Tag Archives: community

Day 35: 40 Hours Remaining

I walked the sidewalk in the predawn hours with a box filled high with gifts. I was a little nervous since I had just found out that felons can’t carry pepper spray so I had to leave the one I was given at home. Fortunately, most of the people I passed by now know me by name and also seem to know that if they mess with me, I know them by name too.

It was freezing cold and I don’t own a jacket.

Both of these reasons impelled me to walk faster.

It was going to be my last day doing community service work on Skid Row. Too bad I still don’t have a probation officer to impress with how quickly I did it. Only forty more hours and those are assigned with CalTrans.

I was able to donate a clock to replace the teenie one they have hung up in the bed area. If I had a dollar for every time a client stared it at, squinting, and asked, “Hey, Ms. Lady… what time is it?” I’d be a rich felon.

I was also able to donate a bag of black pens. I’m sure they’ll last a day or two. And a couple of big bottles of hand sanitizer which is always running low.

My children baked cookies for the staff the night before. They are really good at it. Who knew?

But my favorite thing to give away was all the little gifts I had collected over the past weeks for the individual staff members. I had been anxiously awaiting today, my last day, to spend the whole day just loving the people who give and give and give in a part of the city that nobody ever sees. I’ve been aching to give back to them, to let them know how amazing they truly are, even when they rarely hear it.

I gave Wendy a little necklace with a silver starfish and the story of the starfish. If you don’t know the story, it’s here.

I was super blessed to pass along someone’s study Bible for Jim so he can prepare for his sermon in April.

I brought Linda a book of encouragements to read in the morning before she greets the endless line of people bringing her bags to be checked in at the front counter.

Pilar got an angel pendant to remind her of the thankfulness I’ve had for her protection and kindness during the night shifts I did.

Everyone got a little something that I hope and pray will remind them, if only for a moment, of the difference they make in the world. I want them to know there is gratitude for what they do that is deep and abiding.

Most of all, I brought something inspiring for Eric. It really wasn’t much, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I gave him one of those window candles homes sometimes have back east or during Christmastime here. I was once told that the tradition began during the civil war when families would keep a candle lit at night if they had a son or father or husband away in battle. It represented the warmth of the home they were going to someday come home to, the hope of their return.

I thanked Eric for the light he holds in the darkness for soldiers who have lost their way. His outpost is far off in the trenches, alone in the dark. But the light of hope he holds is very real for those who are ready to end their travels.

The flowers I received from staff at the shelter... The most beautiful I have ever been given.

A few of the staff members pitched in together and bought me a dozen yellow roses which I promptly placed in the only vase we had… a water bottle with the top cut off. It brought me to tears and is the most beautiful bouquet I have ever received.

I stayed an extra half an hour until the shift’s quitting time. Jimmy, a staff member from the next shift gave Wendy and I a ride to our cars. As we drove, he pointed out a white hipster with a camera, taking video of the humanity occupying San Julian. He panned down the street, shooting the sidewalk tents and inhabitants.

“Why they gots ta do that?” Jimmy asked.

“Do what?”

“Why they gots to always come down here and take pitchers an go home an show their friends and laugh at us?”

Even though he is staff, this is Jimmy’s home. He can’t even begin to understand why people on the outside would be documenting Skid Row. There is so much work to be done here. Not to “clean up” Skid Row or its’ people. What needs to be done is to lift the sights of its’ residents. I will not believe progress has been made here until Jimmy is laughing at the guy with the camera and calling him a tourist.

When I gave my last hug and got to my car, I thought I knew a thing or two about Skid Row. But in one hour I was headed back to visit a different building, a block north of where I had done my community service. Some of the members of a church I’ve visited recently in Los Angeles were handing out new shoes, clothing, food and Thanksgiving groceries to families. I was about to find a drastically different dynamic only a stone’s throw away.

Day 34: 46 Hours Remaining

Mothering is the thread that is interwoven through the fabric of life.

This morning I was sweeping in the bed area when one of the women who had slept there during the night hurriedly packed up the last of her belongings. My presence was an indication that she was running late.

