I was up at five am. At the shelter by six. Done with community service at two in the afternoon. At my car by a little before three.
By three thirty I was walking 6th street, which is like the street I did my community service work on if it had a housing problem. Which it already has, of course. I get far less stares and strange greetings now… it’s as if Skid Row has rubbed off on me.
As I neared San Pedro, I noticed a line of mothers and small children so long I couldn’t see the end of it. The church had said they were expecting close to twelve hundred. They weren’t exaggerating.
A pleasant man with a name tag showed me where to go. The church I was volunteering with was doing kitchen duty. I found some familiar faces and set to work preparing some food. I was impressed to see this church had an excess of volunteers. A couple people didn’t know where to help out so they began mingling with the families and chit chatting. I was happy to discover that the families had already been given tickets ahead of time for entrance, which reduced the likelihood of addicts coming and taking donations to sell.
I spent the next six hours dishing out chilli on hotdogs, sprinkling cheese and giving fruit away.
Almost every family was latino. We served over a thousand people and I only saw about twenty black families. This struck me as unusual since almost everyone outside on the streets was black and most of the people I served at the drop in center were also black. I asked a few questions and quickly found out that most of the families had taken buses in from east Los Angeles or Pico-Union.
They were large families who receive assistance because their incomes are low and they are at risk for homelessness.
My children went to school with these children when we lived in south Echo Park. 98% of them live below the poverty line, most with grandparents, aunts and uncles under the same roof.
Let me just state for the record that I LOVE these latino children. They are sweet spirited, shy and love to show off when you get them going. Some of the church members had done some face painting and they would point to their batman, spiderman or butterfly on their cheek for us to admire while we dished out their food. Some of them would proudly point to their new shoes and do that little bounce children do in new duds. It’s amazing how far a smile will go with a small child. I began to play a game as I scooped food, seeing how many smiles I could get. Some kids were harder to crack open than others.
Some pulled themselves up on their tip-toes to see the food, their eyes wide with hunger. Others were very opinionated about what goes on a hot dog… a few to the point of obvious disgust at anything but ketchup.
One group of three brothers all told us they wanted chilli on their hotdogs. We began the process of preparing their food when their mother stopped us and told us, no. They would have theirs plain with no chilli. It was then that I had flashbacks of the sharing a room with my children after they had chilli. I laughed to myself as the women around me looked confused.
Most of the children came with mothers… three or four or five children to every woman. Some had fathers with them as well. All of them looked tired, no doubt from waiting in line for so long. My heart melted for the babies who were tied on their mother’s back with a sheet. Who needs an Ergo.
When the last hot dog was given away and every family left with warm bellies and warm hearts, we began the clean up and tear down. I was incredibly impressed with the thoroughness of the job done by the volunteers. Unlike the less than desirable cleaning job the volunteers at the shelter I’d done my community service work at would do, the place we left was spotless.
Skid Row may be the end of the line for some people, but after tonight I’m starting to see that it is also the heart of the city from which so much love occurs. And like any heart, the one that belongs to this city has symptoms of its’ illness and health. We need to quit doing crack. We need to quit hiding the things that we’re ashamed of. We need to talk about our issues more. We need to embrace the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow in our land. And we need a LOT of compassionate encouragement instead of cold judgement.
A little understanding goes a long way. On Skid Row like everywhere else.
I feel honored to have spent time here and really put my finger on the pulse of our city. Don’t worry, I didn’t count the beats.