In October, Bruce Cohn will have been sober for 25 years.
Now 67 and founder of the popular Facebook group “Helping Petaluma,” Cohn has found a way to repay the generosity that helped him out of the dizzying spiral of drug and alcohol addiction that left him homeless on the streets of downtown Los Angeles at 35.
He remembers living in an alleyway, inside a cardboard box, until the day he came home to find “a great big guy in there. He said, ‘It’s not your home anymore; it’s mine.’ And I’m not a fighter, so I went to the beach.”
In Santa Monica, he and other people who found themselves homeless slept beneath lifeguard towers in holes in the sand. At night, he said, they buried themselves to stay warm.
Calling upon memories of that two-year period, Cohn reacted quickly last September when 14 homes on the east side of Petaluma went up in flames. Now a real estate appraiser, he was out taking comparative photos when he saw the smoke rising from Stuart Drive.
With the horror of the Valley Fire fresh in his mind, he “knew this was bad stuff,” he said.
Cohn headed home, pulled up Facebook and created “Helping Petaluma,” a Facebook page that has grown to more than 1,600 members and raised more than $23,000 for families in need. Since the Stuart Drive fire, the group’s efforts have expanded to include others in Petaluma who found themselves in need of help.
First came a young boy whose bike was crushed in a car accident. He was able to escape without injury, but the bike was totaled. Cohn put out the word, and almost immediately the group raised about $200 to buy a new bike.
When another family was left homeless because of a fire in early January, the town raised up to help. And when Petaluma homes were devastated in floods a week later, Cohn put out the word, and the group stepped up again.
“It’s an automatic trigger for me to help people,” Cohn said.
Back when he was in L.A., Cohn saw a help wanted ad in the newspaper for a place called “Crazy Gideon’s.” With nothing more than the clothes he was wearing, Cohn walked to the electronics warehouse listed in the ad and found Gideon Kodzer inside.
“Crazy Gideon” was known for wild, late-night television commercials that frequently involved biting camcorders or smashing VCRs into his head while screaming at customers.
Cohn said he walked right up to Kodzer, told him he would be his No. 1 salesperson that day and got a shot at it. By the end of the day, Cohn had proven himself right.
On day three, Kodzer asked him to fill out a tax form. Cohn wrote “beach” as his address, he said, adding that “I couldn’t look at him.”
Kodzer responded with a $1,000 check, telling Cohn to find a place to live and then come back to work. He hasn’t been homeless since.
“Gideon gave to me unconditionally,” Cohn said. “He taught me a lesson that it didn’t make any difference who I was.”
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