An Afternoon in Skid Row with #HappyPeriod and #HashtagLunchbag

Hello again! It’s me, Jenna. Back in December, I read an article in Vice about a group in LA that puts together kits of women’s health products and hands them out to homeless women. Then I wrote about it here, noting at the end that I had emailed the group’s founder and would let you know when I heard from them. Well, I heard from them!

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#HappyPeriod meets about once a month to assemble and then distribute kits of supplies. On the east side, they meet at a community arts center in Crenshaw, and out west, they give out to people living on the Santa Monica/Venice Beach boardwalk.

Chelsea Von Chaz started the group one year ago (their anniversary is actually today, February 7th!) after working with some friends on #HashtagLunchbag (they spell it with both the symbol and the word because it’s funny and sort of rhymes). #HashtagLunchbag started from a group of Los Angeles friends looking to do some good one day in 2012, then repeating the experience after so many of their friends, seeing their social media posts of them handing out lunches to homeless people, asked when the next one was and if they could come. It has since expanded to over 100 chapters worldwide.

At each #HashtagLunchbag event, people assemble bag lunches, (“the kind your mom made you in grade school that made the other kids jealous” as they say on their site) and take to the streets to hand them out individually, providing food, a drink, and some conversation and good wishes. Each bag includes a handwritten little note with a cheerful message. Chelsea was inspired to expand this model of collecting donations, assembling goody bags, and taking them directly to people in need, to period supplies.

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Entering the arts center, I found an assembly line of about fifteen women working together to put together bags from donated supplies each had brought. I added my contribution to the pile of pads, taking up a post toward the beginning of the line. Until supplies ran out, I put four tampons in each bag the person ahead of me (whose job was opening the bags– plastic bags are crazy invested in sticking to themselves) handed me. I then handed over each bag to the next woman, after which they would pass through the hands of women who added pads, soap, liners, underwear, and plastic sandwich bags with wet wipes. After we finished collating the materials, we topped off each bag with a #HappyPeriod sticker.

Chelsea was super sweet, joking and taking photos. She also was wearing a dress that said her middle name, Von Chaz (her mom made it up because she liked how it sounded), on it, which I found perhaps the most amazing thing in the world, and which she said she had gotten made. The women seemed in their twenties and thirties. One had just finished writing a screenplay she’d been working on for a year; a few were actors on a TNT show. Most had been to previous #HappyPeriod meetups, but another had just heard about it from an article, like me. It came out that there were a quite a few Alabamians in the room, which was met with great joy by every member of that contingent that discovered each other. People were admirably generous with hugs.

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Once we finished with the period sets, we headed to help #HashtagLunchbag make lunch. People surrounded a central table in the middle of the art center’s theater to lay out slices of bread, followed by turkey and cheese to make complete sandwiches, which they wrapped up with a cookie. Volunteers shuttled these bundles of lunch sandwich and sandwich cookie to the stage, where more dispensed fruit, Chex mix, mustard, and assorted other snacks. Each bag got a beverage ranging from water to chocolate milk to apple juice. When we got done making the bags, we loaded them into trash bags that we dispersed to a few people’s cars, took a group photo, cleaned up, and drove out to Skid Row in our caravan.

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All discussions of homelessness in LA include a mention of Skid Row. It’s a small strip of downtown where people who society has let fall through the cracks have created their own version of it. It’s like what Burning Man would be if it weren’t for rich people, temporary, or optional. Despite hearing about it, I hadn’t been to Skid Row before today. On the drive over, I thought about asking where it was, but was pretty sure I’d know when we got there even without prior knowledge. Eli, the person who offered to drive me, played a mix of classical music and opera in the car, which made for a pretty intense soundtrack to our route.

Before we even reached Skid Row, we noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk without shoes, obviously homeless. We pulled over as one of the people from another of our cars got out to give him a lunch bag. As we pulled away, I saw him look inside the bag, then put it next to him for later.

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As expected, there was no mistaking Skid Row. It’s a world unto itself, for those who live outside the workings of the economy and the laws passed to prop it up. Instead of condos, tents lined the streets; instead of working, people chatted with their neighbors or danced; instead of single family homes hiding life from view, everything was in the open, visible to any passerby. Everything reeked subtly of urine (so much as that smell can ever be a delicate note), and there was an element of unpredictability enhanced by the many people who in other circumstances (say, before Governor Reagan and his predecessors shut down the asylums in the 1950s) would have been given psychiatric treatment.

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One of the most striking images of Skid Row for me was this dance party

Unlike the rest of the world, every block was lined with people homeless but for a tent or makeshift structure, but it turned out that in Skid Row, like everywhere else, the park, last vestige of the commons, is ground zero for people with no place else to go. We drove up to Skid Row’s park, which was filled with people, and stopped the cars.

