Tag Archives: homelessness

we hung about the tenderloin

I spent all of today in the Tenderloin with my health services cohort. During the day, we visited six different social service agencies, where we talked with MSWs working at those agencies about what they do, what it’s like working in that particular community, and why they do it.

As they are all in the same neighborhood, these agencies of course face many common challenges. But the most striking things that people brought up at every agency were (1) being short staffed (i.e., they usually have 9 staff but only have 3 right now; they usually have 4 social workers but only have two right now, and so on) and (2) how the recent California budget cuts have made a drastic impact on their organizations and the people they serve. Scary stuff, especially when you’re seeing the effects on the ground in the TL. It’s literally frightening to think about what that neighborhood would be like without the help of the agencies that are there. . .and those agencies are struggling, across the board.

Healthcare came up a lot, too, which also is not surprising. One person’s story particularly stuck with me: She is a 62-year-old woman who lost her job (and her health insurance) almost a decade ago. Despite not having had any major illnesses in her life, she came down with a rare illness three months after losing her coverage. Long story short, she had to spend a year in the hospital, and she ended up going completely bankrupt — lost her house, car, all of her cash and savings — due to the medical bills. She’s been homeless, off and on, ever since.

I feel like I’ve been thinking this a lot lately, but if that woman’s story isn’t an argument for the need for universal coverage, I don’t know what is. Of course, I personally believe that healthcare is a right for every person, not a privilege for those who can afford it. But as a response to people who disagree with that, who think that people who work get insurance and shouldn’t have to pay for coverage for people who don’t work, this story exemplifies that it is possible to be a hard-working, solidly middle-class person and lose everything because of the medical bills from one major illness that happens at the wrong time. The whole thing completely incenses me.

A highlight of the day for me was eating lunch at the St. Anthony Foundation dining room. It’s been a while since I’ve eaten at a food program, and it’s something I find a lot of value in. I was slightly worried that after today, I’d rethink my recent interest in and inclination to try out hospital social work — that I’d realize/remember that where I really belong is in a neighborhood like the TL, on the ground, on the streets. And while I do love working in communities like that, and don’t think it’s out of the question to ever be there again, I am still excited about trying something new and seeing how that goes. I should have more details about my first-year internship next week.

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California Knows How to Party. . .

This is a longtime due entry. I had written a lengthy one outlining highlghts of Weeks 1 and 2, but my handy-dandy Panther dashboard widget, DashBlog, deleted it.

So, we are now done with Week 3, and I am writing from the car, somewhere on I-5 South, heading to San Diego for the weekend. The San Diego staff found out last week that they were being evicted from their housing, and have to be out by tomorrow. . .so we’re going down to help out. Not sure if we’ll be helping them actually move or just giving them some comic relief and moral support, but it will be fun to see them and San Diego, nonetheless.

This summer has been crazy and great and hard as heck and frustrating and amazing all at once, already. I’ll try not to devote too much time or energy to Weeks 1 and 2, because they’ve already taken too much of that from me.

Week 1 was a group from Marin County, right across the Golden Gate Bridge in Tiburon. Only 15 of them — another groups was supposed to come, but their youth pastor left, and they cancelled. Their adult leaders were great, caring, really wanted the best for the kids. The kids were some of the brattiest people I’ve ever met. They enjoyed volunteering, but weren’t interested in putting that into any kind of context — spiritual, social justice, or otherwise. They wanted what they wanted, when they wanted it, to the extreme, presumably because that’s what they got at home. We had issues with them “breaking into” food that was supposed to be saved for later in the week, they didn’t respect our authority as staff, were always late and just doing whatever they wanted because they were the only group. Also, they hated Club, and were very vocal about it, so that made my job interesting. I’m sad to admit that we weren’t sad to see them go.

We had a good weekend, though, after they left. Our Regional Director, Jonathan, came into town late in the week, and hung out with us for the weekend. We just detoxed Friday night, after our $859 Costco run — got pizza from Hard Times Pizza Co. down the street, picked up a few 2-liters of Coke from 7-11, watched Napoleon Dynamite and the special features. Saturday, we were huge tourists and went to Anaheim to see “Downtown Disney.” It was pretty much a disappointment, definitely not all it’s cracked up to be as the happiest place on earth, but we had fun anyway, and when we got home, we got Svelte.

