If you were to ask Vincent Cook about the first 56 years of his life, he’d probably tell you his proudest moments were being handpicked by comedian Richard Pryor and singer Luther Vandross to be their opening act during their respective tours. But mention former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Cook lights up and smiles as he recounts opening for Clinton during one of his California primary appearances.
Today, as Cook sits on an old rickety porch swing in front of a dilapidated boarding home in South Los Angeles, the words don’t flow as easily for the man who, as an accomplished comedian and actor, was never at a loss for words. But since a debilitating stroke in 2014, he hasn’t been the same.
“I’m a wild – I’m a wild – wow you look at me and say, ‘He’s old!’” says Cook, who portrayed Jimmy Ellis, Muhammad Ali’s famed sparring partner and former heavyweight champion of the world, in Michael Mann’s 2001 film Ali.
Cook is one of about a dozen tenants — some with autism and developmental and physical disabilities — who live in a nearly 4,600-square-foot house on the border of Inglewood in the city of Los Angeles. Their property manager, Giovanna Wilkerson, who was months behind on rent, abandoned the house in November, prompting the landlord to file papers in court to legally evict her, says the tenants’ attorney, Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network.
And now Cook and the others are facing eviction themselves — and are stuck in the middle of a bureaucratic blame game.
The tenants claim Wilkerson promised them transitional housing that included a clean living environment, meals and even job assistance. They were asked to sign transitional housing agreements and gave Wilkerson access to their government assistance and bank accounts so she could check each month to see when and how much money they received, they say.
But according to tenants, those who received General Relief paid between $175 and $200 of their $221 monthly benefits for a bed bug–infested mattress on the floor in a shared room. The accommodations for those who received more money weren’t any better — they were just charged more for it, they say. Cook pays $350 to sleep on the floor of a room he shares with a stranger.
And while it could be considered an improvement to being unsheltered, the house that was recently home to as many as 40 men and women has no heat and only one working toilet and shower in four full bathrooms. Water leaks downstairs into the living room and every room in the house has signs (and smells) of mold. And then there are the broken windows, rats, roaches and stray cats, residents say.
Before a notice to vacate was posted on Feb. 20, Wilkerson collected rent and disappeared, some residents say. The Crenshaw Boulevard house is believed to be one of several similar businesses she runs in South Los Angeles, including one in Watts.
“Not really concerned what the public thinks,” Wilkerson said in an email on Tuesday, Feb. 27. “The house on Crenshaw is in horrible condition, but it helped a lot of people. Some people loved the idea of being in a mansion, some grateful to being off the street, various situations.”
Wilkerson contends she had an agreement with the landlord to leave in November. She says she took the tenants’ rent money and rented another home on 91st Street in South Los Angeles.
Tenants say she posted a notice on the wall that said a moving van was coming on Nov. 19 and those who didn’t go would be left on their own. Some left the Crenshaw house and went with Wilkerson, while others, including Cook, stayed, citing concerns about crime in the new neighborhood and the distance from their jobs and other resources.
Popp says that by law, landlords can evict everyone living in a home just by serving notice to one person — even if that one person doesn’t tell the others, which appears to be the case with Wilkerson and her subtenants.
Now, city and county officials are trying to figure out who’s responsible for what. City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office says that no case against Wilkerson has been presented to them. The property owner says he’s not responsible to the tenants and their issue is with Wilkerson. For her part, Wilkerson contends that the residents are not tenants and therefore landlord-tenant law does not apply to them. “I'm the Housing Director, they are participants,” she said via text message. When asked about the services clients say she promised, she responded, “What services? We provide month-to-month housing. Guaranteed refrigerator and stove.”
Cook is left with no place to go. “What can I say? You gotta fight. Fight to the end. That’s what it’s all about. Fighting to the end. So I’m fighting to the end,” he said, with tears in his eyes, during an interview with KABC TV.
It's hard to believe that the onetime accomplished boxer, comedian, actor and filmmaker had found himself homeless and was living off his meager Social Security monthly allowance — the bulk of which goes to rent.
An online search revealed that Cook was featured in Starz Entertainment’s comedy series Martin Lawrence Presents 1st Amendment Stand-Up. He was tapped to perform on the groundbreaking television shows The Apollo Comedy Hour, BET’s Comic View, HBO’s Def Comedy Jam and Showtime at the Apollo. Once a contributing writer on BET’s hit comedy soap opera Blackberry Inn, Cook was chosen for the starring role of Jewel in the series.