“How are you this mornin?” She asked me with a big smile.

“Good. Good. And you?”

“I’m doing great. Really blessed. I start class today. All I need to do is start classes and show that to my P.O. and then my next hearing I might get my kids back. I miss them so much.”

“Oh? How many you got? How old?” My sweeping naturally paused at this moment, as it would for any mother.

“Well, there’s Jimmy, he’s just started kindergarten. And Patrice is three and then little Johnny is almost one.” She beams with that motherly pride.

My heart breaks that they slept last night away from their mama.

“What’d they get taken for?” I have a feeling I’ve grown about as confrontational as everyone else here.

“Drug possession. I went to jail and they went to my mom’s.”

So many broken families. And the cycle reproduces itself quite sustainably. Once you lose that glimmer of hope– once you snuff out that candle of a belief that this is just temporary– you become a permanent fixture of this world. It’s a different city than the one you’re used to. Things are dimmer, grimier, more in the moment. There is still life where ever you have drawn your own cliff, no matter who you are.

All it requires is a belief that human beings can, indeed, walk on water.

Wendy tells me a little later about how her own mother and father died when she was young. “I was raised by my aunt. That was a blessin, that was.”

What I thought was a tragedy, was highlighted as a blessing by Wendy. If only I could bottle her positive attitude and take it with me everywhere!

I was rolling toilet paper when a very slight, white woman made her way into the bed area with her head down. A partial paralysis of the right side of her body could not mask the fact that she was emotionally distraught.

“Ms. Wendy… I… I need a phone…” and here she trailed off into tears. It was hard to make out what she was saying under her muffled sobs.

She took a breath and tried again. “Please, Ms. Wendy… I need a phone… I just found out my mother died.” She sobbed again.

“I just can not be out here right now. I need someone to come pick me up.”

Wendy dialed the number on her own cell phone and handed it to the woman who tried her hardest not cry as she left a voicemail for someone. My heart broke for her. She looked like she was in her thirties, about my age. I wondered if I could have been in her shoes if situations in my life had been different.

How many moments of homelessness were averted in my life by the care of others, the provision of family and friends or just being in the right place at the right time to land some work. How many moments of hopelessness have I sat in where I would’ve given in to self destructive behaviors had I been around the wrong people? How many health issues did I avoid by having health insurance, being partially raised by a surgeon and a nurse and being given the ability to become educated in medical care?

So many things we take for granted.

After lunch I walked back to the shelter and passed her sitting at the bus stop. No doubt on her way to say goodbye to her mother a day too late.


Day 25: 105.5 Hours Remaining

I love the rain. But the rain means something totally different on Skid Row. The mad dash by street dwellers to our gate and the cries of “we’re full!” from the staff creates a mild pandemonium.

Carrying recently dried and folded laundry across the courtyard in the pouring rain proves to be semi unproductive.

Jeremy tells of how he got his degree in economics from Washington State on a basketball scholarship when I was two years old. He doesn’t look past 40. Paul talks about how he was moved around a lot as a kid which kept him away from gangs and drugs. Linda tells of how she got her Drug Counselor certification at one point but doesn’t work in that field now.

Everyone has a story about how they ended up working here. How few of us actually do what we were trained to do.

Even though I am a fellow felon, I still feel very different. If another client calls me Katy Perry or Lindsay Lohan or Snowball, I swear people will be grateful I can’t own a gun anymore. Today’s nickname, Lois Lane, gets a pass. I like Lois Lane.

It’s black culture. Try as I might, I feel like I’m experiencing life as a foreign exchange student. Here in my own city. There is a language, a manner and a comradare among them that I have never had with people who identify as “white” or “caucasian.” By the way, did you know the word “caucasian” refers to the Caucasus region of what is now Russia? I’m not Russian, my friend. Even if my name is spelled the Russian way.

I honestly need to say that I am jealous of this family attitude. But necessity breeds community and white folks typically don’t have any.

I’ve never been offered more couches and more food off of someone’s plate in my life. Today, Jim offered me half of his small lunch. He had nothing with which to buy his meal and I assume his cupboards are bare. Today was pay day so everyone looked hungry. Jim found two very old microwave burritos he had forgotten he had stored in the freezer. And as he sat down, planning to eat, he noticed I didn’t have any and he gave me one of them.

