*FEATURE – Homeless For a Reason…Codetalk, via St. Joseph in Venice, Helps Women Learn to Code. This Woman Wants to Pay It Forward….
Nakiah Chinchilla does not want anyone else to fall through the cracks.
Like she did.
Like her husband did.
And, like her son almost did.
She did whatever she could to save them.
One of her saving graces was the St. Joseph Center in Venice, a social services agency that has been helping the low-income and homeless population in LA since 1976.
One of its programs, Codetalk, is a tech job-training program that teaches low- income, under-employed and under-served women how to code.
After graduating last year, Chinchilla said she is now using the skills she’s learned to create an app that she hopes will make it easy for people to access Los Angeles’ social services.
It was anything but easy for her.
Ultimately, it’s a story about survival.
Her story started in Jamaica, in the Queens borough of NYC, where she was born. Her father was a truck driver. Her mom worked for HUD.
She went to Dartmouth College and left in 1996 with a major in history and a certificate in women’s studies.
But she didn’t technically graduate because she still owes the college $8,000, she said.
She worked in the corporate communications and PR divisions for media and entertainment companies, including MTV Networks and its brands Nickelodeon and Logo.
She got married and had a son. She moved with her family from NYC to LA in 2009 to pursue a career as a writer.
After six months, when her husband Michael Chinchilla started behaving erratically “for no reason,” she tried to help him but could not, she said.
She eventually moved with her son, August “Auggie” Chinchilla, 11, to Berkeley, where she began work as a pre-school teacher.
She moved back to LA a year later, so Auggie could begin kindergarten at the only public Waldorf school there, as well as to try to reconnect with her estranged husband.
Dealing with Huntington’s Disease
When she came back, she could not find her husband anywhere. Turns out he was in-and-out of the hospital due to 5150s – California code for the temporary, involuntary psychiatric commitment of those who present a danger to themselves or others, due to signs of mental illness.
She finally found him and took him to UCLA’s medical center, where he was finally diagnosed with what had been ailing him — and what tore his family apart. It was Huntington’s Disease, a fatal hereditary condition marked by degeneration of the brain cells and progressive dementia.
She then became her husband’s probate conservator.
Soon after, she had her son tested. It turned out he had an extremely rare version, known as Early Onset Juvenile Huntington’s Disease.
Luckily, Auggie was able to continue at Ocean Charter School. Part-time.
But there was nowhere for them to live. She had to take care of her husband around the clock in a hospice-like setting, so she needed stable housing,which also included wheelchair access for her husband. And, Auggie, eventually.
Trying to Find Stable Housing
At first, she was able to move into a one-bedroom apartment that her aunt co-signed for, but it was too small for the three of them, and not secure enough for her husband’s dementia.
Eventually, she saved up enough money to get a larger three-bedroom home in Ladera Heights, with a secure gate, so her husband couldn’t leave when he wandered around.
There, she was able to care for her husband at home. She felt she could do that, although she was side hustling to pay the rent.
A year-and-a-half later, she said she was struggling to pay the bills and realized she could not take care of her husband on her own. Soon, they were evicted.
Baby Bucket List
She said she applied for a “small portion” of her husband’s life insurance policy and received it just as they were getting evicted. She declined to say how much that portion was.
She also created a GoFundMe campaign to fulfill the wishes on Auggie’s “baby bucket list.” That raised $15,000, which she said she used to pay for medical supplies for her family and “adventures” for her son, including a trip to Egypt to see the pyramids.
She said she put a deposit down on an apartment under construction, but was then told that she and her family were “too risky to rent to,” based on the eviction and having no income.
Because of the location of her son’s school, she wanted to keep her family within the confines of the LA Unified School District.
With nowhere for any of them to live at this point, she used the funds for her husband to stay in a nursing home and to travel with Auggie to the places he always wanted to see, like Egypt.
