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From Homeless to CEO of LA Mission: A Man’s Journey

You have to be thoughtful in this role, you have to be sensitive, and you have to be multi-layered. Your mission is very much a business, it’s a social organization, but it’s also a church and a ministry on top of that.

Troy Vaughn

TROY VAUGHN, the newly elected President and CEO of Los Angeles Mission, has been working to end homelessness in Los Angeles for over 20 years. He has held executive roles with Shields for Families, the LAMP Community, and the Weingart Center for Homelessness.

Los Angeles Mission, Herb Smith hands the reins to new CEO Troy Vaughn.

As he prepares to tackle the Mission’s challenges amidst a growing homelessness crisis in Los Angeles, Vaughn calls upon his own experiences for guidance. 

His story is an extraordinary example of what can happen when an individual receives the care and services missions provide. 

After spending seven years homeless, many of those on Skid Row, Vaughn says God spoke to him and told him to leave his cardboard box and get help. From there, he entered and completed an intense rehabilitation program.

This experience, he says, is what lit the fire inside of him to connect others with the supportive services and skills he used to rebuild his life. 

In 1996, he and his wife, Darlene Vaughn, co-founded Christ-Centered Ministries, a non-profit based in Inglewood, CA, focused on preventing homelessness. This work continues at Restoration Family Worship Center, where Vaughn is the Senior Pastor. 

Vaughn also currently serves as Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership (LARRP), a network of public, community, and faith-based agencies and advocates working together to help people who have been incarcerated build new lives for themselves and their families.

And last August, he was appointed to the Board of the Prison Industry Authority by Governor Gavin Newsom. 

His newest position has him taking up the mantle from Herb Smith, who served as President and CEO of the LA Mission for the last 14 years. 

Vaughn holds multiple advanced degrees, including an Executive J.D. from Concord Law School, an M.B.A., and BS in Advanced Legal Studies from Kaplan University, and a BS in Business Administration from Cal State University of Los Angeles (CSULA).

He holds a Graduate Certification in Executive Non-profit Management from CSULA and Fundraising and Marketing from Cal State University of Long Beach (CSULB).

Additionally, he has a Masters in Divinity/Theology with a minor in Urban Planning from Kings Seminary in Van Nuys, California, and a Doctorate in Theology from the Master’s School of Divinity. 

 Kevin Ross: Okay, the first question I want to ask is what is your story? How did you end up homeless?

Troy Vaughn: I ended up homeless after having a psychotic break at the news of my father’s passing. That started the process of me starting to use controlled substances to medicate and numb myself from that reality.

My father and I had been estranged, and I had hoped that I would be able to improve our relationship once I got out of the Marine Corps but while I was in the Corps coming toward the end, the situation happened.

I happened to be home on leave, and I answered the phone from the coroner’s office. I didn’t know it was going to have that level of impact, but it triggered something in me that broke me, and I basically disappeared for seven years.

I ended up on Skid Row; I went through a lot of States; I was jumping train cars, hitchhiking, and doing whatever I needed to do. I lived in different areas, I was doing odd jobs, it was a nomadic way of living, and I wasted all my resources from the Corps.

I had been established and ended up ultimately back here in Los Angeles, homeless, sleeping out on the streets in a cardboard box mainly around Crocker and Seventh, but throughout, I was in and out of shelters.

Eventually, I went into the mission and enrolled in the Christian Discipleship Program on December 13th, 1992.

I left the mission in the summer of 94, and I went to Trade Tech and entered an adult learning program. After I started trying to get myself out. I wanted to try to recover my life. I wanted to go back to school and I went to Trade Tech and I met my wife there. We got married after six months.

We’re celebrating our 28th anniversary on the 30th of July. The Lord really transformed my life. He put me in contact with some really good people at the mission that invested in me.

I opened myself up from that investment and I was able to work hard and give back just as hard, but I really dedicated my life to the Lord, my gifting, and talents. I made a covenant with Him: if He would save and deliver me and give me His mind, then I would give Him my heart.

That’s what I did, and that’s what He did. We’ve been in covenant ever since, partnering to do the work for the kingdom and I’ve dedicated my life to that.

Did you ever figure out why that situation triggered you? Did you get any help with that? How did you resolve that issue?

Yes, I did. I think a lot of things triggered it, but I did get help, and I was able to understand basically that it was a sense of loss and opportunity that contributed to that.

