Union Station’s Lorena Ruiz, interim project coordinator for Project RoomKey (PRK) at several locations across the San Gabriel Valley, and her on-going efforts to safeguard the most vulnerable during the pandemic have earned her the title of “hero” in her field.
Ruiz has worked for Union Station for the past four years but has advocated for those in need of safe housing for 10 years, working with LGTBQ communities in the early stages of her career in different places like New York City, San Diego, Los Angeles and currently in the San Gabriel Valley.
During the pandemic she identified an opportunity to do more in the early stages of Project RoomKey — a program in which the state of California collaborates with local governments to turn motels and hotels into interim housing for people who are at a high-risk of contracting COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the virus.
As soon as she learned about Project RoomKey, Ruiz was onboard. “I knew I wanted to be part of it and help in some way, shape or form, and now I’m invested,” she said as we sat across from each other, 6 feet apart and wearing our masks.
Ruiz has already helped four residents transition to safe housing in Monrovia this year while managing the fast-paced environment her role requires to serve hundreds of clients with high-level needs during these chaotic times.
Her main focus is on finding pathways to permanent housing for residents because it prevents local neighbors from returning to homelessness. One of the challenges is finding affordable housing for residents in Los Angeles County but that does not seem to discourage Ruiz.
“There are so many staff members who are invested in Project RoomKey’s success and more specifically in getting people permanently housed. One resident at one of the PRK sites I oversee, was recently permanently housed. He had a team of dedicated professionals working with him every step of the way. From helping him fill out his voucher application, to showing him potential units, to going over the terms of the lease with him on lease signing day. It was a happy day for everyone involved. And for me, I was glad to have played a small part in his journey to permanent housing by ensuring that he had a place to stay where he would be safe from COVID-19.”
I asked Ruiz if she has any personal heroes of her own and, although she said she admired different people for different reasons, she decided to share the names of her current heroes.
“Right now, I’m looking up to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is a consistent advocate for the working class and those historically disenfranchised. I want to always remember to be an advocate for those in the margins. In the field of homelessness and social work, my current supervisor at USHS, Sarah Tower, is someone I look up to. She is someone who leads by example. Her values and advocacy come across in her work.”
After her long days, Ruiz goes home to a routine of disinfecting everything she might have touched while out, showers and relaxes, believe it or not.
Ruiz does what she does because she wants to create a better future for our local communities.
“Homelessness is a symptom of larger structural issues like racism, poverty, lack of adequate healthcare, ageism, xenophobia, transphobia, etc. that are at the root of our society. When we examine what is at the root of the problem, we can begin working toward a better tomorrow. My work and the work of many of my colleagues in this field is not only to make a difference in people’s lives; we are working toward a better society in which homelessness no longer exists. Everyone, including community members, can take part in building a better tomorrow for generations to come.”