Mark Casanova: The Rescuer 

Thursday, May 20 2010

Mark Casanova, parent, tells a harrowing story about one of his sons. In late 2001, 23-year-old Daniel Casanova traveled to Bangladesh, where he and two friends built a traditional sailboat, then set a course for Australia. The vessel began to sink off the coast of Burma. Help did not arrive immediately. When it did, it came in the form of a Russian captain, who defied orders not to change his Ukrainian tanker's course. "You're a seaman," the Russian informed Daniel, "seaman have to save other seaman."

While Casanova has yet to meet the captain, the man's humanity feels familiar to him. Indeed, he too is a man who reaches out. As the executive director of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, he leads a staff of 50 clinicians, therapists and administrators dedicated to improving the health of the impoverished and neediest of those who live in L.A.: the homeless, mentally ill, drug addicts and street-level alcoholics.

To initiate better health for the men, women and children it cares for, HHCLA acts to reduce harm, offer a safe haven and provide a ladder up for those ready to act. The organization secures housing, dispenses medical care, provides food, arranges job training and facilitates a multipronged recovery program for those with drug and alcohol addictions.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON

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"I think we're all the same, if you break down the barriers to all of us," says Casanova. "People want to be mainstream, they want a job, they want shelter."

HHCLA often helps individuals to understand the discrepancy between their dreams and their choices. "There's no judgment," Casanova notes. "We meet people where they are."

This philosophy underlies initiatives such as overdose-prevention training. The protocols are dispensed through another HHCLA street-level program: needle-exchange outreach.

"If you're going to do it, we're going to make sure you do it safely," Casanova says. "We want to make access [to other programs] easy. At some point when they want to enter treatment ... we're here."

The growing numbers of homeless would seem overwhelming. It would be understandable if Casanova became a cynical, exhausted, angry activist. He is none of those things. He's relaxed, animated, happy and fun, even as he has shouldered the organization since 1994.

"[HHCLA] is not real work," he says. "I had to pound nails."

Born into a working-class family, Casanova has held down jobs since he was 12, and worked his way through college. While pursuing his master's degree in marriage and family therapy, he did a stint as a tow-truck driver. "No, no, everything's going to be okay," Casanova would reassure stranded drivers. "Now, let's get to your inner problem."

Casanova credits his wife and four children for balancing his life. "When I go home, I go home," he says.

And, yes, when informed of his 23-year-old's plan to sail a traditionally built boat 7,000 miles from Bangladesh to Australia, he was worried.

Reach the writer at tibbyrothman@verizon.net

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