A lot of that too, was how abusive my relationship with my father was when I was a child. That abuse obviously came over on us, but it was directed toward my mom. So, there were a lot of things that I didn’t get resolved, I didn’t process, and I blamed myself for a lot of it.

My identity and everything else was associated with that, but getting help through counseling, working on that, and being able to go through a process of self-examination.

I’m still going through that process, by the way. It was a healthy practice for me to learn the art of journaling. I’m a journaler so being able to talk about my issues and strengthen my own voice regarding owning it and knowing me helped me to become a better listener and more empathetic to the plight that other people have.

What is the biggest misconception(s) about homeless people you often hear?

Well, I think there are layers to that. When you talk about the unhoused community, one of the biggest misconceptions is that people are lazy, they’re all addicts and basically, their life is in this situation because of negative choices.

Some of that’s true. People make those choices, but there are also other extenuating circumstances, in many cases, that contribute to someone being unhoused. We’ve learned that lesson more so now than ever, hopefully as a society, although I feel like we’re forgetting it already because of COVID and the impact that COVID has had on our society.

We temporarily understood that people could be impacted in very adverse ways. There are really many outside circumstances that can contribute to someone being unhoused. I think that is a real conversation that needs to continue to be had. 

The other thing I hear a lot is that [homeless] people don’t want to come out of their situation. I think it takes time for people whose life has hit the skids, and they need support to come out of that.

A lot of that, depending on how long it took them to get into that place, is going to take equal if not more time to help them to fully recover and understand how to be a productive member of society again.

One of the things that we do in our society, in my opinion, is that we continue to reinforce the harm to communities that are disenfranchised for whatever reason. That conversation can go into many things to lead into why that disenfranchisement exists.

For me and my level of advocacy, it’s really beginning to understand — I’ll share with you that just this weekend when we put on our Maverick City Music Festival, we did it with Maverick City Music and Kirk Franklin. Others were able to come out, and when God gave me our Music Matters initiative, I had an initial thought that I was doing it for the people.

From behind the scenes, we started putting the event together, I had conversations with some of the community leaders that we needed to actually get support with to be able to actually carry off the event.

It was through that process that I learned that my experience of homelessness is different from what people are experiencing now. Even though I was unhoused for a long time and it was traumatic, and I went through certain things, it’s different now in the sense that people feel even less than how I felt, because they feel like their rights are being infringed upon, they’re not even considered when it comes to doing a benefit concert in that community for them.

We say it’s for them but then we don’t include them in the decision-making process. It was right then and there that I decided that I would not do that. I would not say that I’m speaking for the people and not inviting the expression of what the people wanted.

Even though I felt like I’ve come from that, I still needed to understand what it’s like today and what the impact was and hear those unique voices that are there now. So, we brought them onto the team: the planning team and champions, and community captains were elected to help us with bringing the event to them.

I think had we not done that, we might have had a different outcome. It was the ability to listen and hear, but also to actually act upon it; to actually do something in real time about it. I decided that no longer will I allow myself to be in these positions of debating right or wrong, but to create the change that I see.

How do you feel about the current homeless situation in L.A.?

My heart is broken. To some degree, in many areas, I foresaw some of the stuff that we’re dealing with now; meaning the decentralization of homelessness that didn’t have enough services to accommodate that move.

Not that decentralizing was wrong; it’s just that we didn’t have enough services to accommodate it at that time; the apparatus was not in place. Then we were not using the resources that are available.

Even now, because we are decentralized, we have services that are there, but people don’t want to access them because now communities have become impassable to really access the services. 

So, my heart is broken as it relates to seeing the situation, but I’m also encouraged. I’m encouraged by the events like the one we had recently. I’m encouraged about the work that we’re getting ready to do through our Music Matters Initiative and our community transformative work that’s going to come out of that.

Starting just this year, we’re going to follow up because we just launched the initiative on Monday, but the real work behind the initiative is actually really beautification, restoration, and creating commerce. This whole seven-phase approach that we’re going to do over several years is going to be very impressive, I think.

The number of volunteers from all walks that we are mobilizing – to help us with one block at a time, brother, and you’re invited to pick up a paintbrush too – to come on out and really begin to take our community back for ourselves.

Everybody in the community is going to participate and I want to see what comes out of that. Can we restore hope back to Hope Central? Can we take the stigma off of it and make it a community that we can all say it is a community for the first time in a long time.

