I say goodbye to my children and husband on my way out the door. “Have fun,” says Stewart, giving me pause.
He looks at me.
“More like, try not to weep openly in front of the people I meet,” I say.
He smiles. “Break a leg?”
I close the door behind me and map the route to the homeless shelter on my phone. It’s a 40-minute drive. I don’t want to be late, but I don’t want to be early, either. Mark Horvath is meeting me there to accept the diaper donations I am delivering and to show me around. I’m usually not nervous meeting new people but I’ve never been to a homeless shelter before. I’m nervous about meeting the people who live there.
PATH Achieve Glendale is in an industrial building a block behind the main drag. Stray cats curl up under the tires of the cars in the parking lot. Someone has put bowls of food and water out for them. I don’t know what Mark’s car looks like, but I’m five minutes early, so I doubt he has arrived yet. I go in anyway.
The shelter has just opened for the evening. A family enters. They are young, white, native English speakers. I wonder why they are homeless. Two little girls and a boy skip around, darting in and out of doors and hallways, happy. One little girl asks me if she can feed the fish in the aquarium. I ask her name. She doesn’t tell me, but grabs my hands and says “Let’s play together.” I look for her mother for approval. She is still taking trips to unload the car, and smiles without any trace of discomfort.
I find a woman who looks official. She shows me around, gives me the “one room tour.” This is an emergency shelter for the newly homeless. Later Mark tells me the white family was living in their car before this. He never tells me why. One side of the shelter is the dorm – a warren of cubicles, each with a neatly made bed. Boys on one side, girls on the other. There are bathrooms along the back wall. The main room holds several long tables where everyone dines, a television with a few couches grouped around it, and an intake desk. People sign in as they arrive. The other side of the building is divided up into offices occupied by the shelter’s day staff – the director, case workers, drug and alcohol case managers. Anyone who is homeless can come here for help. They can be entered into The System, and applications for housing, transportation, job-seeking assistance, food, and other aid can begin. But to stay at this shelter overnight, even temporarily, one must have a source of income. There must be hope of moving on.
Mark finally arrives. He is larger than life, or at least larger than my small computer screen has made him seem over the last six months. I got to know him online through his site, Invisible People TV, and on Twitter and the telephone. He is making waves by telling the stories of homeless people using social media. He is dynamic, generous, and engaging. He greets me with a warm hug. I feel like we’ve already met.
He strides into the shelter like he’s the mayor, talking to everyone, asking “how was your day?” We see three or four families, a few lone rangers. All of them speak English with little or no accent. Some of the young boys help move the boxes of diapers I have brought into the shelter. One of the moms sees the boxes and rejoices aloud. She has a newborn. Unfortunately I brought only larger size diapers, and I instantly feel bad. I want to offer her anything I can to help her. But I can only smile, and stick close to Mark like a puppy.
Overall, I am surprised by how calm I feel. This is a hopeful place – everyone is smiling, nobody seems particularly sad. Or crazy. Or high. Before this, I was happy to help from behind my computer where the separation is symbolic as well as physical. My work with Help a Mother Out and Mark’s interviews with the homeless have made more familiar with the people we serve, given them names and faces. Today I came out from behind my keyboard to see how it all works, to get a better idea of what it is we’re really doing.
Here in this hopeful place, I feel spared from the emotional onslaught I had expected. I’m not yet ready for more, and I tell this to Mark.
“Sure ya are!” he says, and whisks me off on a side trip to Winter Shelter.
He drives us in a minivan across town to the armory, where volunteers operate a temporary shelter from December through March to bring people in from the cold. Here in Los Angeles, the homeless have it easier, relatively. Our mostly good weather hardly compares to northern climates, freezing temperatures, snow. Yet in most other places, Mark tells me, winter shelter is created only when there is a death, when someone freezes on the streets overnight. Here, we are proactive, at least.
He turns a corner, parks at a 7-Eleven. We cross the street and there they are. A loosely arranged line of people snakes around the block, shuffling, staring ahead, some talking amongst themselves, but mostly quiet. They carry garbage bags, or luggage, or backpacks. Some are reading to pass the time. One very weathered old Asian woman wears a hard hat, and a bathrobe, and a clear plastic garbage bag over that. She sees Mark and her eyes light up. “Hello M.!” he cries. Many of the people here seem to know him. He shakes hands, pats people on the back, says hello to everyone who makes eye contact.