It was such a strange comparison to my deep struggle to find help and support in the suburbs where I have to pay people to spare some time for my children.

Jim is still preparing for his sermon in April, so he asks Greg if he knows of any good “preachin Bibles.” Greg pauses for a moment and then says “Scoffield Study Bibles are real good.” Jim pauses and then says, “Well, my pasto’ didn’t have nothin like that, but he gave me a real good preachin Bible. It’s called The Message. Have you heard of it? It’s real nice.”

Jim may not have the Scoffield, but he sure does have the teachings of Jesus sewn into his heart. You know, the ones about giving and sharing and loving with brothers and sisters who don’t have what you have. Sometimes where places are the darkest, light shines the brightest.

Day 22: 129 Hours Remaining

My friend Debbie came for a lunch visit today.

Debbie is black. She was also accosted on the short walk from her parked car to the shelter. She didn’t even make it before she had to kick someone, or, as she put it “defend myself from my own people.” So she turned around and went back to her car and picked me up in her vehicle.

Poor girl couldn’t find her way out of a basket. She was so lost in skid row. I finally directed her away from a throng of street dwellers who seemed very interested as she drove by slowly. Eventually she caught sight of me and her smile lit up the entire street.

“Tell your friend to quit smiling so much.” Matt sarcastic poked fun as I left the shelter behind for a moment.

So strange to see a member of my old life pushed up against the backdrop. She seemed a little shocked. I thanked her for taking the time. She said everyone should see this.

Over lunch we discussed midwifery politics, my case and then landed on the question that has burned through my brain for 21 solid days. Why is nearly everyone on skid row black? I mean, really. Another black friend of mine said he once stopped on 6th and San Pedro and thought, “Wow. So this is where the black folks are.”

We pondered all the various reasons… Katrina, lack of education, neurological predispositions to various drugs. But nothing seemed to fit the bill.

After she left it occurred to me. Almost everyone here has a record. And now I’m convinced I’m partially looking at the end result of racism in the criminal system. Yes, the chicken may indeed come before the egg. The cause and effect needs to be looked at from the opposite perspective to connect the telling dots.

I saw the same thing in jail. Almost everyone was black there too. And the defendents in the courthouse… at least the ones with a yawning court appointed attorney.

And now the shelter staff looks shinier against that back drop. Most of them are survivors as well as felons. And they’ve found the will to turn around and make a difference. Not a difference for everyone, or even most, but a difference in some. A difference in a few. Hell, even a difference in ONE is an eternal reward.

An 82 year old man walked on the grounds and proclaimed himself homeless. I have a hard time telling the age of black men. They have this perpetual youth thing down. I would not have thought he was as old as he was if he didn’t tell us. Perhaps the fact that he walked with a cane and was slower than the other men would’ve given me a hint.

He was beautiful.

Another older client gawked at his age and told us that he didn’t want to live to be 82. He philosophized that growing that old means that all your loved ones are gone. He said he doesn’t want to say goodbye to everyone and be all alone.

One of the staff piped up, “I wouldn’t mind. I want to live to be a real old man. I’d just make me a whole new setta friends.”

It’s this positive attitude that makes the staff glow.

Eventually Eric came out and met with him. He spoke kindly to him and slowed with the respect children are rightfully taught to show their elders. The fact the man was even homeless was a shame on all of us. Eric slowly walked him to his office and found him a safe place to go for shelter. And with that I began to see that these case workers are doing the work of all of us.

Day 12: 200 Hours Remaining

I can’t believe it’s only day 12. I feel like I’ve been here much longer than what constitutes less than two and a half work weeks.

Today was by far the busiest day of my shelter cleaning career. I kept myself busy doing laundry again and tried to see how many sheets I could fold to match the first one I folded. All the sheets are donated so they are not typically the same size as the last. Some are twin, some are long twin, some are full sized. So, it can actually become quite a challenge to make them look like my mother’s closet with all the folded edges out, matching perfectly, stacked edge to edge. When I was done the closet looked like a hospital’s from 1920. Everything even, bleached white and neat.