That’s the hope, that’s the vision, that’s the purpose that I’m here to do, and I want to erase, at least in some small part, the stigma that is associated with being unhoused.

I noticed you’ve keep on saying “unhoused,” is that a preferred term over homeless?

Well, I think so. I think when we talk about a community, you don’t think of a building; you think of the people that are in the community. So when you think of housing and you think of being home, right? You think of a sense of community; you don’t necessarily think of a building.

When you talk about “I’m going home to visit my people,” you’re not thinking about going into one particular structure, but it’s a feeling, a sense of community, a sense of belonging, right?

When we suggest that they’re homeless, we were not focused on what the real issue is, which is that they just don’t have a shelter. So they’re in that situation first, but they do feel like they’re a part of a community. They don’t see themselves as homeless or community-less; they see themselves as unhoused.

I’m beginning to work with my own situation in terms of the narrative changing, as we begin to describe it, because even when we use a certain language, we reinforce the stigma. For the community members that are a part of that which that label is being placed on, it is really reinforcing something that they don’t feel is true.

 Troy working alongside former LA Mayor Villaraigosa and current LA mayor Eric Garcetti

I had a friend who was a great DJ who passed maybe 10 years ago, and who was once homeless. I don’t know what his circumstances were, but I know that whenever he saw a homeless person, he gave them money or he helped out in some way. Do you think homeless people or unhoused people tend to have more compassion than the general population? If so, why?

I think it’s each person’s individual experience. I think compassion can come from many different things. It’s not just experiential. It’s not just because I had an experience of being unhoused or without resources. It could make me more empathetic or give me a unique insight, but I wouldn’t say that’s the reason why.

It adds to it, but I find a lot of people who have never been in this situation themselves personally but are connected to it via a parent or a loved one or a friend, like in your case with your colleague, that can raise a level of compassion and empathy as well.

You didn’t personally experience it, but knowing someone you cared about that had and opening yourself up to listen to them also brings compassion within your heart to support it, thus the conversation today. So, I just think it depends.

What effect does it have on children when they are from a single-family home, for example, and their mother is homeless or unhoused?

A lot of times people will say, “Why doesn’t she leave L.A.?” or “Why doesn’t she go back to her family?” I’m sure you may have heard these things before. What are the effects that you see with children when they’re in situations like this?

It can serve in many different forms. It can be disastrous and traumatic for the child, but it also can be a sense of purpose. I was talking on Monday with one of the co-founders of Maverick City Music. His mother was unhoused and in and out of institutions for many, many years, and as a result, he and his younger brother were estranged from each other up until his younger brother was 11.

However, he was able to use that experience as a young man to fuel his desire to see change. It propelled him into the role he has now through their Music Matters Initiative, which is to come and partner with organizations like ours and the community to support them in community transformative work. 

Then I’ve seen it reversed, where people just continue to perpetuate the cycle in the child. I think that’s why our work is important. When we talk about interventionists, like an organization like L.A. Mission and our role to fill the gap, not necessarily the parental gap, but one of coaching and mentoring and support to nurture the possibility of the gifting in the young person.

We do that with our adoption program for young children that are adopted. We’re getting ready to launch a housing component next to it, but we partner with our foster care partner, which has allowed us to look into a preventative lens.

I work for the Los Angeles mission in a preventive capacity where we partner with school districts to provide meals and various items to the children, including mentoring and support.

Those things are equally needed, so we fill the gap for the absentee parent in that regard as a society. When I was younger, that’s exactly what we did. It was a co-parenting type of environment. You just couldn’t get away with doing things, and people knew that you cared, even if you were four blocks away from where you lived.

We have to have that kind of sense of community again, reemerge and really become our brother’s keeper in some way. When we see a mother that is struggling and whether that’s addiction or some trauma, and the child is being impacted by that, we, at that point as a community, have an opportunity to step into the gap and fill it in a way that we don’t become the parent because that’s a hard void to fill, but we also show them that love is still in the world. It’s possible that your life can be something different.

Black mothers, when I was growing up, did that in the sense that if there was something wrong with the child’s mother, they knew it, and they instinctively stepped in. They fed the child or they kept company or they hugged the child. I’ve seen it happen, and you’re right; that’s a lost art. It doesn’t happen as much. Tell me about your new position. How did that come about?