Week 2 consisted off two groups: 27 from Kerrville, Texas, and 28 from Eagan, Minnesota. The kids were great — they had lots of energy, were hard workers, had good attitudes, and did well interacting with each other and making new friends. The only problem we had with them was a case of short-shorts among the Minnesota girls, but hey, it wouldn’t be summer without a little 15-year-old butt cheek. The adult leaders, on the other hand, were a case of yuppie, upper/middle-class midwesterners, and down-home Texans. We pretty much had nothing but trouble from the Minnesota leaders — everything from a male and female one sleeping in the same room, to complaints about the ministry sites on Monday; from them questioning Tyler’s ability as a leader, to threatening to go home because they felt that the staff was “judging” their “ministry style;” leaving after church group time to go to McDonald’s without telling us where or even that they were going, to 7-11 runs during morning devotions; taking 2 and 3 sandwiches in their lunches because they were “hungry by the afternoon,” to ordering pizza to be delivered during footwashing Thursday night and having an adult leader signing the receipt between washing her youth’s feet. Fortunately, things ended on a good note, after Ricardo changed around the ministry schedule so they all go to to go to the Midnight Mission, because that was their definition of urban ministry and felt like they weren’t “making a difference” doing anything else. We also took them down to Skid Row one night for the KJ Tencza Homeless Experience — Ricardo gave them an amazing talk (including lines like, “You want a mission trip? Here’s your mission field!” and “You want to make a difference? Go out there and make one then, right now!”) and we let them loose on Skid Row with socks and Twinkies.

So, needless to say, I was feeling a bit down at the beginning of this week. I felt like people coming out here weren’t really prepared for what they were going to experience — they had these strict expectations and when things didn’t match them, they were upset. The adult leaders didn’t seem to understand that they had to be responsible for their kids, that they wouldn’t get any “down time,” that they would be tired and busy. As far as the general sentiment, it was kind of how I felt in San Francisco a few weeks ago: who are these people, who come to town for 4 days, to judge what is and isn’t “service”? I felt like they didn’t understand that their purpose in coming out here isn’t to “make a difference” — nothing they do in 4 days is going to make a difference, no matter how many scoops of mashed potatoes they put on homeless people’s trays, no matter how many kids they play kickball with, no matter how many cans of cream of celery soup they wipe off. Nothing I’m going to do in 3 months is going to make a difference, either, and it’s disputable as to whether anything I can do in my whole life will make a difference. Because the problem isn’t the individual homeless people on Skid Row, or the individual hungry families in Los Angeles County, it is the fact that there are so many of them, that they live in a society where people a few blocks away have BMW’s and beach houses and spend their summers in Europe. So the point of these kids coming out here is that they might open their eyes to a way of life they didn’t know existed, see that not everyone has everything they want, any time they want it. And the more people who understand that, who can see that face to face, the better our chances are for one day banding together and actually doing something to make a difference. I don’t know. Maybe that’s a lot to ask of high schoolers.

We had a good, relaxing weekend, though. Went to Ventura Beach with Gabriel from church to a cool Italian restaurant called C&O Trattoria — kind of like Buca DiBeppo’s with the large portions and family style, but not as obnoxious. When we got there, they put a big old bottle of their house wine on our table and told us about their “honor bar” system, and I told the waiter (who might have been Clay Aiken) to get it the heck away from me. I slept in on Saturday, and spent the afternoon with Tyler at Borders in Glendale drinking iced coffee and reading the latest issues of Paste, The New Yorker, and Cosmo. How’s that for intellectualism?

Week 3 made up for all the ruckus of 1 and 2. It was great, fantastic, all around — amazing kids, incredible adult leaders. A group of 20 from St. Helen’s, Oregon; 12 from Point Pleasant, New Jersey; 10 from Tacoma, Washington; and 6 from Santa Cruz. They knew how to serve and that was their reason for coming out here. They loved Jesus, loved to worship, had their heads on straight — I felt like some of them were on straighter than my own. Nobody complained the whole week, and they even took notes during my talks in Club! So it was a blessing to have them, it was refreshing, and encouraging, and made me remember why the heck I signed on to do this again. It was also good to have a week that felt like how a YouthWorks week is supposed to go, and good for Tyler and Ricardo to experience that once, too. So, Yay God.

Okay, almost to San Diego. Let’s hope they don’t put us to work too fast. . .

It Never Rains in Southern California. . .

We left San Francisco Wednesday on a cold, rainy morning; arrived to a balmy, sunny Los Angeles afternoon.

It was great to be back in the City, and surprisingly great to hang out with our Area. We have all gotten pretty tight and it was fun having a staff of 13 and only 14 youth. The first two days of programming went amazingly well; since I’m alumni, I got to be on the acting team, which meant doing Club, leading meals, and getting to go out in the community with the kids. They were a fantastic group — quite young, some only going into 8th grade — but by last night they had all opened up, loosened up, and grown up quite a bit. It was cool to see that change in them, and it got me excited about hanging with 8 more groups of high schoolers this summer.

