Cancer Claims Dorothy Edwards: Passionate Housing Advocate Who Moved from Homelessness And Addiction To N.Y. Corporate Boardroom

Dorothy Edwards with her beloved dog, Gunter.

(11-2-23) We’ve lost a wonderful housing and mental health care advocate.

I served with Dorothy Edwards on the board of the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CHS). She died last month from rapid, advanced cancer at age 65.

For eight years, she and her dog, Gunter, lived under a freeway overpass in Greater Los Angles. She was heavily addicted to drugs and couldn’t find a way to get off the streets. She later told Bill Pitkin, of  the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation: “I craved a place of my own. I watched people who, day after day, helped me out and handed me money. I thought, I know they’re leaving and they’re going home. I was hurting and needed a home too.” Read article here.

What changed her life was “supportive housing” with “wrap around services.” Getting an apartment enabled her to focus on beating her addictions which she did, with help. It also gave her hope.  When Dorothy agreed to serve on the board of the CHS, I was tremendously proud of her and CHS. Mental health organizations routinely hire and appoint individuals with lived experiences to their boards, but not many large, New York City-based, multi-million non-profits recognize the value of having someone such as Dorothy as a board member. This is unfortunate.

“Dorothy’s insight, forged through her personal journey, has been invaluable in shaping the path of our workout CHS and the minds of many elected officials,” Deborah DeSantis, president and CEO of CHS, wrote in an email. “Dorothy reminded us that every individual is a reservoir of untapped potential, and with opportunity and support, they too, can overcome the most daunting obstacles. We remember …her unwavering belief in the power of recovery and second chances.”

Life On The Streets

In 2010, Dorothy was identified by Pasadena officials as someone “likely to die” if she didn’t obtain housing. She was “sleeping in alleys, scouring dumpsters for scraps of food and smoking meth to fend off a crushing depression,” USA Today reported in a 2014 profile about her. She was diagnosed with severe depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

She was approached by Housing Works, an agency that uses “supportive housing”  to get people off the streets. Supportive housing provides apartments and wraparound services to help chronically homeless individuals. This approach is effective but not as widely practiced as it should be. Many government programs require an individual to be clean and sober before providing housing, rather than recognizing the need to get an individual into a stable and safe environment. Other housing programs provide vouchers, but no supportive services that help individuals beat their addictions, deal with their mental issues, obtain medical care and help them find friends, work, and other quality of life services.

The Corporation for Supportive Housing is a national leader in creating supportive housing programs.

Dorothy later admitted that she had been reluctant – afraid –  to accept help from Housing Works. Like so many who are homeless, she had run through programs that didn’t work. “Dorothy Edwards was quickly permanently housed in Pasadena (by Housing Works),” the local Pasadena Now news site reported in an obituary. “She got clean and sober, got teeth, got a job, became an advocate and remained in her same unit for about 10 years until she died.”

I quickly realized that Dorothy was a passionate speaker, sharing her story on a local, state, and federal stage, seeking policy change to better address homelessness. Her efforts led to her being named a Congressional Woman of the Year by California Representative Judy Chu, 27th Congressional District and a headliner in CHS’s “Speak Up” advocacy training program which helps formerly homeless individuals use their personal stories to advocate for themselves and others.

One of my fondest memories of Dorothy happened when we were attending a CHS board meeting in Manhattan. After a board dinner, several of us were returning to the hotel when she suddenly broke away from the group, ducking into a dark business doorway where a homeless man was huddle under blankets. She asked if he was okay, completely unafraid of how he might react. She spent several moments talking to him, as only someone who had walked in that person’s shoes, could do. When she rejoined us later that night, I asked her what advice she had offered. She explained that it wasn’t her advice that mattered, it was that she had spoken to him, recognizing his worth as a person.

Mental Health Advocate and Miami Dade Judge Steven Leifman, who served with Dorothy on the CSH board, wrote in an email:

“I spoke with Dorothy before she went into the hospital with the hopes of finding the right words to offer her hope and best wishes. Of course, Dorothy spent most of our call trying to make me feel better. As only Dorothy could.  The call also reminded me of how unequal and inequitable access to healthcare is in this country. Tragically, Dorothy struggled to get appointments with the appropriate health care providers she needed to see.”

He added, “She was the best teacher I ever had; kind, genuine, thoughtful, and insightful. She made me a better person and a better judge. She never gave up on anyone.”

I will miss Dorothy and her beaming, optimistic view of life.

Perhaps CEO DeSantis put it best: “Dorothy’s legacy is a reminder that every life is worth saving, every story is worth hearing, and every person is capable of achieving greatness.”


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.