Upon exiting, people immediately approached us, correctly asking if we were about to hand something out. It made me wonder how often that happens, and what people donate. Also, that people on Skid Row assume the only reason someone with a choice about whether or not to be there would come would be to dispense charity shows how isolated this community really is.

While most of the #HappyPeriod crew went to find people in need of their particular brand of help, I stayed with the #HashtagLunchbag team to start emptying the pounds of lunches in the backseat of the car I had come in.

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The backseat of Eli’s car after we had already given out a ton of lunches

Slinging the large black plastic trash bags filled with small paper lunch bags over my shoulder, I felt like a really off-brand version of Santa Claus. I always feel weird giving stuff out or otherwise serving the benefactor role, because the only thing separating me from the people accepting my largess is my support network and that I showed up at a volunteering event and they didn’t. So I had a hard time denying people second lunch bags even though I’d intellectually prefer as many people as possible got one. If I were hungry, I’d want more than one sandwich. Who am I to deny people the great luxury of a second water bottle?

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As people saw their neighbors open their lunches, it came out that not all lunches were created equal, or the same. People came up to me with requests for certain lunchbox fillings, which I tried my best to fulfill. But no one ever specified a type of food to me. Instead, people were intent on getting enough and the right type of liquid. People whose bags contained no drink came back asking for water, and if I couldn’t find a bottle in any of my bags, accepted chocolate milk or juice. My own 32 ounce refillable water bottle, snug under my seat in the car with still-cool tap water, had never seemed like such an indulgence.

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This first stop was where I encountered the only behavior that made me feel uncomfortable. One woman hovered around me, requesting bag after bag for herself, her boy, her man, any other people she knew or could make up. I acquiesced to three relatives because 1. who am I to say how many people she knows 2. even if it’s just to feed her, I’d still be happy if one person can eat for a few days (and see above about feeling no moral superiority) and 3. fear– if you’re the type of person to come up to someone handing out food and demand more and more, you’re exactly the type of person I’m not looking to cross. When she ran out of family members (real or imagined), she just started petitioning for the whole trashbag of bags. I removed myself from the situation, walking back to the car and pondering the wisdom in only taking a few bags out at a time so no one could ask for any more than I had on me. I then saw her ask Eli, my car-mate, for more bags, but when he saw how many bags she already had (I sheepishly didn’t offer any explanation for how she had gotten them), he said “You have so many already,” laughed to himself, and went about his business.

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The only other awkward moment was pretty minor, but still showed me how I needed to shift my behavior to this new situation. A man, on taking a lunch bag from me, asked if I was a name I now forget, someone I suppose he knew. My immediate reaction was a joking “yes, I am,” before I realized a split second later you don’t do sarcasm with people with such a loose grip on reality. “I am only joking,” I quickly course corrected, but he hadn’t bothered to stick around to find out.

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When everyone in our line of sight appeared to be digging into a brown paper bag, we loaded up the cars again and drove to our next and final stop. This was a strip of tents and makeshift shelters lining warehouses and other marginally ignored spaces. It was a neighborhood, not in the sense that they have a homeowners’ association, but in the older sense that people knew and were looking out for each other. When we asked one man, who seemed to be outlining sidewalk land rights by the fiat of a black roll of duct tape, if he would like a lunch, his neighbor let us know that he was deaf. I placed a bag near him and made smiling eye contact, upon which he reached for the bag.

When one woman walked through, talking loudly and pushing a cart of goods, Chelsea called out to ask her if she would like feminine hygiene products before telling us that she could tell that woman was a resident of the actual houses near Skid Row. When I asked how she could tell, she answered that it was how her hair looked, how she held herself– you just learned to get a sense of these things.

People bicycled through the street, their outfits clashing in a way that could equally have suggested they were on route to a music festival or free healthcare clinic. The volunteers lamented how quickly Downtown was gentrifying, and how four blocks from here– no, another corrected, just one block from here– you would see tony condos and office high rises. Another reminisced about a loft he had almost bought Downtown, for under $200,000, which now would be worth over a million, but “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”

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We packed up, promised to return next month, and drove away from the tents, first to 96 cent stores and signs in Spanish, then to the high rises and freeways of Downtown. Everything reversed back into place. No longer were the homeless the norm in space use and culture. They receded into the background, hidden dots among a larger society dedicated to working to pay the bills that would prevent them from ever having to ask a volunteer to rifle through a trash bag in search of a water bottle.

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This is sort of off topic, but I’m really confused about the existence of 96 Cent stores

Eli very kindly asked how I planned on getting home. When I told him I didn’t have a car, he said he would drive me out of Skid Row, so as to not leave me alone and potentially vulnerable. After initially dropping me at a bus stop, he changed his mind and drove me all the way home.

If you’re in Los Angeles and want to come with me to #HappyPeriod and #HashtagLunchbag events, let me know! If you’re anywhere else, check out where #HappyPeriod and #HashtagLunchbag have chapters, or start your own!

 

 

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