My First Time Volunteering at The Midnight Mission on Skid Row
The Midnight Mission is a very special homeless shelter located near the heart of Skid Row where homeless people in Los Angeles seek refuge from the perils of living on the streets.
Anyone who knows me can tell you that I have no problem talking to complete strangers. It’s what makes for good writing. Ask any of my friends and I’m sure they can tell you a story about a time or two that I embarrassed (or impressed) them with my never-satisfied need to interact with innocent passersby. It’s also why I am so comfortable traveling alone.
Today at The Mission was different. I thought I’d be able to talk to the homeless people, and bring some of their stories to you, but I couldn’t. I didn’t feel worthy. Not on this day, at least.
I actually had forgotten that I committed to volunteering on this day, and woke up this morning coming off three trips in less than 10 days, plus finalizing an apartment move from Culver City to Topanga Canyon. So when I woke up to an email from The Mission’s Communications Manager Candace Schultz asking if I was still planning on making the event, not only did I feel underprepared, I felt nervous as hell. Here I was, still in bed, out of my comfort zone.
What a wimp.
I looked at my watch and saw that the event started in less than an hour, so I sprang out of bed, showered, threw on my Midnight Mission polo, which I was given at the aforementioned golf tournament, jumped on my motorcycle and headed downtown.
I have to do this, I thought to myself as I headed east on the 10 with the DTLA skyline in my sights.
When I pulled up to 601 South San Pedro Street, Los Angeles, California 90014 ten minutes late I circled the surrounding city blocks looking for a safe place to park my ride. Very quickly I felt the need for private parking, as every sidewalk and street in the surrounding area was consumed with “self-made” homeless shelters. Side-by-side structures and tents made of old blankets, tarps, rags – whatever could be scrapped and pieced together to provide some kind of shelter from the sweltering sun, which was hammering down a brutal 90 degrees this afternoon. The tents were stacked together close, and reminded me of the six-story walkups of the East Village in New York City. Except they were tents. On the sidewalk.
As I rode around the block passed droves of these tents, thinking to myself Is this Skid Row? I had to physically avoid hitting people meandering aimlessly in the middle of the street. Actually, I think one person tried to get hit by me. As I made direct eye contact with this person, she walked diagonally toward me into the road from the edge of the sidewalk, purposefully not looking where she was walking, making a b-line at my 467-pound bulk of metal and composite. I had to swerve out of the way at the last second, and I had no time to look back when I passed, for fear of hitting the next person.
I did a full circle around the block and then pulled into a parking lot across the street from The Mission. The attendant told me I couldn’t park when I said I was there to volunteer with The Mission, but he pointed over my shoulder back across San Pedro to an underground lot, which I had just passed.
“They park there,” he said.
“Nice hat,” I said before making a u-turn and pulling out of the lot.
Since the streets were all one way (I learned that the hard way) I had to circle around the same block I’d just looped. Once again I gazed in disappointment at these helpless people’s living situations. Tent after tent lined the blocks for as long as the eye could see. One man looked at my bike as if he wanted it for his own. I wish I had one to give. One woman actually looked healthy and I thought she was there volunteering or something. She was crouching with her back to me. As I passed, she turned her head and looked at me. She had the most weathered face I’ve ever seen.
The shock was settling in.
When I finally made it to the underground lot where I parked, I walked to the elevator and was met by a man named Melvin who took me where I needed to go, no questions asked. I had no idea who Melvin was, but everyone else did. Melvin was cool. On my way to the event Melvin introduced me to six people, all of which, judging by their appearances, had life situations eons worse than my own. I was humbled as each and every person greeted me with a smile and salutation.