Of course, unlike the nurses in 1920, I was wearing gloves.

Everything gets stolen in the shelter. I walked from the laundry room to the closet and back and the pen I was using was already swiped by a client. The shiny handles off of the water faucets in the mens bathroom have all been broken off since I’ve been there. I brought 12 cleaning rags to use because there was only one when I started working and there is now only one left again. The bleach and toilet paper are under lock and key.

Who steals dirty cleaning rags?

There is a madness and an anger that is the push and pull, the tide that ebbs and flows within the four walls of the courtyard. One moment someone is grinning at you like the cheshire cat and the next moment someone is so angry you’re afraid they might stab someone with the fork they are eating their lunch with. But how is this different from working with birth?

And then there is always Eric’s constant, unshifting watch whenever he is not counseling a vet. He always stands on the sidelines somewhere, staring into the crowd as if he is waiting for someone. Or perhaps prepared for something we know nothing about and will hopefully never see. Whatever he’s looking for, it feels like he would never miss it even in his sleep.

I asked Wendy what branch of the military he served in before he started serving the vets. She didn’t know. We both guessed the army. We have biases from working here about the different branches and it was funny to see that our biases line up. The marines are a little silly at times. The coast guard gets fat and lazy. The navy always looks like it belongs on the beach. The air force is eyeing the ladies. But the army never comes home from war.

As I was leaving there was a girl fight in the street. There was hair pulling and cussing and pushing and clawing. A few of the staff came to the gate to watch and comment that the skinny girl didn’t know what she was doing. I followed the two women down the street as they continued to try and punch each other senseless for a half a block toward where my car was parked. The skinny girl who didn’t know how to fight won and the chubby girl dabbed at her bloody nose and bruised face as 15 or so homeless men encouraged her to give up. She spit at one of them and told them she would never give up.

I’ve come to conclude that there is nothing different on these streets than I could see any day at South Coast Plaza or Beverly Hills. The people are ill, physically, mentally and spiritually. The only difference between skid row and the rest of the world, is the people here show it all on the outside.

Day 1: 280 Hours Remaining

The tedious driving to south central only reveals that the Assistance League office at that location no longer exists. How typical. How joyous. More wasted gas with a court ordered cessation of income. Hoorah.

I’ve learned my lesson so I decide to attempt a call to the next office listed. Ring. Ring. Ring. Times fifty. Nope, that won’t work either.

When all else fails, the traffic court is always open. That beauty of beurocracy… the Hill Street Hilarious. The paperwork says the Assistance League is on the 2nd floor, 9th window. The 9th window says the Assistance League is at the 2nd window. The hours of operation are different than the paperwork. More waiting and more parking fees.

Finally there is a person. She is mousy, hispanic and full of smiles. Relief washes over me. A HUMAN! She asks me to fill out paperwork, which has become my full time job these days. Boxes to check and my vital stats repeated in numerous places. I mark that I have been convicted of B&P 2052, a felony.

She types into her computer and looks up over her glasses. “Whatchoo get arrested for?” she asks with a puzzled expression.

“Practicing medicine without a license. I caught a baby.”

“That’s a new one.” She purses her lips with that ghetto distate. “Hold on.”

She returns with an apologetic expression. “I’m sorry Mija. Looks like ju gonna have ‘drive or ride and animal’ on jor paperwork. Nobody in here knows why but da computer says dat every time I type in jor conviction number.”

Great. Not only am I a felon, but now whoever I do my community service work for is going to think I was arrested for bestiality.

“How many hours ju got?”

“240 plus 40 with CalTrans.”

She types some more and gives me three options. She tells me my options are limited because very few places for community service want felons. Two of the places have hours that would require me to pay money for childcare I don’t have since I can no longer work.

“Ooooh, Mija… this one might work for ju. It’s with the VOA and it’s nights.”

“Perfect.” I tell her. Skid Row, here I come: a midwife convicted for riding an animal. Maybe they’ve confused me with Boudicca.*