Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What Keeps Us from Flying

One of my favorite quotations comes from Orville Wright. I originally read it on the back of a t-shirt that I later purchased while on vacation in Kitty Hawk, NC. It was a family vacation and I was fairly young, but it has always stuck with me.

“If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance.” – Orville Wright

Orville was of course describing the previous assumption that flight for anything other than birds was impossible. But Orville and Wilbur didn’t accept that as truth. They challenged the assumptions and engineered the first airplane! Now look at where we are, easily flying across continents and oceans in a couple of hours.

I wore that same t-shirt to a demonstration last night by the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in LA. Inspired by Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S., the organization LA Voice put together a prayer vigil “for dignity and justice.” The program started with a Muslim call to prayer and was followed by messages given by other religious leaders, as well as testimonies of former criminals and immigrants. Their messages were all centered on the Pope’s prayers for creating good jobs, being good stewards of the climate, criminal justice reform, and dignity for immigrant families.

Twin Towers Jail

We assume so much in this country. Even those of us who already think we are progressive and open to new ideas have underlying biases and ingrained stereotypes of different people that we so often fail to see. I would describe myself to be a progressive, liberal thinker. And yet here I am in Los Angeles, working with the homeless and being flabbergasted by the end of every day reflecting on the people I encountered. They are so often nothing like I have imagined them to be.

In light of my ever changing perspective on what it means to live without a home, here are some assumptions I have found deep within my very own “open” mind.

1. The man or woman talking to themselves could fly into a rage at any moment.
2. It is dangerous to walk through an area of tents on the sidewalk.
3. That person passed out in the corner is sleeping off a drug high.
4. This woman has probably sold her body at some point.
5. That old man is so quiet he wouldn’t want to talk to us.
6. The guy always starting fights with his neighbors has really bad anger issues.
7. The woman who yells everything she says must have a mental disability.
8. We should really talk to that white, tattoo-less man. I bet he just needs a small push back on his feet.
9. The guy always complaining that others pick on him must be doing something to bring it on himself.
10.That woman must not care about her children.

These are the thoughts that have kept me from flying. What are yours?
The scene one morning at one of my outreach locations.
Many assumptions were made by all.

I am ashamed to share this list with you. I am ashamed that these thoughts have ever crossed my mind. But I am proud that every day I can turn some of these around; stop them from happening again. My assumptions were not true. Here is the truth.

That person talking to themselves will most likely be ecstatic to talk to a real person.
2. Those tents are people’s places of residence. They have no reason to harm you as you pass by and they carry on with their daily chores.
3. That person we can’t easily wake up is absolutely exhausted. Their daily tasks of walking long distances and searching for food are unimaginable to me.
4. This woman has likely been a victim of rape, depending on how long she has been out here.
5. That old man hasn’t told his story to anyone in 2 years after 20 years on the street. He will be the kindest, gentlest, most humble soul you may ever meet, and his story will be one of incredible strength.
6. The guy lashing out in anger is really reaching out for love and attention.
7. The woman who yells is actually deaf. Her boyfriend is also deaf and she speaks sign language to him. She is not mentally challenged, she is bilingual.
8. That white man already has a full time, minimum wage job, but he struggles to jump through all of the hoops we throw at him.
9. That guy getting picked on has a mental illness and has been the victim of bullying all his life. He was born this way and has done nothing to bring it on himself.
10. The woman is a victim of domestic violence which led to PTSD and the loss of her children.

 And from all of these assumptions I have challenged, beautiful things have started to happen. I am not afraid to strike up a conversation with someone who is talking to themselves. Some of those conversations go better than others, but I am proud to say I actually look forward to their eccentricity! I have also found that approaching people with genuine joy to be there can easily open the biggest can of worms you could ever ask for. But they are good worms! All nuggets of information that we can use to put them in the right kind of housing, and stories that turn them from clients into friends.

I am so happy to be here in Los Angeles. I am so happy to be working at PATH where everyone is passionate about ending homelessness. And I am ecstatic to be building my own version of a flying machine that I can ride for the rest of my life, looking down on all of the broken assumptions I operated by for so long.