I made it to the event just as the musicians took the stage. And what talented musicians they were. Led by Vijay Lynne Gupta, members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Street Symphony, and Urban Voice performed breathtaking numbers and spoke beautifully between each song. They spoke of the power of music to evoke emotions like serenity, peace, fear and anger, what some of the songs they performed were meant to represent, such as rolling hills with a pristine lake and the sound of a blue jay in the distance, and the educational value of music. About 100 members of the Skid Row community watched, napped or sang along for about an hour in one of the more peaceful situations I’ve ever been so lucky to find myself in. Water was given out to anyone who wanted it and many people were smiling.
But not everyone was smiling. No, not at all. In fact, some were in pain, leaving me to think, yes, this is an amazing moment, but what’s next on today’s agenda for the majority of people in this room?
As I took photos, I tried to focus on capturing the faces of some of the homeless people who were there. Other photographers were there and would surely snag some shots of the musicians, but I was here to focus on the ones who mattered. And if the purpose of this post is to spread awareness of the constant states of fear, anger, and general filth the homeless community endures everyday, I wasn’t going to show the joy, I was going to show the pain.
This man sat with a bag over his head for the entire performance. He reminded me of Scarecrow from Batman, but worse. I hope he is OKAY.
It is a very awkward feeling when you make eye contact with a homeless person through the 250mm lens of your Canon Ts1 Rebel camera, which costs more than it takes to keep them alive for a month.
I felt ashamed of myself in that moment, thinking about how I’d almost forgotten my commitment to being here today because I had been tired after taking a vacation and moving to Topanga.
This photo didn’t come out with great focus, but in a way, that makes me like it more. I hope I have a chance to talk to this man next time I am near Skid Row, so I can show him how handsome he is with a properly focused photo.
The Midnight Mission’s purpose is to get people off the street and back to being functioning members of society. As they state on their website, “Founded in 1914, The Midnight Mission offers paths to self-sufficiency to men, women and children who have lost direction. Our emergency services and 12-step recovery, family living, job training, education and workforce development programs offer a compassionate bridge to achieve and maintain healthy, productive lives. We remove obstacles and provide the accountability and structure that people who are experiencing homelessness need to be productive in their communities. Our conviction and commitment to their success define us.”
This man was smiling the entire performance. He also wins an award for Coolest Hair. Is he smiling now wherever he is? I don’t know.
The look in this man’s eye tells a story told all too often. It’s time more people got involved and we take better care of the homeless in Los Angeles. This man is someone’s son, brother, father, grandfather, friend, mentor – or, was.
I checked in with this man multiple times during the show and not once did he have his eyes open. One can only hope that the beautiful music performed by the various groups had transported him to a day dream so beautiful only his mind can conjure.
This picture breaks my heart. I have nothing else to say about this picture.
After my time at the shelter I experienced an impulsive reaction. Having never been so close to the streets, I had an urge to get as physically high up in LA as I possibly could. I need to get far away right now, I thought to myself. I looked around and saw the US Bank Tower. I thought of the Sky Slide and the Sky Space. It was only 10 blocks away, so I relocated to the Los Angeles Public Library parking structure and headed for the observation deck. A quick Google search from the top of the tower told me exactly where to look for The Mission, and sure enough, there it was. If you look close, you can see the people lined up outside The Mission and some tents across the street.
I thought of how incredible our society is, that something so low could be so close to something so high.
The Midnight Mission as seen from the deck at Sky Space, 70 floors up.
I went back to Skid Row after going to Sky Space. I rode around for five minutes, exploring the different blocks. I’d guess that there are about 1,000 tents in the general area. I saw a few cop cars and unmarked units as well, prepping for another night on Skid Row. Then it was time to head home.
The Midnight Mission puts events on like this one for the homeless community every week, and provides much needed services everyday. What they do is magical, but there is always room for improvement. More people need to get involved. Go to midnightmission.org now to donate or volunteer. I look forward to volunteering at The Mission again soon.
PS – I heard one of Hillary Clinton’s first jobs out of college was helping the disadvantaged and homeless.
Above: One of the violins used by the LA Philharmonic performers during the event. This instrument is magnificent and to me represents discipline, hard work and maximum efforts leading to joy, success and inspiration.