I enjoy sleeping in a tent—so much so that I made it a goal to sleep in one completely by myself for a night in the wilderness. I love sleeping in a tent because it means I’m out enjoying nature, but also because it helps me appreciate my cozy bed and home that much more when I return to them after a night or two. Though I try to be grateful for everything I have—which was helped by my month of keeping a gratitude journal—sometimes it’s easy to become complacent and forget that, even during my bad times, I still have a bed on which to sleep, a roof over my head and food in my stomach.
Unfortunately, the same certainly cannot be said by everyone. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the point-in-time count of homeless people in the U.S. in January 2012 was 633,782. It is difficult to ascertain statistics with 100 percent accuracy regarding homeless populations due to the uncertain and inconsistent reality of the problem, but numerous reports and censuses depict Los Angeles as having one of the highest homeless populations in the country. In its 2013 census, Los Angeles County counted 39,463 people sleeping on the street or in homeless shelters. When “at risk of homelessness” and “precariously housed” people were taken into account, the estimated number rose to 57,737. It is estimated that nearly 200,000 people are homeless at least one night a year in Los Angeles County.
One of the largest stable homeless populations in the country is in one-square-mile area of downtown Los Angeles called Skid Row. At a given time, an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people live on the sidewalks, often in tents or cardboard boxes. It doesn’t take a great imagine to conclude that sleeping in a tent is vastly different when it’s a way of living rather than an escape into nature for a night or two. While I’m trying to decide which restaurant to order delivery from because I’ve been too lazy to go grocery shopping, Skid Row residents are trying to ascertain where their next meal is coming from, though a restaurant of their choosing is certainly not on the list.
I decided to serve at a food kitchen because I wanted to do something for someone else, and appreciate even more how fortunate I have been and am. After a minimal amount of searching online, I came across The Midnight Mission. Conveniently located in Skid Row to help serve the densely populated area, The Midnight Mission has been in operation since 1914 and has functioned entirely free of government assistance. In addition to offering food and shelter to homeless people, the mission provides counseling, recovery programs, education and job placement, which particularly interested me. While offering food and shelter is helpful, I believe it is merely a temporary solution. I believe providing tools like recovery programs for alcoholics and education can potentially help people get back on their feet and have long-term solutions to homelessness.
My fellow volunteers and I were first given a tour of the complex, which included viewing the library, a movie room which converts into a quiet sleep center in the evening, a wonderful gym so residents can keep active, dormitory-style rooms, classrooms complete with computers, the mess room and more. We were then put to work in the kitchen preparing dinner, which consisted of chopping food and pouring milk into cups. After that we were each set up at a station on the food line. I was in charge of handing out chips and bread, while my counterparts spooned beans, rice, stew and yogurt onto the trays.
Over the course of about an hour, we served hundreds of people. Some quietly moved through the line, some said “thank you,” and some made jokes. One person who stood out was the man, appearing to be in his mid-fifties, who stopped in front of me, looked me straight in the eye and told me what a beautiful thing I was doing and what a beautiful person I was. Another memorable encounter was with a tall, young man who had three of the openings on his tray filled with beans. I smiled and said he was going to have a fun night, and he laughed and said he was definitely going to sleep by himself that night.
There were characters and people from various walks of life, and it was a humbling, enjoyable experience. Though the food looked fine—and those who show up on a day when the Dodgers have a baseball game get tasty Dodger dogs—I’m grateful I have the choice of what, when, where and how much I get to eat for dinner, and that the only time I sleep in a tent is when I choose to.