LOS ANGELES -- Tavon Austin thought about his mother on Wednesday afternoon. He always does, but on this day it was different.
The Rams wide receiver was standing inside a four-bedroom apartment in a neighborhood called Sun Valley, nestled in the northwest section of Los Angeles. Austin and teammate Robert Quinn had spent more than $20,000 from their own bank accounts to furnish this place for a single mother named Rebecca Carter who had just been reunited with her six young children and was doing her best to put six years of periodic homelessness behind her.
Carter walked in, and her eyes lit up -- and Austin thought back to Baltimore, and Cathy Green, and all the odd jobs she worked to provide for four children, and the drive Austin felt to someday pay her back for it all.
"My mom was pretty young, and she did what she could do," Austin said. "We had six people in the house [his grandmother lived there, too], so I know how this feels. It put the drive in me to get to where I want to today. That’s how I looked at it, that’s how I approached it and that’s how I took it. Hopefully one of them little boys in there take it the same way that I took it. 'I’m going to get Mommy out of here. I’m going to get us out of here.' That’s what I did."
It was Quinn, a sixth-year defensive end, who initially contacted the Rams' community relations department because he wanted to go above and beyond for the holidays. So about 10 days ago, the Rams reached out to United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which then touched base with LA Family Housing, an organization that serves as something of a bridge from homelessness to permanent housing.
They told Quinn about Carter. About how she suffered through sexual assault, about the mental health challenges it created, about homelessness forcing her to surrender custody of five kids, about how she was pregnant with a sixth child when she arrived at LA Family Housing, and about the resilience and determination she displayed while in the program.
"Once they told me the full story and what she was going through and how young the kids were, I just kind of took a step back and kind of put myself in their shoes," Quinn said. "If someone gave me an opportunity to restart, how appreciative would I be to them? I think it just starts with one person, one soul, one spirit. It starts there."
It started at about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, when Carter arrived at the door of her new apartment, which falls under Section 8 housing.
Carter was simply there for a walk-through of an empty facility, but instead she was met by Molly Higgins, the Rams' vice president of community affairs and engagement. Higgins told Carter that Austin and Quinn were on the other side, and she screamed. She walked in with her children -- Dynah, 12, Erick, 11, Derrick, 9, Patrick, 8, Garrick, 7, and Ariel, 18 months -- and saw every single item on a wish list she had filled out days ago.
In the kitchen was everything she could need, from a refrigerator to a slow cooker to even a stand mixer. She turned the corner and saw a new dining table holding a gift basket. The rooms all had beds, and the bathrooms were fully decorated. In the living room was a sectional couch and a coffee table. And in the corner was a Christmas tree with presents spilling out from underneath.
The kids got clothes, school supplies, toys and gaming systems. The four boys received bicycles. The oldest girl, Dynah, was gifted a tablet to help fulfill her dream of becoming a pediatrician. Mom received a laptop, printer, clothes and makeup. She wants to go back to school for cosmetology.
"A new beginning," Carter said of what all this represented. "A new start. No more worrying. No more stress. No more depression. It’s over. I’m with my family. We’re all together, and I’m happy."
Quinn and Austin saw the box for a 40-inch flat-screen TV in the living room and were not satisfied. As the commotion ensued, they drove to a local Target and purchased a 55-inch screen to go along with it. After the tour was finished, Austin reached into his pocket and pulled out tickets to Saturday's home game against the San Francisco 49ers.
"And the concession stand is kind of expensive," Quinn said, pulling out a stack of $100 bills, "so here's some cash to help you out."
Carter slept on buses, benches and parks before spending the past 10 months with LA Family Housing. Sometimes friends would welcome her into their home, but only for a night or two. Other times, on rare occasions, she met strangers who would lend a couch. The goal each day was merely to survive, to get a little bit closer to being reunited with her children and living a normal life.
"It's a nightmare," Carter said of being homeless. "It is truly a nightmare."
Los Angeles has long been deemed the unofficial homeless capital of the United States. Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a report that gave L.A. the country's largest chronically homeless population for a second consecutive year. That number was nearly 13,000, with 95 percent of them living outdoors.
"Housing prices have skyrocketed, and people’s incomes have not met the same rise in rents or in other housing costs that we’ve seen," said Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and CEO of LA Family Housing. "Too many individuals are falling into homelessness, and what’s really devastating in Los Angeles is how long they stay homeless. Our goal in LA Family Housing is to permanently end homelessness in people’s lives. To provide them the resources they need to move out of homelessness, into their own home, and most importantly to stay stable and successful once they move into their own home."
LA Family Housing has been around since 1983 and is now one of the largest comprehensive real-estate developers and homeless service providers in the city. Last year, it helped 6,429 people, according to the organization's website. The Rams have partnered with several local charitable organizations since their return to L.A., but, as Higgins said, "We've gravitated a lot to homelessness just because it's such a serious issue."
In its 33-year existence, LA Family Housing has never seen a contribution like this, with an entire apartment fully furnished and packed with presents for a family of seven.
Wednesday marked the first night Carter slept under the same roof with all six of her kids, a moment she longed for "every single day."
The next morning, they woke up to everything they could have wanted.
"It was crazy seeing everything happen, and knowing that me and Rob made this happen," said Austin, who had quickly decided to help Quinn fund the project. "It feels good. A lot of times, people don’t think that we’re out here doing stuff. But we are. I’m just glad I was a part of it."