The thought of spending time on Skid Row made me nervous, and then I was disgusted with myself for feeling that way. It highlighted my "privileged" status of being "homed." How dare I?
But the feelings demanded to be acknowledged:
- What if someone is mentally ill and does something bad to me?
- What if I can't handle the squalor of Skid Row?
- Is this safe??
To be fair, these are all valid questions. I wanted to be helpful and serve, but I am also aware of my limitations, and didn't want to be in a situation where I unintentionally offended someone, or where I was a hindrance rather than a help.
I took a deep breath, met with the group of volunteers at my local park early on Thanksgiving morning, and caravanned downtown to Skid Row.
There were people sitting in tents and boxes all along the sidewalks. Unidentifiable as well as identifiable putrid substances dripped off the curbs here and there, and the acrid, stench of urine was unmistakable.
I felt sick. Physically ill because it was filthy. Heartsick because I knew that the people living there didn't want to be in that situation any more than I did, and the only thing that separated "me" from "them" was the fact that I would be going home at the end of the day.
It would have been so easy to get through the day by not mentally registering the things that I didn't want to see. The feces smeared on the wall of the building behind me. People picking half-eaten food up off of the ground and eating it. People with visibly unchecked medical issues. It would have been so much easier to check out and get through the day by rote. But people, inherently, deserve to be seen. They deserve to matter.
In light of that, I decided that it was my personal mission to make each person feel like they were seen and to make them feel welcome. Not in a cloying or condescending way, but to really see them, to really shake their hand (if they allowed me to), and to honestly wish them a "Happy Thanksgiving." I was in their "home" so to speak, but I was there to serve them.
The vast majority responded in-kind, with a hearty "Happy Thanksgiving" in return. And they were people of all sizes, shapes, colors, and ethnicities. Some who looked sterotypically "homeless" and some who you would never predict to be in a line for a free meal. One man stopped and asked "May I have that?" I looked to see what he wanted. There was a tarp lying on the corner. I told him he could, and he asked if I would watch his things. His things were 2 large trash bags filled with his belongings. "Absolutely." I told him. He smiled and headed for the tarp.
One man stood outside of the line, with his arms crossed, just watching. He had small, eyes that looked happy even though he wasn't smiling. "Happy Thanksgiving, Sir." I told him. He walked up to me and said "I used to live on every corner down here." "You did?" I asked. "Yeah... every single corner." He shook his head. "Not anymore, but I wanted to come down here and see what was happening. I'm so blessed. Happy Thanksgiving, Sweetheart!"
A woman went into a port-o-potty and came out with different clothes on. Another volunteer said "You changed clothes!" She was happy that he noticed and began flirting with him in a fun way. Her confident attitude rivaled that of the most highly-paid super model, so I told her that she was looking fabulous, and that the now-empty area through the barriers was her runway. She strutted like Versace was paying her to do it. In old skinny jeans, a circa-1985 metallic jacket, and a wife-beater tied on her head to resemble an african head-wrap, no less. A police officer saw her and said "you changed clothes!" That brought another big smile to her face, and she asked him about his son. As he walked away, and she twirled and strutted toward the tables where dinner would be served, she told me that she had known that cop for 25 years. I saw her again later, and said "Twirl, Girl!" She said "You remember me!" I'm still thinking about her today.
So, I went to Skid Row to serve the people who lived there. To fill their bellies, and to bring smiles to their faces. What I found is that, in many cases, the smiles were already there. And if people who have so few of the comforts that I see as "necessities" can smile and count their blessings, then I need to be slapped twice for the tantrum I threw about the fact that my "computer isn't seeing my printer on my wireless network."
A little perspective can make a world of difference.