In lieu of gifts, my roommate/sister and I used to host a Sunday brunch in early December for our closest and dearest friends. My roommate/sister and I are from a large family; we only know how to cook and host for at least eight people who will likely have seconds. So, at the end of brunch, we still had plenty of the quarter ham from Honeybaked.
So we decided that it would be nice to make ham sandwiches and give them to homeless people. The same afternoon, we bought four loaves of bread, mayo, and sandwich bag from the 99 Cent Store and started our assembly line. Since I worked closer to Downtown L.A., I was charged with distributing the sandwiches.
As soon as I left work that Monday, I headed to Skid Row, towards the Toy District, near 4th and San Pedro. I drove and looked for cardboard boxes and camps usually set up along the sidewalks. I drove further east near Gladys Park, then near the alleys. I didn’t see a lot of people. I thought that it was because it was dark and rainy; maybe they were at the shelters already. I found a lit and populated area and parked my car. I proceeded to walk and just asked people if they wanted a sandwich. Most of them ignored. I had three bags of sandwiches and I really just wanted to get rid of them. After awhile, I stopped asking and just gave whoever will look at me two or three and left one or two next to people under cardboard boxes. I had one bag left and decided to go to another area. At that point, it was well after 6:00 p.m.
As I drove around, I saw an amazing but incredibly sad scene. Homeless people emerged from the alleys and from behind large trucks, trees, and benches. They began to set up camp in front of the stores. I then realized that I didn’t see as many homeless people when I first arrived because they could not be in front of the stores. Once the stores were closed, they were able to lay down their shelter for the evening. Sadly, I only had one bag of sandwiches at that point. I left the area feeling helpless. I had to say ‘no’ and they still said ‘thank you’ for the thought. Others still asked me how my day was and tried to carry a conversation. I didn’t know what to do . I didn’t know how to make it better.
Many, many friends have asked me why I didn’t just go one of the many shelters and give them the sandwiches to distribute– both for ease and safety reasons. Honestly, I did not think about it. My sister/roommate and I just thought, “hey, we have sandwiches, let’s give them away to people who might want them.” That was as much planning as we did. We just didn’t want to waste any food.
In retrospect, the experience was an awakening and made me think about intentions when we volunteer and the safety in numbers. I have volunteered in homeless shelters numerous times and have rallied alongside homeless people for various rights. But on those occasions, I was part of a group; homeless people were part of a group. Homelessness people were part of a demographic; they were not individuals. There was no emotional connection. They were a cause.
I wonder how many of us have volunteered at a homeless shelter, but avoid looking at a homeless person when we see them in the street or freeway on/off ramp.
We may not be able to help them all, but we should at least look at them in the eye, acknowledge their presence, and recognize their humanity.