Los Angeles. Home to the stars. Home to dream-chasers and new beginnings. Home to movie premiers. Home to diversity. And the homeless capital of America.
Over 250,000 men, women, and children sleep on the cold concrete streets in a city where many of the world’s wealthiest and most influential individuals reside in luxury five bedroom homes tucked away in the Hollywood Hills with their sports cars and pools and 52-inch flat screen televisions.
250,000 buried in a population of 4,094,764 doesn’t seem so bad, right?
A large percentage of this population is accounted for on a few square blocks called Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. A broken community begging to be rebuilt. Makeshift tents created out of ragged garments and clothes, shopping carts piled miles high with bottles and glass and other men’s trash line the sidewalks and streets.
Boardman, Ohio – my home town – on its best day has a population of 30,000.
Every single person in my hometown is homeless here in Los Angeles. In fact, it would take 8 Boardmans to accommodate the homeless population in Los Angeles. Would you like a delicious paradigm shift with your coffee this morning?
After a harrowing week battling a creative depression, a financial meltdown, and a sense of hopelessness, I find myself this morning in the comfort of my own home, my fingertips at the comfort of my own computer miraculously brought back to life because a friend unexpectedly repaired it for me.
That particular young lady with a heart so big and full of passion it hurts, the one who lent me her bike—her main source of transportation—now has her wheels back because someone else was kind enough to give me a racing bike that would make Lance Armstrong envious.
I found a note and a gift on my pillow Monday night from twelve outstanding men of God; a note that told me to keep going, to keep fighting, because they’re all counting on me. Because they believe in me. A gift that bought me a bit more time.
I had a job interview yesterday with a very successful production company, and more interviews set up. By next week I may actually have to turn down work.
I woke up this morning to write this blog from home—a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood on Melrose Avenue with chalkboard walls and shelves lined with books—for the very first time because someone else lent me a computer that can actually access the Internet. As I sat down and prepared to open up a vein, I couldn’t help but wonder where all this has come from.
With all my comforts stripped away, I came closer to the streets than myself and anyone reading this right now has probably come before.
It’s only until we have nothing that we are free to see everything.
Last Thursday I took the subway home. On my way up the escalator I watched a girl—nineteen, twenty-one at best—stagger her way up the stairs beside me, continuously grabbing for an invisible ledge just out of reach in front of her. The clothes she wore hung from her body the way a dress does from a wire hanger. When I made it to the top, I glanced back, losing the fight against the urge not to look. I watched her sigh with relief now that the arduous journey was over. Then she unclasped her belt, popped the button on her jeans, and unzipped, sliding her pants and underwear to her ankles, squatting, relieving her bladder on the middle of the platform as passers-by departed the trains and Metro station.
A few weeks ago a pot-bellied man of thirty wearing a red t-shirt too small and sweatpants asked me for cash or drugs. I smiled and told him I had neither, but if he was hungry I’d buy him a sandwich and some water around the corner. He smiled back, nothing but a gaping black hole and tongue, all but twelve of his teeth missing. Two years before he went homeless and still had insurance but no money, he smashed in his own teeth—one-by-one—to get shot up at the dentist’s office so he could feel something, anything. Now he’s broke and homeless. His sister lives in Tucson. She has his license and social security card. He has a red t-shirt that’s two sizes too small. He wants his ID back from her so he can apply for insurance and knock out the remaining twelve teeth in his head so one last time he can feel something, anything.
In West Hollywood (where I used to live) I watched a large, overweight blind woman sit on Fountain Avenue defecting herself day after day in public, and trying to wash those clothes in the Laundromat a few doors down.
On my walk home each night along Sunset and Vine I pass more than two dozen different men and women sleeping on the concrete, huddled inside of bus stops, spitting words only they can understand. Some of them shoeless or nearly naked, all of them dislocated from society.
Think about how you feel after you stay up studying all night, playing video games, partying, or taking care of your newborn child. After 24 hours up, the world starts to fade away into a haze. Your reaction time diminishes, and you’re slow to process answers as well as requests. 36 hours up and the planet moves in slow motion, the stars bending between you.
When it’s time for bed the next night, you sink into your mattress and Down Comforter and Egytian Cotton sheets and feather pillows. Forgot it. Try lying down in your driveway instead and see how well you sleep that night. Do that for a week straight and see how many back problems and mental issues you come away with. Now surround yourself with haggard-looking strangers encapsulated with a debilitating odor and sunken eyes. These strangers have been admiring your nice shoes from afar and haven’t slept in months. Now you’re sleeping with one eye open all night.
After a hard day’s work you go home to a warm meal, crack a beer on the couch, take a hot shower, and change into more comfortable clothes. Now try that routine wearing the same exact clothes to bed and to work every single day.
I ran away from home when I was seventeen. It was a Wednesday night. I was working Monday through Friday in a meat-packing plant at the time. All I had when I left that night were the clothes on my back—a ripped pair of jeans, Doc Martin boots, and a gray t-shirt that said Dirusso’s Sausage—all splattered with flecks of raw meat and poignant with the smell of sterilizing bleach. 24 hours in those clothes and I was a mad man. I went back to work the next day in the same outfit—I still needed money before I could run any farther—and was a miserable, foul, wreck by the end of the day.
Are you starting to understand?
The first time I hit Skid Row with my friends Matthew, Dylan, and Chad, I brought a camera with me. I compiled the footage I shot into a 60 second video you can watch below. I was stared down, ignored, and shouted at. I was fortunate enough to get a few amazing individuals to explain Skid Row to the camera.
As Matthew and I drove off, the camera slung over my shoulder, a man charged from across the street, his voice full of violence and desperation: “What are you doing? Just coming down here and tagging us like animals? That’s all you ever do! You come to the jungle and film us like animals. Why don’t you come down here and try to change something?”
Matthew said, and it was all he could say, “We’re coming back. I promise.”
And we did come back.
And we still go back.
Not to film them, but to love them, to connect with them, and show them someone cares by asking how their day is, what their talents and passions are. We buy the food and drinks they try to sell, play basketball with them on their courts, and listen to their music. I only brought my camera once, and I’ll never bring it back. I would never want someone invading my home with a camera, and I will show them the same respect.
Because these are people. Just like you and me. They are talented. They are athletic. They are musicians. But they’ve been casted out by society because somewhere in life they took a wrong turn and no one gave them a second chance. How many wrong turns have you made? How many times have you been blessed with a second chance you don’t deserve?
The homeless on skid row don’t want to hear about religion or hope. They are fed three meals a day by missionaries and high school youth groups, and soup kitchens. They don’t need fed. They need mercy, compassion, friendship. They need a second chance. Organizations like the Jonah Project and the Downtown Women’s Center don’t just offer food and clothes. They offer shelter and counseling. Bible studies and beds. Free classes to get a GED. Computer centers and libraries to apply for jobs. This is what it’s about. Mercy.
In the book of Matthew Jesus says, “I’m after mercy, not religion. I am here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”
There will always be so much more we can do, and I haven’t done enough. I need your help to do more. Both the Jonah Project and the Downtown Women’s Center are moving to larger facilities this month and next to better care for the 250,000 homeless in Los Angeles. If every person who reads this today is able to donate one dollar, thousands of people could have a bed to sleep in tomorrow night. If you feel compelled to help, I am providing an option here and now. Just click on the links above and donate.
Are you starting to understand? No one in your world would find it acceptable to see you sleeping on the street. So we should not find it acceptable to see anyone else in the same situation.
We are the change that needs to be seen.
© Copyright 2010 Make It MAD