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A letter from YAV Robert Morrison in Hollywood

October 5, 2010

Work is interesting. I’m on PATH’s Street Outreach Team based out of Hollywood. Here’s what I tell people when they ask me what exactly it is we do:

Basically, we spend our time in the various neighborhoods of Los Angeles looking for the homeless. When we find them, we approach them and talk to them (if they’ll let us), meeting them where they are and offering a lunch and, sometimes, a hygiene kit. What we’re trying to do is build trust with these people, our clients, with the eventual goal of motivating them to come in off the street to shelter where they can get help.

Now that sounds pretty cool, but it really doesn’t encapsulate everything I’ve experienced in these last two weeks. What it amounts to is that we spend a lot of time riding around in a van looking for people and then looking for parking. But it also means that we spend our time getting ignored and rejected. It means shaking hands with people who don&rquo;t look clean (because they aren’t). It means getting yelled at and hated. It means meeting people who genuinely want help but are fed up with the system. It means joy when dropping off a client at a shelter. It means listening to a man in a worn-out wheelchair quote Maya Angelou while talking about the social division that exists between residents of West Hollywood (with an average rent greater than $2200) and the homeless. It means asking a delusional client if he needs any clothes as he eats the baloney sandwich you just gave him across the street from the Beverly Hills Gucci.

It also means sitting in meetings listening to law enforcement speak about the homeless as trespassers and criminals, which they may be, though it&rquo;s difficult to reconcile this image when I spend my days looking into their faces and listening to their stories. After all, where else are they to go besides street corners, park benches and alleyways full of dumpsters?

Did you know that there’s an area of central Los Angeles called Skid Row that is widely accepted as the homeless capital of the nation, meaning that there are more homeless per square mile than anywhere else in the country? Even if you have heard of Skid Row, you may not be aware that there is a law in place only in that area of Los Angeles that prevents any person from sleeping in the streets between the hours of 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. Initially the law was in effect 24 hours a day, but the State’s Supreme Court ruled that, without enough beds in the city to shelter the homeless, criminalizing sleeping in public was unconstitutional. Estimates of the Los Angeles county homeless population vary between 48,000 and 90,000. There are 13,000 shelter beds.

Now, I want you to take a second and step off a ledge with me. How many empty bedrooms would you estimate are in Los Angeles? How many are in your own home? What if they all were opened?

So, I don’t know. What I’m feeling right now is a lot of frustration with the problem and the systems and locales we&rquo;re working in. This weekend Brady and I went to see a movie in Universal City, which is like hyper-Los Angeles. Basically it&rquo:s an outdoor mall dedicated to the bright and flashy lights of consumerism (literally, every store advertises with huge neon signs). It’s a place teeming with excess and higher prices charged just because, at this place, you’re meant to feel like you’re somewhere special. I wanted to vomit. I thought about Eddie, fresh from having two stents placed around his heart, still wearing hospital bracelets, heart-beat sensor stuck to his chest, pulling two grocery carts behind his wheelchair that looks like it will lose its front wheels at any moment.

Robert

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