I’ll admit that it’s not the smartest thing I have ever done. Around 2:00 AM one morning a couple years ago, I had one of my friends drop me off in downtown Los Angeles close to what Angelenos know as “Skid Row” or, if you want to get technical, Central City East. Just to give you a feel for the kind of place it is: tents, shopping carts and other homeless people line the streets. The homeless problem in LA is so bad that it has been officially determined that the city’s anti-camping ordinance is lifted until enough beds are made available to provide more housing to the huge population of the homeless. It is the ultimate irony as just blocks away there are multimillion dollar condos and a short drive away you have the opulence of Beverly Hills. The place is treated as a dumping ground for the ills of society and in the past few years multiple hospitals have been accused of dropping off homeless patients on skid row.
But back to my middle-of-the-night stupidity. My plan was to try to get a better understanding for how shelters in the area worked. I took a deep breath and walked onto skid row, making my way past incredulous stares and side-stepping the various encampments. Some cops were congregated in one area and I asked them about what not to do if I wanted to check out the area. “Make sure you walk quickly and like you are on a mission, some other guy a while back got beaten to a pulp because he looked totally clueless.”
Not good. I probably looked more out of place than the first guy. But I continued and finally decided on a shelter to enter. It was a religious shelter but I don’t remember the name of it. There was a little courtyard and as I entered, I saw a middle-aged South Asian-looking man who sat in a wheel chair. He was highly articulate and gave me the basics of how the system worked. If you make it into the shelter by curfew you get in, otherwise you are stuck outside in the courtyard. I found a guy with a badge by the courtyard gate and he told me everyone gets woken up at 5:00 AM and you get breakfast if you sit through chapel. He looked at me with pity and said, “It can happen to anyone man.” To him I was some kid down on his luck. I nodded and edged away. I decided to wait until 5:00 AM to see what chapel was like.
Finally the hour arrived and those that were interested in grub were shepherded into a decent-sized chapel where some promptly went back to sleep. A clergyman then shared a somewhat uplifting message. I looked around for reactions. Most seemed to tune him out but some of the crowd was engaged. My thoughts were all over. “Why did they insist on chapel before food?” “How was all of this funded?” “What did everyone think of me?” the service ended, interrupting my thoughts.
The homeless filed out of the chapel and into the dining room and a decently-sized breakfast was heaped on to individual trays. Everyone dug in. Now feeling guilty that I was eating food that I should be paying for, I finished quickly and found a staff member. “How can you volunteer here?” I asked?
“Man there are lots of ways we could use you,” he started, telling me about who I should approach for the specifics. I no longer lived in LA (I had moved up to Northern California a couple months prior) so I never followed up. But the idea of volunteering at a shelter stuck with me. There was obviously a need. Volunteering seemed like a good use of time and it felt right somehow. I remembered an experience cooking a meal for residents at a half-way house (sort of like a shelter former prisoners, psych patients and others that are learning to live in society again). It had felt meaningful.
Fast forward to now. I live in Chico, a college town inland in Northern California. There is a significant homeless/traveler population here. A grants writing class I audited with a bunch of social workers taught me a little about the shelters in town. Maybe I’ll volunteer there. I could afford to be a bit more service-minded. I’ll keep you posted.