when the managing partner who fired me in July of 2004 got in touch with me to let me know that I was imminently in danger of being disbarred by the California State Bar. God blessed me with an amazing boss, who cared enough to locate me and then assist me with hiring a lawyer to help me retain my Bar license. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my license to practice law was suspended when the State Bar found out I had a felony drug cnviction, and because I was homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, I wasn’t receiving any of the notices that came from the State Bar regarding the status of my license.

This same managing partner eventually hired me to work as a paralegal while my license was suspended, and in Feburary of 2007, when my license was restored, he hired me back on as a full time attorney. That boss was one of many people God placed in my life to help me recover. Without him, I do not believe I would be the successful attorney I am today.

Through another series of what I now call confirmations, I became convinced that God’s calling for me was to help other homeless people recover, so to speak, from homelessness. I began to volunteer regularly to assist the homeless, serving and providing for hot meals at my church and at the park, supporting a homeless agency in Lancaster financially and with my time, and I eventually started my own nonprofit organization to raise awareness of homeless issues and raise money for permanent supportive housing. To a more limited extent, I have assisted with legal issues, such as having warrants for so called “quality of life” crimes dismissed.

I have met a lot of homeless individuals since being a member of that population myself, and I know that each them has a story just like mine, but different in the details. The story is that one did not expect or seek to become homeless, that they once were fully functioning members of society, and that any number of events can occur in one’s life that will lead to homelessness: the loss of a job, the unexpected death of someone dear and the ensuing depression, an accident, or simple physical or mental disability. But nobody wanted to be homeless, or ever dreamed that it could happen to them.

I have also learned that I do not just have a god in my life, I have a God in my life who cares for me and wants me to succeed. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

I also believe that the plans for my life include helping others less fortunate than I. And, lastly, I firmly believe in the words of James in Chapter 1, verse 22: Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

Doing what the word says means helping others to achieve all that they can and to recover from events such as homelessness. I can read all I want about helping a brother or sister who is without clothes or food ( James 2), but until I actually do something about it, I am not doing the work of the Lord.

By leading me out of homelessness and into the Tarzana Treatment Center, God did for me what I could not do for myself. He helped me recover from homelessness by placing people in my life such as my ex-wife, who never stopped caring for the father of her child; my former and current boss, who gave me back my career; and Lester, who taught me a lesson I will never forget.

I thank God every day for saving me, and sending me people who cared.

Donald E. Arnold has a B.S. in Engineering from California State University and a J.D. from Southwestern University School of Law. He has worked with two national insurance carriers and now practices workers’ compensation law in Los Angeles, California.