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The rocky path from skid row to redemption

From spartan rooms provided by Project 50, which targeted the hard-core homeless in downtown L.A., one man dreamed of regaining lost wealth, the other of returning to his life on the sea.

August 05, 2010|By Christopher Goffard | Los Angeles Times
  • Paul Sigler, standing by Mohammed Duala, was rare in a project for the hard-core homeless. He knew enough of the outside world to go back -- maybe.
Paul Sigler, standing by Mohammed Duala, was rare in a project for the hard-core… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

From the day they pulled him off the pavement, Paul Sigler, a haunted-looking man with striking pale blue eyes, presented a mystery to Carrie Bach's team. He wasn't like the rest of the skid row crowd, he insisted.

"I used to be a millionaire," he muttered. "I fell off the Empire State Building. They just fell off the curb."

Bach, director of Los Angeles County's effort to shelter skid row's 50 most vulnerable homeless, knew that facades were deceptive in a population of wily hustlers and mentally ill dope fiends. One man swore he was the son of an African dictator. Others cultivated a menacing street persona they could switch on and off. Some had used fake names for years. Disguise was survival out here, Bach figured, and she felt lucky if people lifted their masks just enough for a fragmentary glimpse of the faces underneath.

He told a story wilder than most, the man with the Paul Newman eyes in a dead face. Sigler said he grew up in San Marino, one of Southern California's richest cities, studied business and made a fortune in the advertising-sign business. He had hundreds of sign-walkers on the payroll and deals coast to coast; by the late 1990s he had made his first million. Before crack cocaine plunged him onto skid row, he had huge houses, a limo, an entourage dining on filet mignon at his Staples Center luxury suite.

Sigler, in his mid-40s, had a thick build and graying blond hair. One of skid row's few white men, he was a constant target, but his training as a high school and college wrestler gave him an edge: He dived for the legs of street fighters who expected a boxing match.

Bach knew that some Project 50 staffers regarded the lost riches story as the fantasy of a bipolar drug addict with a streak of grandiosity, a man desperate to distance himself from the dead-end cases around him. "Most of it is delusional -- I'd stake my life on it," said Lori Schwartz, one of the drug counselors.

Bach couldn't be sure. Sometimes she thought she heard the echo of preppy breeding in Sigler's voice. "Why shouldn't we believe him?" she asked.

The combination of drugs, manic depression and a brush with cancer had landed him in Project 50. It seemed clear that Sigler had had some kind of normal life before reaching the pavement. This set him apart him from many other participants in the program, addicts since their teens with limited vision of existence beyond the streets.

For a social scourge that seemed intractable, Project 50 had an ambitious answer: Give the chronically homeless four walls, a bed and all the help they'd take, while scuttling such traditional demands as 12-step programs and psychiatric counseling.

Success in the program was a slippery concept, eluding standard measurements. For the worst-off clients, the logic was brutally practical: Shooting heroin in an apartment was better than doing it on the streets; withering from illness indoors was better than dying on a sidewalk. By Bach's reckoning, just keeping a roof over their heads -- a place where doctors and counselors could find them -- justified the program's existence.

But Project 50 also had men like Sigler and Maurice Lewis, a former merchant marine who lived down the hall from him: a high-functioning few whose downward spiral might have been arrested just in time. They knew enough of the world beyond skid row -- maybe -- to fight their way back. For them, Bach thought, tiny rooms in a refurbished flophouse might be the cradle of miracles.

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On the streets, veteran hustlers regarded Sigler as a mark, someone whose self-esteem vanished when he drank and who could be wheedled out of cash and dope.

At the Senator Hotel, his best friend was a wheelchair-bound, brain-damaged man, Mohammed Duala, and at night Sigler lifted his body out of his wheelchair and tucked him gently into bed. "He wants to die," Sigler said. "He'll sit there and say, 'I got no chance anymore. I can't talk, bro.'"

Sigler understood the impulse. Around the holidays especially, the desire to kill himself was strong.

A clear, sober head made him dwell on his lost life. Having endured years of his drug use, his wife left with their three children in 2003. He would stand in the kids' rooms, smelling their clothes and crying. Soon he was in a skid row tent, which he rented out to other addicts for $5 or a taste of drugs.

"The hardest thing is, I'm in so much pain," he said. "I so, so, just -- oh, my God, I feel so guilty. It's been a dirty five years."

A Project 50 doctor prescribed pills for his mental illness, and when Sigler's depression lifted a little, the hard-charging salesman came roaring out. By summer 2008, after a few months in a room, he was putting plans into play, drumming up moneymaking schemes, trying to do a hundred things at once. He vowed he would see his kids again, but not as a bum or an addict. He would be special once more -- he would make a bid for everything he lost.

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