Friends Ambar and Rowena camping out to see the Blood Moon
View of LA from Griffith Observatory

Hollywood sunset

The city of angels
The table is set. Will you join us?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Introduce Yourself

Before the 1st day of work.
This past Tuesday morning, it was raining.  This past Tuesday morning was also my first day of work at PATH (People Assisting The Homeless). Rowena is working at PATH with me and we were supposed to be there by 7:30 am. Long story short, we missed our first stop, sprinted after 2 buses, crossed a river, ran through sprinklers and succulents, walked a long way in the rain, and arrived to work 45 minutes late looking like wet dogs.
The LA River

I highly recommend you read the full story on Rowena’s blog here.

After the 1st day of work!
Regardless of the rainy start to the day, the sun eventually came out and I jumped head first into street outreach with the homeless in downtown LA. If you don’t know what I mean by street outreach, click the link here, or at the top of my blog that says “Where I Work.” There you can find out more about PATH and their organization, as well as the basics of street outreach.

Now if you just found out what street outreach means and are concerned for my safety, please do pray for me! However, I do not want you to worry. I should tell you that my new partner, Jenny, and I must be together at all times. Jenny has also been working at PATH for 5 years and is very skilled as an outreach worker. She knows her way around LA and definitely has street smarts.

So far I have been very quiet with our clients, just watching and listening to Jenny’s approach. Plenty of people have refused our services, but in this past week alone I have met around 50 people living on underpass sidewalks and none of them have tried to harm us. In fact they mostly enjoy our company and are anxious to tell us their stories!
One of the underpasses where I talk to people.

My daily routine looks like this:
8:00 am drive to our designated area of LA and start walking around
8-12 pm We talk to clients (a client is a person on the street who accepts our help)
We introduce ourselves and tell them what we can offer, like mental health care referrals, shelter stays, permanent housing options, transportation to appointments, etc.
1-4 pm Fill out paperwork regarding clients we talked to in the morning

By Thursday, I could tell I am going to love this job. I couldn’t keep from smiling on my lunch break!

We talk to people at their lowest points in life, offering a smile and a handshake, genuinely listening to their stories, picking up on small details that might make them eligible for resources we have. We give out water and hygiene kits made by elementary school and youth group volunteers. Jenny speaks Spanish with some of them. Once we know them a little bit and can see they want our help, we also put them in our van and drive them to doctor’s appointments and hotels, for which they are so grateful.  

My desk at PATH
In the afternoon, I get to process everything that happened in the morning by going back through my memory of each encounter and filling out a daily log. This is a nice balance of being outside in the sunshine and creating new relationships, while also getting to sit down in the afternoon and process my thoughts.

Aside from enjoying the actual work, I could not be happier with my coworkers. Every single one of them enjoys what they do! We are making a direct difference in people’s lives! The office is filled with laughter and a laid back attitude. In fact, I appear to be one of few OCD people around and they were entertained by my precise hole punching, folder making methods.

Rowena has a coworker that is also a clinician and can diagnose mental illness on the streets. On Friday I started talking to him about the idea of doing service work as a physician. He was ecstatic! Apparently there is a large push toward getting more doctors and nurses out in the field. He said there are programs through the VA Hospital and other non-profit organizations that contract doctors to do street outreach with medicine. I could not be more excited about the opportunity to continue this type of work throughout my life! If anyone has more information on serving as a physician in this way, please let me know! (Of course I still have to make it through medical school once I get back.)

I want to leave you with the Bible verse that really struck me this morning at church.

Joshua 1:9
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

I have been praying consistently for God to give me strength and courage since day one of being a YAV. Today I realized God has already given me the strength and courage. Pastor Hank at MOSAIC church compared it to our body’s cortisol and adrenaline. When everything is cool, they are lying low, and you can forget they are there. We don’t know our own strength until we “enter the danger” and become uncomfortable. That’s when you realize that strength and courage have been there all along, waiting for when you need them most.

I highly recommend the full sermon from MOSAIC church on strength and courage, so please listen to the podcast here! It was phenomenal. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Go to Skid Row

On the plane ride from NY to LA last week, the man sitting beside Rowena struck up a conversation. She learned he was a local from LA and he learned that she was a volunteer coming to help the homeless. Right before we got off, he said “Whatever you do, don’t go to skid row. It’s dangerous.”

