Opinion: If you don’t think L.A. needs Measure H, try volunteering on skid row for a week
Every weeknight, a nondenominational group of Angelenos that I’m a member of — called the Monday Night Mission — meets to hand out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the residents of skid row. Our nightly routine is always the same: We meet at the Burger King on Cesar Chavez to assemble hundreds of sandwiches, along with an occasional tray of hot food and various fruits. After the food is prepped and packed, the group’s founder, Mel, gathers us in a circle to give the same security briefing he has repeated verbatim for the last six years since he founded the group. New recruits and old hands alike are warned of potential exposure to staph infections and tuberculosis, “among a lot of other bad stuff,” as Mel puts it. We are told to keep our eyes out for knives, improvised weapons and, most important, exposed hypodermic needles.
Then we head to the sidewalk outside the Midnight Mission to feed the gathering line.
Today, Los Angeles County residents head to the voting booth to determine the fate of Measure H — an initiative that would raise the county sales tax a quarter of a percentage point to fund services that could potentially help get 45,000 people off the streets, and keep another 30,000 people from becoming homeless.
Some have suggested L.A.’s taxes are already too high to pass H. Some have argued the homeless already have sufficient help.
What follows is an account of a typical week “working the line” on skid row with the Monday Night Mission. You can judge for yourself how much help the homeless need.
It’s overcast and cold. Eager volunteers — some new, others who have been involved since Mel started back in 2011 — fill the concrete tables of Burger King’s patio area with 200 bottles of water, three cases of bananas, a box of about 60 donated white tee shirts and enough supplies to make 400 PB&J sandwiches.
After Mel’s security briefing we load up and drive a half-mile to skid row in a tight caravan. As we arrive at the Midnight Mission, the line outside already stretches half a city block, almost the length of the mission itself.
I scan the eyes of the newcomers to our group. Some have never seen skid row. Others have never really experienced homelessness in any capacity. They look at the gutters and see ancient trash piles, sandwich baggies filled with feces, scattered used needles. A few volunteers catch a man relieving himself against the Mission’s wall and quickly avert their eyes, a mix of polite courtesy and confusion.
It’s busy on the Row tonight. Despite Mel’s assurances that the cold weather makes things a bit calmer, there’s tension in the line. It’s mid-month, which means the residents are quickly running out of their monthly disability payments, food stamps, welfare, etc. Some will have gone through their money on a dozen nights of fast food and hotel rooms with running water. Many will have exhausted their funds on their poison of choice. Nearly all are broke again by that wretched third week, when they move back out onto the Row, hungry and penniless.
We assemble on the sidewalk and begin handing out sandwiches. We ask each person that comes through our line his or her name, which we then collectively respond back with an exuberant “Hello!” It’s our version of a red carpet roll-out.
Toward the end of the night, an elderly woman, barely 5 feet tall and probably close to 80 years old, pulls an overloaded shopping cart in front of us and stuffs nearly an entire sandwich into her mouth in one bite. She stands, staring at us three feet away, and babbles incoherently. Somebody at the front of the line tells our volunteers his name is “Clockwork Orange,” so we come back with, “Hello, Clockwork Orange!” This sends the old woman into a frenzy. A terrifying look crosses her face and she throws the rest of her sandwich to the ground in front of us. “I AM CLOCKWORK ORANGE!” she screams before falling, cackling with laughter, onto the sidewalk. The volunteers don’t know whether to help or ignore her as they load up the truck for the night. We tighten the group and walk in a solemn line back to our cars.
I meet a homeless man in his early twenties named Bob. He tells me that he grew up taking beatings from his stepfather, that the CIA is hunting him. He might have to kill someone tonight. I try to take his threat with a grain of salt. He seems pretty harmless. I give him a fist bump and tell him to keep warm, to which he replies, “Take care. After all, you never know when you’ll see a person again.”
We pack a bag of food, fruit and water for them that should last for days. The father seems fairly grateful, the kids, oblivious. They don’t know where they are yet. They are still young and smiling. Some of the volunteers have tears in their eyes.
Beyoncé is at Dodger stadium tonight. Traffic getting to the Row was horrific. The city practically shut itself down to welcome Queen Bey. The residents I talk to on the Row aren’t quite as enthusiastic. “The music doesn’t reach us down here,” one guy says to me, chuckling. “I don’t think she’ll be coming this way anytime soon.”
It’s a bit warmer tonight. We’re handing out sandwiches, fruit and hot pasta with bread. It’s always a good night when we have plates of hot food. It usually brings out the best in the residents. But not on this night.
We see the crowded sidewalk part as a couple of men come through, pushing people to the sides. They’re leading the way for a severely handicapped man in an old, oversized wheelchair. Despite the cold he’s wearing nothing but a large, makeshift adult diaper. It quickly becomes clear that the diaper hasn’t been changed in days, possibly weeks, and that he’s in no shape to change it himself. His shoeless foot is dragging on the pavement under his chair, raw and bloodied. The two men accompanying him shout for help and a few of our volunteers immediately go to assist. While the volunteers try to talk to the man in the chair the two assistants ask for meals for themselves, a request we happily oblige. As soon as they receive the food they turn and walk in the opposite direction, leaving us with the disabled man. It becomes apparent that they simply found him sitting in the mission and brought him out to skip the long line.
Two of our bravest volunteers hoist the man up in the chair so his foot doesn’t drag on the ground. The smell is nearly unbearable. The man is incoherent and completely unable to get himself back into the mission, so the volunteers wheel him back in.
At the end of the night, Mel reminds us that it takes courage to do the right thing. “No matter what happened tonight, the people in line saw that we stayed,” he says. “And because we stayed, everybody in that line got something to eat tonight.”
We have fewer volunteers than usual. On my way to meet up with the group in front of the Mission, I see several cop cars speed down San Julian with lights and sirens blaring. They block off San Julian and set up a perimeter down the road.
A resident on the corner tells me that a young man was shot dead by another young man, and that apparently it was drug related. I rejoin the group, answering questions from the newcomers about the status of the young man. “Pretty sure he’s dead,” I tell them.
I’m saddened at the lack of compassion in my voice.
Like anywhere, there are moments of joy on skid row. But, for those of us who volunteer, there is an unbearable amount of sadness. We’ve seen this show night after night. We want its run to finally end.
The only way to end this wretched show is to stop passing the buck. If you don’t think L.A.’s homeless situation is dire enough to justify Measure H, the Monday Night Mission will be waiting for you anytime, five nights a week, 7:30 sharp at the Burger King on Cesar Chavez. You can come meet this cast of characters anytime. They’re performing their parts, day and night, every minute of the year, all across the city. The price of admission is free and you don’t have to dress up.
Jason Robbins is a freelance writer born and raised in Los Angeles. He resides in the San Fernando Valley with his wife and two dogs and is currently working on his first novel.
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