Once homeless woman starts nonprofit to help others off streets

By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — It takes grit, guts and plenty of determination to escape Skid Row and start your own nonprofit to help the homeless, but Nakesha High has done just that. 

For the past seven years, the chief executive officer of High Expectation Development Corporation has been on a mission to eradicate homelessness and to facilitate change. The nonprofit helps the underserved with food, clothing and other needs.

The 46-year-old mother of three has overcome homelessness, drugs, incarceration and a tumultuous family life that reads like a graphic novel.

High grew up with a mother who battled drug addiction. Her husband is serving time after receiving his third strike for selling drugs. An inmate for 26 years, he is currently serving 25 years to life at Centinela State Prison in Imperial County.

High grew up in the rough neighborhoods of Watts and Lynwood. At 14 she became a teen mom, making ends meet by selling drugs, which landed her in jail multiple times. After repeatedly getting arrested for selling drugs, High knew there was a better way.

“That’s when I gave my life over to the Lord and became baptized,” she said.

High found a job at Michael’s Arts and Crafts and worked there for year but suddenly became homeless.

One evening after work she received more bad news: although she and her sister shared an apartment and split the rent, her sister had recently gotten a new boyfriend and told High that she and her children would have to move.

“Then a lady at church offered me and my family a place to stay, but after a few weeks, the lady said that she was going on vacation and that we would have to find another place to stay.

“I didn’t know I would be homeless. It happened all of a sudden,” High recalls. “I was desperate. “I started calling homeless shelters for a week straight. Finally, on the 33rd call, I was told to come down to the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row.”

The Union Rescue Mission supplied High and her children with a room but the horrific conditions on Skid Row were an eye opener for High.

“We saw all  kinds of stuff,” she said. “We saw people with their flesh cut open with worms coming out of their legs. People were selling and smoking drugs on the street and inside the mission.

“My son would look out the window and people would be lying on the ground. He said, ‘Mom. I want to go home.’”

There are a lot of people walking around with mental health issues on Skid Row, High said. 

“You see a variety of hurt people in need of help on Skid Row.” 

High’s life began to turn around when she was hired at the Salvation Army.

“I started  working at the Salvation Army Bell Shelter,” said High, who worked there for 10 years.

“I started out as a janitor but I kept getting raises. I became a housing coordinator and then a case manager. I was a security attendant and then I was promoted to a supervisor. I was a soldier, too. 

“I joined the ministry and went to different Salvation Army [sites] to pass out food and to minister to people.”

High’s mother, now clean of drugs, joined her at the Salvation Army where she now works as a case manager. 

Due to her exemplary work, High earned two Crystal Prestige Star awards for outstanding service and exceptional performance and dedication.

Becoming an ordained minister, High also served as the chairperson of the Volunteer Outreach Ministers Auxiliary at Greater Bethel Cathedral Church for 17 years. There she developed a 150-bed shelter program for homeless individuals. Completing that huge feat motivated High to launch her own nonprofit in 2017.

High Expectation Development Corporation consults with local agencies and provides critical resources and services to empower individuals and transform their lives from homeless to self-sufficient. Under High’s leadership, the organization has provided more than 300 clients with permanent housing and more than 550 with food. 

“If you send a client to a hotel room where there are drug abusers, that is not really helping them,” High said. “They need to be put in a place where they can see a different side of themselves.”

“A lot of people are tired of being on the street but that is the only life they know,” she added. “They don’t know their worth because they’ve been living on the streets for years. If I’m a prostitute and you put me in a shelter with a pimp, I’m still going to prostitute. 

“They need to know about their self-worth,” High said. “Agencies need to put clients in places where they can get help and show them that there’s a better way.”

The High Expectation Development Corporation can be contacted at thehedc.com or by calling 951-595-7207. 

Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at metropressnews@gmail.com.