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From addict to advocate

Louis Rafti -- a former drug abuser who lived on the streets -- is six years sober and a busy lawyer. He has dedicated his life to helping those on skid row.

January 01, 2008|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Legal aid lawyer Louis Rafti was leading a group of law students on a tour of skid row when he saw it in the corner of a homeless shelter.

The cot. The very one, he could swear it was, that he had slept on during his last night on the row a few years before.

Rafti froze. He didn't say a word, but a sense of wonder overwhelmed him.

Wonder that he did not have a crack pipe in his hand. Or a needle in his arm. That he had a home, a job, a life.

These days, Rafti is a pugnacious housing rights lawyer for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, known for his take-no-prisoners advocacy on behalf of the poor and disabled.

What many of his clients and colleagues don't know is that until six years ago, Rafti was a homeless cocaine addict. He contracted HIV from dirty needles. He watched friends die. He would get cleaned up, only to relapse and return to the streets.

Now, at age 49, dressed in sensible shoes and a dark polo shirt, he is back on the streets of skid row -- this time as a lawyer for the kind of person he once was.

He's as single-minded about helping the down-and-out as he once was about doing drugs with them.

"I am somewhat obsessive-compulsive," he said. "It's a drug addict thing."

This means that he has at times taken on so many cases that colleagues worried he was overextended. But it also means that Los Angeles' poor have found a passionate new advocate.

Tai Glenn, Legal Aid's director of housing, said she had no idea of the details of Rafti's past until she was told of them by a Times reporter. But she said she had noticed his "special insight into our client community."

"He's the bravest new lawyer I've ever met," said Glenn, who recently hired Rafti away from another public interest job. "He is Mr. Take Action."

A slippery slope

Rafti grew up in the San Fernando Valley, just another suburban kid who "liked to party."

"About the time I became too old for comic books I discovered drugs and alcohol," he wrote in an essay arguing for admission to the State Bar of California despite his guilty plea in a misdemeanor drug case in 1998. Drugs "provided me with an alternative to the coping skills that I sorely lacked."

After high school, Rafti attended UCLA. He thought of going to law school, but got drunk the night before the Law School Admission Test and was sick during the exam. Considering that door closed, he found work in finance -- first as a trader's assistant, then selling securities.

He drank with clients. He drank with colleagues. And he drank with his girlfriend. They went to restaurants, not bars, so her young daughter could come.

Eventually, he was fired.

In 1995, he got a job at Bank of America in San Francisco, a city where he knew no one.

He rented a room at a hotel in the city's Tenderloin district, where his neighbors were prostitutes and drug addicts. He had debts and needed a cheap place.

He settled into a bizarre existence. By day, he worked in the city's gleaming financial district. He had to be at his desk by 4 a.m., giving him little chance to meet people.

After work, he drank. One day, he took a wrong turn after leaving a bar. Near a housing project, a man standing on a corner looked him over.

"Hey white boy, what you need?" Rafti recalled the man asking. Rafti said he had just seen the movie "New Jack City," about the exploits of crack dealers. He asked for a $20 rock.

It was fantastic, he said. Many of his new neighbors in the Tenderloin also used crack and were more than happy to hook him up.

He fell into a routine: work, come home, sleep a few hours, then use crack and later cocaine to brace himself for work.

This went on for almost a year. Realizing that his "life was out of control," Rafti went into rehab for the first time.

Rafti avoids recounting his family history or in-depth psychological explanations for his behavior.

"I think I have bad proclivities," he said. "Some people wind up that way. Some people don't." After a short stint in rehab, he quit his job to avoid being fired. He moved in with his parents in Los Angeles and started selling auto insurance.

Rafti was putting his life back together, it seemed.

Then he began losing weight. He felt run down. His parents arranged for an appointment with a doctor friend. The doctor summoned him back a few weeks later.

"You have HIV," the doctor said.

Rafti looked at the doctor. "What do I do?"

"I don't know," Rafti recalled the doctor saying. "I specialize in geriatrics. I'm seeing you as a favor to your mother."

Later he would learn that back in San Francisco, almost everyone he used to hang out with was dying of AIDS -- or had died already.

After leaving the doctor's office that afternoon in March 1998, he immediately went to buy cocaine. Thus began a three-year cycle of relapse and redemption.

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