I had a divine providence that God wanted me here. My background is very eclectic and diverse. I’ve run healthcare centers, community-based organizations, integrated health, and behavioral health; I’ve done a lot of different work – counseled, health positions, and turned around startups.

I came to this work with a very unique set of skills. The main skill that I’ve developed is leadership development. I develop other leaders, and I’m a strategic thinker.

As a result of that, I was asked to be on the Board of Directors for the Los Angeles Mission because the former president and CEO and I had worked many years together in this work. We respected each other, and we still do, and he asked me to serve on the board, so I did.

Then shortly after that, after almost two years, he decided that it was time for him to retire for personal reasons. We entered into a search to look for a new president and CEO. I wasn’t looking to become the president and CEO, by the way. I was very satisfied with my ministry and career, and I still am.

We went out on the search, and that search was unsuccessful, so we hired a second consulting firm, and I was a part of the search committee, and it was in that process that the second consultant that we had hired said that I should be considered and I should consider it, which I hadn’t.

So, we did a lot of prayer, both from the board, myself and my wife, and we just came to the conclusion. God really moved miraculously actually to instruct us to take the role for this season so that we can shepherd the mission into the new area that it’s supposed to be in.

How important is it that people who lead organizations like this are familiar with the situation? When I say familiar, you probably wouldn’t expect that someone with your varied background would be in this position; as you said, you didn’t consider it. How important is it that a person has a complete understanding of what the situation is?

Extremely. You have to be thoughtful in this role, you have to be sensitive, and you have to be multi-layered. Your mission is very much a business, it’s a social organization, but it’s also a church and a ministry on top of that.

Therefore being a pastor and a businessman uniquely qualifies me in a way that I think being one faceted would not. You would have to do one or two things; either have the experience that I feel like I bring to the table to be in this type of role, or you would need to make sure that you surround yourself with those individuals that have that level at the senior team level and on your board or both.

I’ve done both because my job is not just to run the mission of today but also to secure the mission of tomorrow. So I’m always five years in the future or more in terms of what the organization I’m a part of looks like, and that’s never been more true than it is now with the L.A. Mission because I’m building on a foundation that others have laid.

I’m aware of the assignment that I’m uniquely preparing and building on the foundation and expanding the foundation in a way that those who come after me will be able to build on it in a very strategic way that can continue to make the inroads that we’re laying today.

What advice would you give to others to stay on the right path to avoid or to try to avoid being unhoused?

Well, that’s a tough one because I would not go back to my younger self and say, avoid the path that you took. We like to say that we want people, even our own children, and that we don’t want them to have to experience anything of any adverse nature but the reality is that is what helps people to become better-rounded in many ways.

I’m not saying that people need to experience being unhoused to understand the comforts of a home; I’m saying that if your life path leaves you here, understand that it does not need to be permanent, but it could be temporary, and it also can be an experience that you can use later in life to help others to find their path.

We try to teach that in principle and practice here at the L.A. Mission. We don’t want people to end up unhoused, but a lot of times, and especially in these times, there’s a reality base that we’ve got to struggle with as a society – that is that rents are too high, we’re pricing ourselves out of certain communities, and many of those individuals that need to be in our communities could hold labor jobs, and we don’t understand the importance of the labor community, and the union-based positions that exist.

We are not seeing the gap that has continued to increase between those of a lower economic strata in our society to a higher one. The middle class is disappearing by the day. So, more and more people will end up in a similar situation that I did unless we collectively begin to solve it.

Now we need to say, what do we need to do in order to help people, one, as you said, prevent them from becoming unhoused and to me, that’s a society solution, not an individual organization or person. Also, if their life does hit that, how do we rapidly move them into a housing situation or a more stable situation?

A lot of those things are what we’re wrestling with now as an organization and partnering with a multi-tier, a plethora of partners to help us to achieve the common goal, which is having a balanced society where people can dwell within it in a very harmonious way and where we can all believe in the community again.

This is the final question. What is your goal with the organization? What would you like to see happen most?

What I would like to see happen most is, for me personally, I want to leave it better than I found it. I want to ensure that many people on my team have the ability to take it to the next level in the future, and that we have made a significant impact and contribution to what community transformation looks like.

My hope and desire are that when we’re done in the next eight years, I’ve given myself a 10-year window when I go wherever God’s going to send me from that point on, that what is now called Skid Row will be known as Hope Central and it will be a place that people would want to come visit and not avoid.


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