Sunday, January 10, 2016

Don't Judge a Book by its Cover

Christmas LA Zoo Lights
Happy New Year, everyone! I am safely back in Hollywood after a wonderful Christmas break at home in Maryland with my parents and West Virginia with my friends. It was a much needed retreat to see the familiar McCoy Christmas tree with my preschool ornaments, the streets of Huntington that I now call home, and all the smiling faces that greeted me at the New Year’s Eve party! I sure do have a lot to look forward to upon my return in July.

Reunited with Brett! We did a lot of driving from MD to WV.

I’ll be honest; leaving my loved ones was hard. But once I saw the city of Los Angeles out the plane window, all the way from the ocean, to the Hollywood sign, to downtown, I couldn’t help but be excited that this city is now part of my life!

We made Christmas cookies with neighborhood kids!

Coming back with a fresh perspective on what I am doing here really helped motivate me this past week at work. I am assigned to work in downtown LA every day now, so most of my clients come from skid row. I was surprised when I went home at how many people thought skid row was just a saying! I can assure you it is a real place. It is a four square mile area with more than 20,000 people in the throes of sickness, hopelessness, and decay. The people I meet on the streets either live on skid row, or want to get as far away from it as possible. To learn more about the details of it, please read my blog from September, Go to Skid Row.

Several clients stick out in my mind this week, so I thought I might share a small part of their stories.

My first day back on the streets was Wednesday. It was pouring the rain (because that’s what it does in L.A. in the winter). So my outreach partner and I were speed walking from one dry spot to another, looking in our usual hot spots for anyone taking shelter. That’s when we met Bob. He was in a large street underpass with a few other guys who were all sitting with their duffel bags and blankets about five feet apart from one another. I realized we had met Bob once before in a nearby park, but he had a hat and his hood up so I barely recognized him. On our first meeting, he didn’t have much to say and obviously wanted us to leave as soon as possible. But this time in the underpass, he was excited to see us and smiled as he said we should remember him. We were able to tell him a little more about what PATH (my work agency) does and gave him our phone number if he ever needs to call us. I still didn’t think much about Bob until our third meeting on Thursday. I recognized his hat in the park and went up to say hello and ask about his day so far. He was the friendliest yet, asking about other people we had met and chit chatting about how nice the sunshine felt. I looked down and noticed the book he was starting to read on his lap. It was Sophocles: Oedipus Rex! I was amazed! This man I had initially written off as unfriendly and unapproachable, was now smiling and talking to me about Greek tragedies and philosophy! He said he thought it would give him much to think about; little does he know he has given me much to ponder as well.

Every person you see has a story, and you should never judge it by its cover! If Bob has any more surprises in other chapters, I’ll be sure and let you all know.
My PATH Metro LA Outreach team! They are awesome!

The next person I want to tell you about is the first person I encountered on Thursday morning. We started our daily route and a woman in a wheel chair rolled up to us crying. She was upset because her cat had been stolen the night before. We could smell the urine from 5 or 6 feet away. Her hair had been poorly buzzed off, probably for bugs, and one of her legs was very swollen inside her house slipper. She is older and according to my partner, who lived on skid row himself for 20+ years, she has been around for quite some time. Her state of hysteria over her cat did not allow us much conversation before she turned and wheeled away. It was not an abnormal scene for the morning, but certainly a sad one. I have had to learn that you can’t dwell on the ones who don’t want help; you can only attempt to be their friend and meet them where they are. Some of you may be wondering why someone in her state couldn’t be mandated to check into a hospital and get cleaned up. But you can only force a person to get treatment against their will if they are an imminent danger to themselves or those around them. This woman is still able to feed herself and knows where she is, which means she is making somewhat conscious choices to stay where she is. Through my new lenses as an outreach worker, the most encouraging thing to me in this situation is the fact that she was willing to approach us and share part of her story. We also saw her later in the afternoon, and I trust that as we show compassion and get to know her better, she may one day reach out to us as friends.

Beethoven statue in Pershing Square
where I sometimes meet clients.
In addition to the first woman of the day, another familiar client with a shaved head approached us later in the afternoon. She is often drunk, and has had no shoes for over a month. The first time we met it was pouring the rain and her socks were soaked. She was desperate for shoes, but we had none to give. Since then I have been on the lookout for a pair of shoes roughly her size in our dwindling donation boxes. I have yet to find any and felt even worse when she told us her birthday was this week. She also has no interest in seeking shelter at this time, but I am afraid her alcoholism will take a great toll soon.
I am desperate to befriend both these women. Their faces have popped up in my mind more than others this week and I can’t stop thinking about their haircuts. It would be so degrading to not have your hair. That’s why the Nazis cut off the hair of all their victims; to dehumanize and degrade them to the lowest level.

I have not found it helpful to completely put myself in their shoes, as that only causes me to feel hopeless and sad. I feel honored to be the one who gets to know them and help them, no matter what state their life is in now. Just like Bob and just like me, these women have names, and stories, and baby shoes, and families. And so many of these unlucky people that have to race on by to work, lest they be unemployed and on the sidewalk themselves, will never get to know their neighbors in Los Angeles like I do.

We all have those people who we see around our communities, curious about who they are, homeless or not. So I challenge you, if they look approachable, ask their name and introduce yourself! You may be surprised of what lies behind the cover of the book.