During the making of Ali, Cook, whose bio online says that he once won a gold medal for the United States boxing team and was proclaimed a Golden Gloves champion, realized a childhood dream when he got the opportunity to meet his boxing idol, Muhammad Ali.
Cook has a hard time articulating when and where it started going wrong. His demeanor changes as he talks about the death of his friends, comedians Ricky Harris and Reynaldo Rey. Harris died in 2016 from a heart attack, Rey from complications of a stroke in 2015. Cook mentions a wife and a brother that he lived with in downtown Los Angeles for a few months following his stroke. He says his brother was evicted.
A GoFundMe campaign from nearly four years ago set up by his brother says Cook was in a coma for 10 days and has medical bills of over $250,000, including therapy and seven medications, that won’t be covered by medical insurance. In updates on the campaign’s page, a smiling Cook can be seen with his wife and then-10-month-old daughter. Attempts to locate Cook’s wife and brother were unsuccessful.
Cook says the hospital arranged for him to be brought to the house on Crenshaw. “They asked where I wanted to be dropped off and I said that I didn’t have a place to be dropped off. I told them if they had a place that I would look forward to being there and they said OK. So they called up a woman. Her name was Giovanna Wilkerson. The first thing she asked me was did I have any money. I said hold up a minute and I gave them back the phone and I said I didn’t know her. She told the hospital they would work with it out with me. That was the first time that I talked to her.”
Once he paid the first month’s rent, Wilkerson gave him a receipt “and some kind of guarantee, and that was that. I was here,’” he says.
Ayasha Chenoa and her 24-year-old son, Chris, moved into the Crenshaw house after witnessing a drive-by shooting on East 67th Street in South Los Angeles at another home where they were renting a room. Ayasha Chenoa says the shooting deeply affected Chris, who is autistic, and she had no choice but to move.
She says a woman belonging to a nearby church recommended the shabby house on Crenshaw as a possible place of refuge. “We just took it because we didn’t want to be homeless, I took it because of what happened over there with the drive-by and he wanted to get out of there ’cause he never been through anything like that — neither have I. I been in California since 1980 and I ain’t never been through anything like that,” Chenoa says.
She and Chris pay $500 at the Crenshaw house to share a twin mattress on the floor of a room where they use a hot plate for heat. “I have no idea what’s going to happen with us yet,” she says. “But we don’t want to be homeless. We don’t want to be out there and that’s the position she put us all in.”
Wilkerson, the tenants said, would rent to anyone who had money, often putting drug users, registered sex offenders, disabled people and the elderly in the same room.
Wilkerson is associated with renting beds in shared rooms at numerous properties throughout South Los Angeles. The county of Los Angeles lists Wilkerson as the contact for the Monroe's Heavenly Blessed Care Home on Vernon Avenue and Hands Helping Hands II in Inglewood.
In addition to Giovanna Wilkerson, she has used the aliases Giovanna Clark, Giovanna Leigh Cromartie Wilkerson and Giovan'na LC Clark. Her business names have included “Hands Helping Hands II” and “WeeCome2U Transportation.” Her clientele appear to be the disabled, elderly and others on public assistance.
Two of her previous landlords in Inglewood say they evicted Wilkerson for non-payment of rent. Lauren Sutton says she rented her three-bedroom home on Second Avenue in Inglewood to Wilkerson. After three months, Wilkerson stopped paying the rent, Sutton says, forcing her to evict her. Another one of Wilkerson’s landlords, who asked not to be identified, says Wilkerson was receiving thousands of dollars a month from the government as a caregiver for people with autism and other disabilities through the South Central Los Angeles Regional Center when she stopped paying the rent. Both landlords said Wilkerson left their property in “horrible” condition.
While the blame game continues, the tenants still could be looking at displacement if a judge doesn’t intervene and give them more time to find a new home. A GoFundMe campaign has been established to help them raise money for their legal fees and relocation assistance if none is provided to them.
But relocation will be tough in the sixth most expensive rental market in the United States. In 2017 the median price for a one-bedroom in Los Angeles was $2,077, and $3,099 for a two-bedroom.
Back at the house on Crenshaw, sitting on the porch, Cook reminisces about his famous past and lost riches. “I didn’t own any of the shows. You know, I didn’t own any of the shows. I was on BET. I played a lot of characters. I was good. I was really good.”
Meanwhile, rent is still too damn high in Los Angeles, Giovanna Wilkerson is still in business and it’s almost the first of the month.
A native of Los Angeles, Jasmyne A. Cannick is a nationally known writer and commentator on political, race and social issues.