When they came back, she and Auggie started moving in and out of hotels, while her husband was getting kicked out of various nursing homes because he kept trying to escape.
She continued to pound the pavement looking for somewhere they all could live.
“Trying to find housing when you don’t already have it is hard,” she said.
Not surprisingly, her credit rating started deteriorating.
After six months, she ran out of money again. So, she and Auggie lived out of her car. The family dog, Luna, a 100-pound German Shepherd, made them feel safer.
They also stayed with friends, when they could.
“My choices may not have been the same as others would have made, but I did the best I could for my son,” she said.
“I tried to make it ‘fun’ to be homeless because I didn’t’ want (my son) to think it was a bad thing,” she said.
And, she was always hustling. While her son was asleep in the back seat, she’d be in the front seat on her Apple laptop, in a Starbucks parking lot with wi-fi, scouring the Internet for freelance work, and typically finding it, she said.
Asking for Help
She emailed LA City Council members and county social service staff relentlessly. She constantly called 211 – the number to call for social services and assistance – and left “long-ass messages,” she said.
She drew on her Ivy League education and previous work experience, keeping the faith that somehow she could uplift her husband and son and get them the help they so desperately needed.
“I’m blessed with my dad’s hustle and my (late) mom’s take-no-prisoners attitude,” she said.
Then, she got a call from St. Joseph. The center could not provide actual housing for her and her family, as it’s purely a service provider, but the staff could help her find programs that could help them. And, they gave her some hotel vouchers.
She told them she would rather sleep in her car.
Then, St. Joseph told her about Codetalk.
The program was launched with an initial grant from the JIB Fund, a private family foundation. Snap Inc., (the parent company of Snapchat), first became involved in 2015 as a program partner. In 2016, it became the primary funder.
The concept grew out of conversations between St. Joseph Center CEO Va Lecia Adams Kellum and other local stakeholders – all of whom were inspired to use tech as a means of helping low-income, under-employed, and under-served women to achieve self-sufficiency.
Snap provides a “generous” grant to support the program and the women it serves, said Sharon Plunkett, director of education and vocational programs. She declined to disclose how much.
Codetalk offers three sessions per year, with 12 women per session.
It’s an intensive program that runs five days a week for four hours a day. It teaches “cutting-edge” front-end web development methods, preparing students for entry-level positions.
The program also “cultivates a safe nurturing environment where women from all manner of adverse circumstances can begin to explore and define their creativity and transform their income potential,” Plunkett said.
Paying It Forward
Chinchilla said she was going to take advanced data analytics classes at Caltech over the summer. She also said she would -to Dartmouth to get a Master’s in public health, with an emphasis in biomedical engineering. She did not say how she would pay for that.
She said she wants to create an app to help people like herself, to take “every bad thing that happened and use it as a catalyst to help others, so no one has to go through what I went through,” she said.
The app would not just be for the homeless. It would also be for anyone who’s been displaced from their living situation, including immigrants, migrant workers, the disabled and victims of natural disasters.
She said that before Codetalk, she didn’t know anything about data science and how it could be applied to public health.
Codetalk also helped with her mindset and sense of self-worth.
“In the beginning, I did have shame about being homeless, because I never thought I would be in this situation,” she said. “It compelled me to be more open and let other women know, ‘You’re not alone.’”
St. Joseph also referred her to a therapist, which helped as well, she said.
Along the journey, she said she met a lot of families living in motels, hotels and cars, just to keep their kids in the LA Unified School District.
Then, on her own, she found a landlord in South Central LA who’s a doctor and understands the effects of Huntington’s Disease. This doctor was not afraid to rent to them, she said.
So she got to move her family into a brand new house in March.
All told, she was homeless for more than two years.
“I was homeless for a reason,” she said. “Had I not been, I never would have seen all the way people can fall through the cracks.”
Sadly, her husband passed away in April.
“At least people will be able to see how hard I fought for Mike, if nothing else,” she said.