It’s been a few days since my unsuccessful attempt to track Tim down, my new friend who lives on the street. The day I tried, I had the promised care package for him and a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich and he was nowhere. With my commitment to provide assistance to the humans who live on the streets Downtown Los Angeles, I prepared the care packages filled with basic hygiene supplies, tuna and some other food items.
When morning came the skies opened up as a form of baptism for a city ravaged by COVID-19. There was no question on my mind, rain or shine I was to bring assistance to those the city is unable to care for. The ghost town that DTLA has become was gleaming in the rain. I turned onto Broadway because I knew that I would find my friends under the solid awnings of deserted stores. And there they were, huddled together yet honoring the physical distancing of the times. As I pulled out the carefully bagged items, I noticed a familiar face among the seven men. It was Tim- I screamed of joy and wanted the hug that man once I realized it was him. I remembered my desperate search for him a few days prior and the sleepless night that followed. With the signature bowing of his head, I recounted that very morning to him- and when I told him how upset I was that I couldn’t find him, he finally looked up at me and started smiling. I knew it was the first time in a while that he felt like he mattered to someone. There was Leroy, 79, who’s been on the street since 2013. A man with the kindest of eyes looking straight through me, knowing that we have both been “there”, the place of “hard times”. Edwin, 52, from Mississippi was the joker of the group with a colorful blanket wrapped around his head he made more sense than any of the city officials sitting in conference rooms debating the issue of homelessness.
We do not have a “homeless problem” we have a human problem in this city. We have plenty of money from Malibu to North of Sunset and all around but unless those very people travel down to Skid Row or the heart of Venice and talk to the street dwellers and get to know their stories and understand they are too someone sons’ or daughters’ not much will change. The city so far has not solved the “problem” yet there is a solution and thankfully some small non-profit organizations have taken into account these very human stories and are offering help, understanding the dynamics and needs of this group, the group of 58,000 people living on the streets.
I spoke with Darryl, Donnie, Tyrone, and many who wouldn’t give their names and even Jacob who has a Masters Degree in Music and used to teach Music Theory at LARS, he too lives on the street. Upon leaving, I asked the crew what they needed the most. In unison they said: blankets and masks. It’s been wet and cold in LA with all this baptism rain. On my way home I couldn’t stop thinking about how my friends would spend the night shivering under an awning. It didn’t sit right with me. They now had food, because I brought it to them but not the comfort of a warm blanket.
It was still coming down hard and my windshield wipers were not moving fast enough to clear the rain, yet somehow I got myself to the 99 ¢ Only Store. I bought 8 blankets, 7 for my friends and one extra for whoever needed it, plus tuna and other food items for them. Drove to my house, put my dogs in the car for company and headed back downtown.
The rain was committed to washing the city clean and as night was coming the temperatures dropped even more. I found Tim, Donnie and couple of newcomers at the same spot. As I got out of my car I screamed “I got you guys blankets”. Donnie was delirious in his joy, apparently just a minute prior he was wishing for a warm blanket. Tim was incredulous about the timing. It’s not timing, it’s God or Love, or whatever you want to call it. I sat with Tim for a bit and talked about family and his children, and we laughed amidst the obscurity of it all. I wished, I truly wished I wasn’t unemployed, I wished I had a trust fund or at least I wished I lived in a house with a guest house, so I could have him and his crew stay there and devise a plan to help them integrate back into society and have Leroy with his 79 years spend the last few years of his life in safety. I imagined Edwin become a stand-up comedian with his light-heart. I spent my last five years working with street dogs in the Peruvian Amazon and now working with humans on the home-front I couldn’t imagine my life any different. Somehow my heart was made this way. My friend called the other day and said “I find it beautiful that during this time when everybody is thinking about themselves you are concerned of other people.” “I don’t know how not to be.” I replied. I truly don’t. I don’t know how not to care for those in need.
Bewildered by the hue of Hill Street I headed up toward the Broad, abandoning my plan to go home immediately after distributing the blankets. At the distance I saw a heavy set person passed out on the sidewalk in the pouring rain, with her cart a few feet away. And then I saw humanity. A man, who also appeared homeless, was dragging a folded parking lot sign to create a makeshift shelter for the woman, defending her from the heavy rain. By now her whole wardrobe was washed away. He struggled to turn the sign to create refuge and by the time I got there he had given up and sat down defeated next to the comatose woman in the gushing rain.
I jumped out of my car with my camera dangling in space and offered my help. Maurice didn’t have a phone, a home, a family; he had himself, his wisdom and his humanity. I thanked him for his service and I called 911. By the time Rescue Team 3 arrived Miss Terri came to. It turned out that she was a resident at a nearby shelter. She was heavily intoxicated. The paramedics couldn’t give her a ride and with my car filled to the brim with boxes of food for the homeless and two dogs I couldn’t drive her either. I called an Uber. And I prayed. I prayed that a kind Samaritan of a driver would be ok to put Miss Terri on his/her backseat and drive her to the shelter. I was able to plead with the paramedics to stay until we could safely put her in the Uber.
Hassan Walukonde arrived within 3 minutes. He got out of his car as the courteous driver that he was and immediately “got” the situation. He excitedly said “ let me be of service” and with the most enthusiasm I had seen in a while tried to help lift Miss Terri. I gave him two of the brand new blankets to put on his backseat. Once Miss Terri was safely propped in his car and with the paramedics gone, Hassan told me that he was a volunteer case worker for the Red Cross’ Reconnecting Families Division and that he was studying International Politics at California State University and I knew for a fact that God, Creator, Allah, Jah, Shiva, Buddha was with Miss Terri all along. At the intersection of 2nd and Hill there we stood in our humanity. See, HUMANITY and LOVE doesn’t have an ethnicity or social status, we are humans before we are our “ethnicity” but some of us forgot. Maybe it is this time, in the time of the greatest of need that we show humanity to those who need it the most. For many on the outside it looked like this: a Romanian, a Ugandan, a homeless man and two Mexican paramedics helping a woman. To us who were there rejoicing in our humanity, no matter how grim the setting was, we smiled and we kept uttering innumerable “thank you”-s to one another.
I followed up with Hassan 20 minutes later, and indeed Miss Terri was a resident there. And today Hassan called to tell me he drove back to the shelter to return Miss Terri’s cart that she left in his trunk. Humanity is alive and well…for some.
Much gratitude to Peter Galliaert for funding these food drives.
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