Alumna spearheads effort to help homeless Yale alum — and others like him
It’s been several weeks since Kim Hershman ’88 B.A., ’92 J.D. first learned the story of Shawn Pleasants ’89 B.A., a Yale alumnus living homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, and took action.
At first, Hershman was moved to tears by the story on CNN about a fellow alum suffering from depression and drug addiction, who had once had a promising career in investment banking and the entertainment industry. She then started communicating with alumni via social media. A business affairs consultant and attorney in Hollywood, and an active member of the Yale Black Alumni Association, Hershman felt compelled to do whatever she could to help Pleasants and to activate the alumni network to do the same.
“I’m the kind of person where if there’s something I can do, I jump in,” she said.
When she first approached Pleasants earlier this month at his Koreatown encampment, where he was surrounded by shopping carts and a blue tarp, he recognized her. “Somehow, he remembered me,” she said. They reminisced about Yale, a place where, according to conversations she’s had with other alumni, Pleasants was a “light, and a joy” to classmates. “He meant a lot to hundreds of Yalies,” Hershman said. “I got so many letters, and I read them to him.”
In his 10 years on the streets, he’d developed his own system for surviving. “He was like the mayor,” said Hershman, noting that Pleasants had a sharp mind, was a great organizer, and was respected among his fellow homeless neighbors.
Hershman offered not only to help Pleasants get the substance abuse and mental health treatment he needed, as well as medical care for his glaucoma, but to support his efforts to use his experience to help others. “The day I found him, he said: ‘I had to have gone through this for a reason,’” Hershman said.
Hershman arranged for Pleasants to attend detox and rehab, where she’s visited as often as allowed. She’s also helped Shawn’s partner, David, to get life-saving open heart surgery (he is now in recuperative care). And she’s been filming the process of Pleasants’ recovery in hopes of bringing attention to the stigma around mental health issues in the black community in particular.
“The Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale is really trying to address student mental health and to provide services,” Hershman said. “I truly hope that students will recognize the need to utilize these services.” She added that she has offered to come to campus with Pleasants, when he is able, to discuss his mental health journey.
And efforts are already underway to help Pleasants bring to fruition his vision for a Homeless Help Center — a place where people experiencing homelessness can access the things they need to reestablish themselves, make connections, and find work. The planned space includes showers and restrooms, computer stations, a meeting room, access to power sources to charge phones, a large screen television so that they can stay apprised of current affairs, and mailboxes to provide a needed address and a place to store important papers and IDs. A Yale alum architect designed the floor plan and Hershman has been meeting with foundations, realtors, and city and county officials in L.A. to map out next steps. “The goal is to get homeless people back on their feet so they can do what they want with their lives,” she said.
She’s committed to showing that homelessness can happen to anyone, and those experiencing it deserve our compassion. “Homeless people are not dangerous,” Hershman said. “They are simply people who no longer have a home.”