As the third homeless family Tony Tolbert has given his cozy furnished home to (the first two for a year each) is about to move out on their own, the UCLA Law School lecturer and student advisor was honored at the sixth annual WomenSpeak luncheon at The Ebell of Los Angeles.
Tolbert also received a commendation from the Los Angeles City Council for his unsparing largesse at the May 14 event sponsored by Alexandria House, a transitional residence for single women with children in the mid-Wilshire area.
The antitheses of a Me Generation tale has been chronicled in the pages of The Tidings and The Los Angeles Times, by national TV networks and in a new documentary called “12 Months.”
But it bears repeating — especially, as the Great Recession’s lingering aftermath has continued to disproportionally impact the poor along with the working and middle classes, while the well-heeled have often more than bounced back — creating the largest income inequality gap the United States has ever experienced.
In January of 2012, Tolbert moved out of the Crenshaw district house he had lived in for 10 years to reside in a duplex with his mother, Marie. The 52-year-old, Harvard-educated lawyer had read about a family in Atlanta who sold their big suburban home, downsizing to a small house and donating the $800,000 profit to charity. “I just kept thinking about it,” he told The Tidings. “I couldn’t read that story and not do something.”
For a year, a single mother and her three children, who had been staying at a South Los Angeles domestic violence shelter, lived in the house. For $1 per month, the family put to good use the three bedrooms and den, dining room with a wood-carved table and living room with a hardwood floor and fireplace, plus outside a driveway basketball court and back yard with a barbecue set.
Felicia Dukes and her four children, ranging in age from two to 20, lived in Tolbert’s house last year. The single mom and her three youngest kids had been staying at Alexandria house when Tolbert, with the help of director Sister Judy Vaughan, recruited them. Next came another Alexandria House family, Shante Roach and her three boys, Richard, Riley and Robert, and daughter Rachel.
Asked what inspired him to give away his home for almost two-and-a-half years, the lawyer couldn’t help smiling, remembering his father, an entertainment attorney who was president of the NAACP’s Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch. James Tolbert, who died a year ago, had the benevolent habit of inviting down-on-their-luck relatives, friends and even strangers to stay at his family’s home in the San Fernando Valley.
“From as far back as I can remember, until I left for college, I can’t think of a time where there wasn’t someone else living with us,” his son said with a chuckle. “Honestly, it might have been for a week or two weeks, or a year or two years. And many times there were multiple people who were living with us.”
And then there was the bedrock devotion of his mother and sister Alicia, both Buddhists, who put on with sister Anita a “Jeopardy”-style question-and-answer family session with Tony. “It’s just the lessons of generosity, of creating Karma by taking care of others, taking care of ourselves by taking care of others,” he pointed out — “many of the same teachings that, you know, are common in every major religion.
“Just trying to do good, trying to not see separation between people, but rather a connection between people. So it’s not ‘me and them’ but it’s ‘us.’ What we can do as a community to take care of one another?”
Will he do it again?
Another growing grin. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he said. “My original thought was to do it for one year, and I did it again and again. [Sister] Judy and I are talking, especially now that Shante and her family are moving out kind of midway in the year. There’s an opportunity to have another family move in. So I’ll probably do it at least through the end of this year with a different family.
“And then beyond that,” mused Tony Tolbert, “I don’t know.”