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.

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