Only adults are in this line. If a family with children comes, they are sent elsewhere. This is the place where drunks, mentally ill, homeless-by-choice individuals will bunk up for the night, alongside the newly homeless, the scared and desperate. An elderly white woman in the line waits in full makeup, cat’s-eye glasses, fur coat. She carries a tasteful handbag, and has a rolling suitcase. She stops Mark and asks him if he can help her find a place in town, near Hollywood perhaps, around $500 a month. He suggests she come to the office next week and get entered into The System. She makes a face, disappointed.
“We can help these people,” Mark says later. “But some of them are just too proud, or they don’t want to wait in line, or they want to keep drinking or using drugs. They don’t want to play by the rules, or get up at 5AM every day to get out of the shelter on time.”
Mark and I walk past the line into the armory. It is a giant gray room. Rows and rows of army cots are set up in a precise grid. Volunteers work along the edges. “Residents” trickle in as the workers process them. Each person who wishes to stay the night must be searched, then entered into the computer. Then they take a blanket and a pillow, and claim a cot.
An argument breaks out between another old woman in a plastic bag, a Mexican American, and an older African American man who is upset that she moved her cot. Both of them are missing most of their teeth. They are daunting figures, filthy, wild looking. Yet Mark embraces the woman, tells me every time he sees her she asks him to marry her, then asks “How big is your apartment?” It’s the best offer he’s had all year, he says.
I am still orbiting Mark like a moon. I stay by him for safety, as if he can shield me from all this reality, even though he is the one who thrust me right into the middle of it. A woman screams in the kitchen. She runs out, saying there’s a mouse in the sink. Mark laughs. I smile with relief, grateful it’s not something worse. I meet a volunteer who is serving the food. He lives at the shelter, and works there too.
I am surprised that nobody seems especially sad. Some are dazed, or keep to themselves. Many smell of alcohol and fatigue. There are a few men in wheelchairs. I had expected to be flattened by the hopelessness, but what affects me the most is when I see women who look just like me. They look normal. Why are they here? I think to myself, but never ask. Mark answers a call on his cell phone from a woman who is looking for a place to stay for the night – she is all the way in Sylmar, near a different shelter. He goes through a sort of crisis triage with her. “Where did you sleep last night?” he asks. “Do you have a car?” He instructs the woman to drive to the closest shelter, despite the fact that they’ve already told her they are full. “If you show up, they have to take you,” Mark insists.
I am humbled by my visit to the shelter. Sobered. I feel a sense of perspective looming, a sudden desire to be with my children. Mark says that’s because I touched homelessness for the first time, but he seems impressed that I’m holding myself together. When we return to PATH, the residents are preparing to gather for dinner. Every night a different group sponsors or prepares dinner. They call them “guest chefs.” Tonight it’s a church group, who has brought in fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and green beans. They also brought literature from their church, which they encourage us to read.
I have heard a lot of stories in the past hour and a half. Mark’s commentary is continuous, and he answers all of my questions with no hesitation. He is happy to have me here, to have someone from the outside world take an interest in this community, someone who will surely talk about it on the internet. Indeed, he’s already Twit-pic’ed me standing in front of the cots at the armory. I am embarrassed by the photo, in which I am smiling far too widely, as if to say “Look how much fun I’m having at the homeless shelter!” In truth, it’s just that I am a ham who reacts like a trained dog when a camera lens is pointed at me. Or maybe I’m smiling so hard to ward off the sadness, the awkwardness I feel when I meet their eyes. I wish I could simply say “Hello, nice to meet you,” and converse with them like regular people. Because they are people, not just The Homeless. But with every face, every new name, every threadbare, sweat-stained T-shirt or matted head of hair, I feel a mixture of pity and disgust, and I am ashamed of myself.
It’s a complicated mess of emotions, and my brief visit has left me exhausted. I say goodnight to Mark, and begin the long drive back home in the dark. I listen to radio reports about the earthquake survivors in Haiti during the entire ride. By the time I get home, I am ready to collapse inward upon myself. I snuggle up with my children on the couch and watch a silly movie. I am warm, I am comfortable, I am clothed, and I have plenty of food.
But I am not the same.
[photo of Mark Horvath by Chris Walter]