So what did we do on Thursday, September 10, 2015? We went to skid row.
Rudy and Robert, who run the organization Housing Works, drove us around the metro LA area known as skid row.

What do you think the average age of a homeless person is here in the U.S.?
24? 33? 50?

No. It is 9 years old.

This was the first question of many Rudy asked us before we began our tour on a hot, sunny, September morning. He also asked if we had worked with homeless people before, what we knew about the system that prevents them from getting homes, and the population of homeless here in LA.

Here are a few, very sad facts about skid row:
1. There are approximately 41,174 homeless people in LA county. More than any other city in the U.S.
2. Somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 of those people live within a 15 square block area of metro LA, called skid row.
3. This is a large tent city on sidewalks, with 2-3 people living in one small tent on average.
4. The demographic is mostly African American.

Driving through skid row was like nothing I have ever seen. Sidewalks lined with hordes of people.  Some with tents, some with only a blanket. Trash everywhere. A man yelling at us from outside the car, presumably asking why we weren’t helping them. Many more men than women. No children to be seen. LARGE groups stationed around the 3 local shelters and service providers. Dirty clothes. People talking to themselves. People in fist fights. Tents everywhere. Tarps everywhere. Shopping carts being dragged through crosswalks.

My fellow YAV, Rowena, said it best on Facebook earlier today.

“There’s a place where you stop understanding, and just feel.”

We were told not to take pictures, primarily of the people we saw, but I found myself not wanting to take pictures anyway. Not only to keep these human beings from becoming zoo animals, but also because no phone snapshot could ever encompass the overwhelming feeling of sadness that comes from seeing such desperate need. I am a 22 year old girl doing the best I can this year to get these people some help. Los Angeles is a city full of wealthy people. Do they never drive through skid row? Do they not care about their neighbors on the sidewalk? Are there that many Grinch-like people, with hearts two sizes too small in the world?

Rudy told us that potential do-good donors used to be given walking tours through skid row. Most of their reactions were to be overwhelmed, just as I was, but to the point that they said “no amount of money can fix this.”

And maybe they’re right? No amount of paper money that we play Monopoly with could fix this. But human beings with a sense of basic human rights and connections to the city council can fix this. Human beings who are prepared to give housing to registered sex offenders, welfare recipients, and indebted citizens can fix this. Human beings with medical and legal knowledge can fix this.

There are 13,000 beds in LA for over 40,000 people who lack shelter. Thankfully the city is moving toward a long-term, housing first approach, rather than a temporary soup kitchen approach. This is creating more beds. This is also cheaper. But rather than supporting both temporary and long term housing, the powers that be are only shifting the money from soup kitchens and day shelters, over to long term housing organizations like PATH and Housing Works. But we need both! One cannot function without the support of the other.

But just like in the past, when people thought it would be a good idea to arrest all the homeless, or to put them on buses and ship them to the valley, this too shall come to see the light. We can only pray that what we are able to do will be helpful in the end.

I saw a woman in skid row today sitting alone, eating some small morsel of food under the blazing afternoon sun. Spray painted on the wall all around her was the word “Hell.” These people are living in Hell on Earth. But do you remember those words so many of us say monotonously every Sunday at church?

“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on EARTH as it is in Heaven.

God’s will is not to keep people in a living Hell. God’s will is for us to do the best we can in creating Heaven on Earth.

I honestly don’t know how every person on skid row could be saved from their unfair lives. But I do know that everyone deserves a voice, a roof, and some dignity. And for many, that might just be described as Heaven on Earth. If we can listen to their voices, patch the holes in their roofs, and present an even table of equality, we will be doing God’s will.

For more facts on homelessness in Los Angeles, please see click here for a wonderful slideshow.

Monday, September 7, 2015

One Week in Hollywood

Me, Rowena and Ahreum at LAX
          It has officially been one week since I arrived in Los Angeles, California. Matthew and Marvin, our site coordinators, picked us up from the airport last Monday and immediately christened our arrival with In N Out Burger! Apparently their food makes you an official Californian no matter how long you have been here, and in our case it was only an hour.

