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!

IMG_4120

#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.

unnamed (2)

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.

IMG_4121

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.

IMG_4123

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.

IMG_4135

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.

IMG_4126

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.

IMG_4127

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?

IMG_4130

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.

IMG_4137

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.

IMG_4139

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.

IMG_4128

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.”

IMG_4134

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.

IMG_4141

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!

 

 

The Paperwork of Homelessness

This Saturday, Joe and I volunteered at the LA Veterans and Families Stand Down. “Stand Downs” are days when service providers gather in one spot to give care and supplies to veterans, a vulnerable group that makes up about 11% of the US homeless population. They’re named after stand downs during times of war, when both sides would lay down their arms and anxieties for a brief rest.

image001

The LA Stand Down was held in the hangar-like Los Angeles Convention Center. Filling an entire parking garage, the stand down was ready to provide care and goods to over 2,500 veterans. Among the services were mobile dental clinics, veterinarians, affordable housing providers, ophthalmologists, cots, hairdressers, a job fair, donated clothing, childcare, hot food, a trailer of showers, tai chi, massages, acupuncture, and the camaraderie of fellow veterans and volunteers. Perhaps it goes without saying, but this was all accompanied by a lot of lines to stand in.

Joe worked with the Legal Aid Foundation all day. Not quite a specialist myself, I floated throughout the event offering assistance as it was needed.

I started out registering the veterans so they could be let into the event. By making access contingent on filling out a long set of questions, the organizers clearly signaled how important this information was to providing aid. In user experience design, we call this process “gating.”

The first time I heard someone tell me they had been homeless for two years, it was a bit of a punch to the gut. I scrambled to smile away the tear welling in my eye and get it together.

I guess it’s one thing to know homelessness exists, to walk past people who clearly exhibit the signs. Intellectually you know when you pass someone sitting on the street or walking through subway cars asking for money that they’ve lost their homes and must have pieced something together day after day to have gotten to this point. But sitting across from someone at a regular old folding table, talking and laughing with them, and hearing them tell you to your face that they’re homeless is a strangely different thing. The context collapse somehow makes it harder, to either turn away from it or to write it off, the way you train yourself to do in order to keep going and not crumble with sadness each time you pass someone you can tell is living through homelessness.

I usually perceive homelessness on my own: through reading signs, literal and symbolic, and choosing whether and how to engage. I rarely hear the words “I’m homeless” because I rarely talk to anyone who is, and when I do, it’s on my terms, with the shared understanding that they are homeless and that I am stopping my day to talk with them because they are and I feel bad or want to feel like a good person or have too many sandwiches or something.

To take someone out of the context of asking for money on the street and to put them across from me at a table, working together to fill out a form, well, it just felt too normal and the guy felt too relatable to allow me to fully believe he was suffering from something so terribly. I guess despite knowing this was an event for homeless veterans, I had been harboring some weird, hopeful illusion that things weren’t that bad, that maybe this guy would just be in danger of losing his home. He was too real, too immediate to imagine going through all that. So here I was, about to break into tears with the shock and misery of it all.

But, I figured, if someone can handle being homeless every day for over two years, you had better be able to sit there and not fall apart at the mere thought of it. Anyway, this really wasn’t about me and my education on homelessness (despite its very much giving me that anyway). This was about getting these people what they needed with efficiency and kindness. So I smiled and continued, “Where did you spend last night?”

IMG_3385 (1)

And yet, I thought, on top of the indignities of being homeless, now we’re adding a 20-page form? I wondered how many times each of these people had to run through these same questions, all just to try to reach what they needed.  Questions ranged from probing (in the last 30 days, how many times did you drink alcohol?), to insensitive (are you required to register as a sex offender?), even to potentially triggering (did you lose your house because of abuse or trauma?).

Any time you make getting the approval of someone else a condition of getting something people want, you’re creating conditions for people to perform. While you have to assume the questions were included because they directly affect the type of housing each person will be eligible for, it felt a little too much like a prodding, uncomfortable exam, and I saw the each of the men I worked with strive to perfect their story to appear as the most deserving, sympathetic veteran ever.

All swore up and down that they hated alcohol, that it was evil and they never touched the stuff. Of course none of them ever did drugs. None had any diseases or disabilities that would make finding housing difficult. No one owed money or had mental disorders. All in all, the way each of them had me fill out this form showed them to be much cleaner, surer applicants than if I would look if I filled it out honestly for myself.

The one exception was from a 25 year old guy who, along with his two sons, was living alternately with his mom and friends. After confiding to me how massively hungover he was, we had to laugh together at the question over how many days he had drunk in the past month. I made it clear it was up to him to tell me what he wanted to put there. “Two days,” he said, doing the quick calculus of what answer would fall between credible to me and safe for whomever these forms were headed to. And how many of those days did he drink more than five drinks? “Uh, one,” he said. “Last night.”

I wasn’t there to drag the truth out of anyone. If you were a mid-twenties veteran with two kids, living out of friends’ houses, tell me you wouldn’t drink more than two nights a month.

Besides that man, everyone else was living in month to month shelters. Most had term limits, so they knew where they would be sleeping for the next month of so, but had no idea what would come after that.

The longer they had been homeless, the more familiar with the system they were. The most experienced guys had case workers whose numbers they had memorized, were familiar with and had every form I asked about, and were charming in a way I can barely manage even after a full life’s sleep in my own bed. They were planning longterm: one guy had moved from Boston to Los Angeles after it became clear he was in it for the long haul because it was warmer here and there were more jobs; he was in a class to become a truck driver. His kids lived out here too, though I couldn’t get out of him why he couldn’t live with them besides his not being on good terms with his ex-wife. Looking at the genial man across from me, I wondered what I didn’t know. What’s the point of having kids if they don’t stop you from becoming homeless in your old age?

IMG_3382

Perhaps what surprised me the most, however, was that no one was willing to accept group housing. They were all living in temporary group housing situations already, so I guess it didn’t seem worth it to leave unless they really and truly could expect their own home waiting for them.

This all got me wondering about the point of the military. It’s kind of a stopgap for people who grow up in poverty: two years of salary, food, legitimacy, and camaraderie. But none of these guys had even seen conflict. They had just been sequestered in Louisiana in “the worst base in the country,” or in West Berlin, where they had “tons of fun.” But after? This megalith the US spends more on than all other countries spend on their militaries, combined? Well, seems like it spits these people back where they came from, and while it’s not prison, it’s an almost equally abrupt transition. Maybe these guys, poor anyway, would have ended up homeless even without a two year blip into the military. Or maybe getting your world turned upside down in a warped parallel of college (with realer consequences and different norms to adapt to but without the degree) is too jarring a change for people to slide right back into life after. The armed forces are the closest thing we have to a universal employment program, but what comes after seems like the opposite.