I got to go to the Food Program both Monday and Tuesday. Walked into the office Monday morning to see Dean and Seamus sitting at the table! I thought they were both gone for good, since I didn’t see either of them last summer and Judy was weird about their whereabouts. Turns out they went on a 7-month bike trip to Northern California on the advice of some guy who told them about a great town — but Dean said when they got there, they realized it was “the armpit of California.” So they put Mijah back in her basket, hopped back on their bikes, and came home to the Haight. But anyway, it was great to see them; they told me they’d get me a job at the Food Program and said they were happy I was thinking about coming out there for good, since they tried, unsuccessfully, to kidnap me before. I talked with Judy a bunch — she’s still wonderful Judy — and hung out with Keith on Tuesday, trying to do damage control on both sides for a group of youth and adult leaders that just weren’t getting it. I don’t know if YW is going to continue to work at the Program — it takes a lot of effort to make that place work for us, and it can cause many headaches. But if a group does get it, and they usually end up getting it, it is an amazing place for them to be. I also realized that not being in San Francisco again with YW was absolutely the right decision for me this summer. I got really ticked when the group wasn’t enjoying the Haight — I took it personally, that they weren’t even giving it a chance — this place that has meant so much to me, has changed my life, has changed so many lives. They said they didn’t feel like they were doing anything to serve, and I’m like, who are you to judge what service is? If they would sit on the perimiter of that dining room for 10 minutes, they would get more out of it than if they worked for 10 days at any other “urban ministry.” So I don’t know, we’ll see what Ross and Carissa decide to do, since it’s their show this year. I was happy to be there for a few days, and solidify (as if I need to) the feeling that San Francisco is a place where I need to be.

So now we’re back, with a few days to detox and get settled before our first group comes. I feel ready. We’re a complete team — we picked up Becky from SFO Friday, and she’s great. She’s 24, teaches ESL at an elementary school in Fort Collins, did YW in West Virginia two years ago, and is an incredible guitar player — we’re both excited to play together a lot this summer. And, in this small YW world, we realized that we both went to the same site, the same summer (Welch, WV, 1999) for our first YW trip. I’m happy to be sharing a 15×20 room with her for the next 2 months. Nadine is coming here Friday to help us finish everything up, and will be here for our whole first week, which will be fun.

One thing I really love so far about LA is the weather. In the mornings it is always dreary and smoggy. Then it gets crazy hot during the day, sunny and gorgeous. Then at night, it cools down so you need to take a sweatshirt if you go anywhere. It’s pretty much perfect.

I finally got down to Skid Row last week before we left for San Francisco. I was floored, to say the least. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen — whole blocks packed with people, blocks lined on both sidewalks with tent after tent set up. And I felt uncomfortable — very uncomfortable — going to the Haight this week just reaffirmed that. There’s something different here (or maybe something different there) that is going to take some getting used to. But it’s a learning experience, and if I really do want to pursue some kind of homeless ministry/public service/soup kitchen type thing, I’ve got some learning to do. Carl, the homeless guy that hangs out in the ampitheatre outside our church (where we’re going to have Club) is also a part of it — I went out to talk to him last week, and felt uncomfortable, like I didn’t want to be there. I think it was because he was so close to home — before, I could go hang in the Haight, then go back to my nice church in the Mission to live and eat and be safe and happy and removed. But here, it’s in your face, it’s in your back yard — literally. So, it is going to be a challenge, but a good one.

We went out to Santa Monica last nite; it’s weird how close all these “famous” places are to us, but they are all their separate cities, communities, everything, and none of them are in LA proper. The 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica is quite interesting — a combination of St. George Street in St. Augustine and Walnut Street in Shadyside. There are lots of ritzy shops, movie theatres, coffee places, street performers doing Beatles and Hendrix and Dylan covers, and a plethora of homeless people camped out on benches and fancy fountains. We also went down to the Pier, kind of a cheesy amusement park/carnival, but there was beach access, so we walked along there for a while and I dipped my toes in the Pacific. It felt quite symbolic to be in front of the Pacific Ocean again. The last time I saw it was with Jut in Big Sur last summer, and the last time I was actually init was my San Francisco YW summer. So it felt good to be back but in a different place, still carrying both those things with me, but in different capacities.

Made our first Costco run of the summer today. Spent $873.90 — not bad, considering we had nothing here, and even though we only have 25 people to feed next week, we have to buy bulk. It only took about 2 hours, and was fairly stress-free. A good start, for sure.

We went to this awesome warehouse in Hollywood this afternoon that gave me a new appreciation for that poor rundown part of town. A guy from our church is the warehouse manager at Grosch Scenic Rentals, a company that has been making backdrops for movies, commercials, concerts, etc for 60-some years. They used to do work for Walt Disney when his studio was in Hollywood; they made and still rent out the beach backdrop used in Jaws; they are currently working on backdrops for Eminem’s fall tour and wallpaper at the Cheesecake Factory. So I think we’re going to take the kids there for an evening activity, show them a little about Old Hollywood.

Becky and I went to the Y to play beauty shop this afternoon — we took long, leisurley showers and even used the blow dryers there to dry our hair. Then we drove around Burbank for a bit and finally decided to eat at a good Mexican place called the Green Cactus — I ate a burrito the size of my head, and it was delicious.

So, I’m going to go downstairs to post this (finally, it’s like a 3-day-long entry) and then come up to jam a bit with Becky, get to bed early, and enjoy my last day of freedom tomorrow — probably celebrate with a trip to Amoeba. . .