From there we made our way back to La Casa de la Comunidad (The Community House) where we moved our stuff in and picked our rooms! Ambar and I are roommates on the green side of the house. The other side is a mirror image except painted yellow. We are known as Dwellers here, as this is also part of the DOOR program, not just YAVs.
Green side of La Casa duplex

This week has been full of cleaning, unpacking, listening to stories, getting to know housemates, and exploring the city.

Tuesday: We met Manny and KC, both board members here for DOOR and both with incredible stories involving life on the streets of Los Angeles. Manny’s main advice to us was to pay attention to the layers of the city. He said everything from the palm trees, to the movie posters, to the people sleeping on sidewalks will be fighting for our attention. It is up to us to decide what we focus on. That really resonated with me since I chose to do this YAV year to focus on who I want to be for the rest of my life.

We heard another story on Monday night from Toni, a DOOR board member who lived without a permanent home in LA for about a year. She is just now getting back on her feet after her world crashed around her in the blink of an eye. Toni helped us to see how it can happen to any of us, and that being judgmental of those we know nothing about is not helpful at all. In America we talk about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But Toni says when you get that hungry and tired, “there is not enough energy to even reach for a bootstrap.”

Wednesday: For dinner we went to a longtime supporter’s house of the missions through First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Anna and Jack Kerr live about half a mile from our house and their family has hosted numerous missionaries throughout the years. They fed us a wonderful home cooked dinner. Our visit there meant so much to me. It was the first time I felt relaxed and at home here in LA. As we shared our chicken casserole and chocolate cake and ice cream for dessert, it was no different than being in my own warm and cozy Grandmother’s house (although your coca cola cake is still the best, Grandmother).
Jack greeted us on the porch.
Sunset from our small balcony.
Thursday: One unique part of the program in Hollywood is the sharing of testimonies. Matthew and Marvin shared their stories of how they came to this place in their lives. Later in the week and next week, each of us will share our own stories with everyone else. This process is definitely scary and creates a lot of vulnerability, but it is also necessary. We need to start off this year understanding one another and where we come from. I am looking forward to sharing my own story, as well as seeing how some of our stories may be similar,     or some very different.

Friday: Our first adventure with public transit! Rowena and I are both working at PATH, although there are two different locations in the city and we had to find two different bus routes to get there. The first place we visited was North of where we live, and we did a lot of walking to find it. The second place is South East of us and we did even more walking where we wound up seeing a large population of homeless people underneath an interstate bridge. As someone said later, God has a way of preparing you for what you need to experience. I’m sure we will meet many of these people later this year as we join the street outreach team with PATH.
Bus 4 route down Santa Monica Blvd.

The other cool thing about Friday was getting to watch a live taping of The Soup on E! Network! Joel McHale hosts this satire news show, and he and his wife are members of First Pres. Hollywood. His special guest was James Cordon from The Late Late Show and he made their skits very funny. It was neat to get to be the cheering audience and know that people all over the world were watching! He took a picture with everyone there afterwards and knew that we were the new volunteers for the year.

Matthew also took us to a place called the Farmer’s Market and a shopping area called The Grove. We got to meet his family and have a relaxing evening enjoying the warm Californian weather.

Joel McHale and the 2015/16 Dwellers.

Going through The Farmer's Market

The fountain at The Grove
Saturday and Sunday: The past two days have been very relaxing. Saturday was full of shopping and cleaning the house. Sunday morning I went to a Korean church and had a very cultural experience that I could write a whole blog about by itself! Ahreum helped Rowena and I figure out what was going on, but I had a very moving experience even without speaking the language.

God speaks Korean! Did you know that? I mean, have you really thought about that? People pray in different languages all the time, and I think it is impossible for any one human to know every language in the world; but God does! I was very moved to say the Lord’s Prayer while listening to everyone else say it in Korean around me, knowing that God understood our hearts in the same way.

Korean church hymns
Fountain action!
Paramount studios seen from our back alley

To sum up the experience from this past week, I have to say that finding the tiniest moments where God abides has brought me more peace, joy and courage than anything else. I found it around a dinner table, meeting some kids in the neighborhood, and touching the Pacific Ocean for the first time. I hope you all found some tiny moments of light this week as well. 

There is a neighborhood child in there somewhere! 
Gene Kelly's star
Banana split desserts
Santa Monica pier