What strikes me most about homelessness in Aspen is that a.) it exists at all and b.) most school children can list all of the homeless by name or at least by identifying characteristics. Think about that for a moment. Our town is so small and so privileged and we have so few people suffering from true homelessness that our children can tell you about each one.
And you don’t have to live in a fancy-pants neighborhood to call yourself privileged; any small town kid has probably had the same experience. Because whatever your definition of privilege is let’s face it: having a roof over your head and food to eat is tops on the list.
So when our group of 19 showed up on Skid Row in Los Angeles on our last day of “Surf and Serve” we were as prepared as any small town privileged group could be to come face to face with the thousands of homeless living on the streets in a roughly six square block area. Which is to say… not at all.
I’m ok telling you that the night before our visit I was just a teensy bit anxious. The images I’d seen over the years of this place didn’t exactly look welcoming and I was about to drive 15 teenagers into the “Devil’s Den” as it has been called. Not gonna lie — knowing the staff at Union Rescue Mission would be waiting for us in a secured parking lot and escorting us directly to the secured office made me breathe easier. I would need that period of adjustment before my mind could take in the massive sea of desperation on the other side.
I’ve heard varying accounts but the truth lies somewhere in this startling fact: each night in L.A. somewhere between 58,000 and 90,000 people are homeless. Only two cities are “home” to more homeless than Los Angeles: New York City sits at the number two spot in the world, and Manila, Philippines, with more than 2 million living in slums, is number one. How is this even possible? It doesn’t get better. In fact, people, the United States of America has ELEVEN of the top 25 cities with extremely high homeless populations according the U.N. Have mercy.
To say that some of these people choose homelessness is probably accurate, inasmuch as a person in his right mind chooses to live on a sidewalk where people regularly defecate and shoot up. Are some abusing the system by using their welfare checks to buy drugs? Sure. But others use the gift of those monthly checks to buy a tent, shop at Goodwill for clean underwear and buy a hot meal at McDonald’s rather than sit on a corner begging for your pocket change. God bless.
I know you have intelligent, worldly minds, my friends, and you can imagine all by yourselves the sights and sounds and, yes, even the suffocating smells of Skid Row, so I won’t bother to illustrate the depths of utter despair we saw on the faces of these people. Instead, what I want you to know is this: on every corner there is love.
There are activists, outreach workers, patrol officers, and volunteers aplenty, all working to bring a little joy into the lives of people who have forgotten what joy is, if, in fact, they ever knew. At Union Rescue Mission alone there are 600 homeless people in transition, living temporarily or long-term in the five-story building. Close to 200 staff members make it possible for them to get everything from food and clothing, to financial counseling and spiritual support. Police are not only present, they are compassionate and involved. Everyone, it seems, wants the best. Including the homeless themselves.
One gentleman, waiting patiently in the hour-long line for his nearly melted ice cream, wears a shirt that reads Justice is what love looks like in public.
Please let us get this one thing right. Let us give them justice.
I witness an elderly woman (perhaps she is man, I can’t be sure) with near-ghoulish makeup on, her colorful scarf hiding unwashed hair and wearing an outlandish dress and tights. She sits on the cement outside the women’s shelter attempting to pull on a pair of ratty ankle boots. A blanket and tattered suitcase sit nearby. A much younger woman in a midriff and tight shorts saunters out of the shelter making a beeline for the ice cream but stops short. “You need some help, baby?” she asks the woman in a sweet southern drawl. She gives up her prime spot in the ice cream line to help another struggler.
A man waits in line for 20 minutes and when he reaches me at the front he motions to a man just ahead of him on crutches. I think he’s going to tell me the man cut in line (the theme of the day) or that he was using the crutches just to get ahead (these people learn fast that wheelchairs, elderly and disabled can get to the front of the line quickly, so there’s no shortage of canes this day.) “He needs help,” the man mouths to me. I can’t make out what he’s saying right away so he mouths I can’t speak and points to a quarter-sized hold in his throat where he has had his larynx removed. Don’t smoke, he cautions our young volunteers with a soundless laugh, then shows them the hole in his throat as if to say “or this might happen to you.” He turns back to me and points again to the man on crutches, who now reaches for a bowl from our volunteer. He needs help carrying his ice cream.
He needs help. God bless.
Justice is what love looks like in public.
There is also in this place of poverty and hardship, gratitude beyond words. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people thanked us for serving ice cream in a parking lot on a hot day; thanked us for walking in the 100 degree temps to hand out cold water bottles; thanked us for being there. They waited patiently in line, and if they grumbled to each other about the heat and the ones who cheated or cut in line, they rarely did so to us. Always polite and willing to wait “just a little longer” while our precious teens scooped ice cream and offered toppings and, yes, even sprayed on some whipped cream.
See, ice cream is a luxury that we, the privileged, can get whenever we have the craving. For them, ice cream comes only at the hands of a volunteer willing to set up a table in a hot parking lot and scoop up just a little bit of joy.