The amount of homeless people in Los Angeles is astounding. But before I get into that, spare a few heartbeats and please allow me to paint you a picture.
Stubbornly carless for the past eleven weeks or so, I walk and bus, with the occasional bus-chase-runs, everywhere I go. To the groceries, school, bars, restaurants, café, people’s houses, beaches, you name it. Now the area itself, Brentwood, is one of the more affluent parts of Los Angeles. Nestled between Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, you could see that hint of American Dream that you’d probably see in TV shows. Quaint shops, bakeries and fancy restaurants line up San Vincente Boulevard, intercepted by fancy houses only to be continued with the boutiques of Montana Avenue. Parallel to all this, lies Wilshire Boulevard, where I take my bus every single morning, ok maybe afternoon, to school. Apartments of all kinds have managed to negotiate between themselves into perfect harmony between the two boulevards. A hint of Mediterranean here, art deco there, Mexico flavor here and Greek over there. Pretty and soothing, the more it is with all the cute little dogs dragging their doting owners around the block at any given time of the day.
Now let me take you to the bus stop located a stone throw away from this. Embarking the bus, there is always at least one homeless person sitting at the front of the bus. Always.
Do I say anything to them? No. Do they say anything to me? No. Do I help any of them in any way? No. Though it irks me that I feel yet again hopeless to do anything just like those times when I see little kids begging on the streets of Jakarta. Donating to such causes. Will it ever get there? Will the money every make it to these faces I see every single day?
Mindboggling at the very least. Homelessness isn’t discriminating either. Coming from all races and gender, they have managed to converge into this one category often identifiable through where they are forced to sleep at night, what they wear and what they carry into the bus.
So it came to one day before Thanksgiving when the Church I’ve been going to for a few weeks is holding a Thanskgiving lunch and clothes distribution for the needy. They were expecting around 1000 homeless people from the surrounding area, a mere fraction from the 80,000 homeless people in Los Angeles so I heard. I signed up for the boutique where they were distribution clothes along with numerous other people, close to 400 volunteers I heard. At first I doubted the efficiency and the logic of exerting such huge amount of volunteer to guest ratio. It seems such a simple task to distribute food and clothes once you streamlined the process, no?
Well here is where the hole lies in my logic. In thinking about efficiency I completely forgot about the value of a one to one interaction that really makes the event what it is. For each guest that comes through the boutique, they will be accompanied by one person to personally help them “shop”. The underlying idea is to ensure that each guests take the allotted amount of clothing and to ensure that the churn rate is fast enough to accommodate 1000 people during the 4 hours we were there. The byproducts that highlight the day were of course the ten minutes interaction between the guests and the personal shoppers. Here were a setting where they all eventually felt comfortable to exchange pleasantries, joked and some even sang together. All within ten minutes of interaction. I am not sure what value it brings to the homeless people having this ‘church people’ playing nice, but boy, I gotta tell you those volunteers aren’t faking it when they greet each guests with a warm smile and quite often say goodbye with a hug. For the volunteers, perhaps that short four hours give them a glimpse of the personalities that the people they cross path with everyday. Some dress really stylish with what they have. Some have a jovial up spirited personality. Some seem to carry the weight of the world. But most, most look grateful.
Admittedly there are a few of them that looked suspiciously young and able to work their ass off, there are a lot of them who were just old and beaten and belong in a loving nursing home more than anything. I don’t know what their stories are but you can see it bursting out of their seams. And stories, I wish I have the time to listen and the courage to ask.
Now, what did those four hours did to me? It further propelled my train of ongoing thoughts. That people, at the core of them, would like to help those who are less fortunate. They sometimes just don’t know how. In this age of time when people are suing each other, even over kindness, like there’s no tomorrow, it is disheartening to say that sometimes helping people can get you into more trouble than before.
The movement in LA nowadays is all about social ventures and helping the world, causes and all that. There’s the KarmaGoat and WeePledge coming from Anderson alone. Coffee beans sold to help alleviate poverty somewhere along the earth. For every box of Pampers you help vaccinate a baby somewhere. Everybody is taking their part to do what they can, as much as they can afford. And perhaps, that’s all you can do really.