Sheldon Spencer gives back
Some people say you can tell how much a person is loved by the number of nicknames they have. By that measure, Sheldon Spencer (a.k.a “Papa Bear,” “The Other Mayor of West Hollywood,” “The Street Kid’s Best Friend”) was truly loved by those around him. At first, we didn’t know a lot about him because Sheldon never talked about his family, or where he grew up, or even what he liked to do in his spare time. Some of us didn’t even know his real name. Was he Spencer Sheldon or Sheldon Spencer?
What made this man so special wasn’t some superficial characteristic. What made him special was what he did. More on that in a moment.
L.A. CADA first encountered Sheldon several years ago. He was one of many homeless men who lived in the vicinity of our Hollywood HIV prevention office. All of his worldly possessions were contained in a shopping cart. Once he became a prevention services client, we learned that he had recently overcome a serious addiction to heroin and crystal meth. After he completed our intervention, Sheldon told us he wanted to ‘give back’, and asked what he could do to support our work. L.A. CADA counselors asked if he could bring a couple of people to our upcoming community forum. On the day of the event, Sheldon walked into the meeting hall with a dozen men. From that day on, whenever L.A. CADA hosted a community event, half of the people in the room would be gay men and trans women recruited by “The Other Mayor of West Hollywood.” And, over the years, Sheldon brought dozens of people to receive HIV prevention services from L.A. CADA’s Hollywood team.
We learned that L.A. CADA wasn’t the only agency with which Sheldon collaborated. He’d take homeless youth to the Jeff Griffin Center for shelter, trans women to the LGBTQ Center for hormone therapy, and sex workers to Friends Community Center for HIV testing. And he did all of this without receiving a paycheck – truly a “one man referral service.”
In an effort to improve his client support skills, Sheldon enrolled in and completed a Peer Mentor Training course conducted by L.A. CADA’s at-risk men’s services program. Last month, the agency’s new HIV testing program nominated Sheldon to be one of our Social and Sexual Network Recruiters. We were preparing to let Sheldon know about his nomination and to invite him to join recruiter training that was scheduled to take place at the end of the month. But we were shocked to learn that Sheldon died from a stroke on January 14, 2021.
To call Sheldon Spencer a “success story” is to understate that important role he played in the lives of scores of homeless and at-risk men and women in downtown Los Angeles. We will miss you, “Papa Bear.”