Stat: Over 47,000 people in L.A. County experience homelessness on any given night.
We dressed more warmly than usual. Was Christmas Eve morning. Clouds had been dumping rain for two weeks straight. A hard rain, even by non-L.A. standards, the kind that leaves dimples.
Our bags loaded with snacks, toiletries , t-shirts, water, and socks, we drove to the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Lisa, a woman from our group, had brought a box of coffee, along with cups and cream and sugars, and her dog Winston, the group’s mascot. She’d put a bow on his head and a red vest around his chest.
Once there, we walked a block and found three men congregated on the sidewalk, one of them being Solomon.
Solomon’s claim to fame: He was the man who stood at the top of the pier, a loincloth around his waist and an eight-foot mechanical snake around his neck, selling pictures to tourists. I’d heard he’d been arrested dozens of times, and for pretty bad stuff. But he always greeted us with a cheer and let me play his half-strung, out-of-tune ukulele.
He was joined by a skinny man with a knife tattoo on his chest and a white-bearded man with a nose tackle’s build, wearing loose khakis and a sweatshirt.
“Can I make you coffee?” Lisa asked. As she poured the cups, Winston snugged up against the skinny man’s feet.
The bearded man smiled and introduced himself as Ray.
“Where you from?” I asked.
“Philly. But I moved to North Dakota in … this is ’16, would have been ’14. A town of 2,000. We were the only black family there.’ His eyes twinkled—milky brown eyes. “One time, this little boy came up to me and pressed his finger against my arm. I asked his mom, ‘Why did he do that?’ She said, ‘He’s never seen someone like you before. Only on TV.'”
He put his hand on my wrist. “On TV? Can you believe that?”
Solomon sipped his coffee, the flaps of his bonnet hanging over his ears. “You’re from the church, right?”
That’s right, we answered.
“Why do you do this?”
What do you mean?
“I’m fascinated by what motivates people to do things.” He jabbed Ray in the shoulder. “This here’s a church man. A preacher, even.”
Solomon yelled across the street, “They got food over here.”
I hadn’t even noticed, but across the street, a group of 30 or so was gathered at a church.
“They’re serving lunch at noon,” Solomon said. He raised his head to shout again.
“That’s okay,” I interrupted. “We’ll go there.”
We woke Winston from his half-nap and jaywalked across the street to join the crowd.
Stat: Of the homeless, 18% are veterans. 14% are children. 20% are physically disabled. 16% of adults are employed. 48% graduated from high school. 32% have a bachelor‘s degree or higher.
At the church, Lisa set the coffee box on a planter. A line formed beside her. The rest of us passed out supplies. Struck up conversations. Listened to their stories. The common complaint among those there—a need for shoes. “Can’t keep dry,” one man said. Sure enough, his feet were drenched.
Winston lay beside a woman with no front teeth–his head down, legs out. The woman had bused to L.A. two months ago from Detroit, where she’d been living on the streets. The lines of my brow creased. I’d always assumed you moved here then became homeless.
Ray had walked over, and I joined him. “How long you been here?” I asked.
“On the streets? We lost our place three months ago. My wife’s over on the next block.”
“How’s it been?”
“People know not to mess with us,” he said, straightening his shoulders. “I was a boxer in the army. Then a bodyguard for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When they find out I’m an ordained minister, they don’t know what to make of it.”
He stared in the direction of the next block. “But yeah, it’s been hard.”
Ray pulled out his phone, brought up a picture of a young girl, probably eight, nine, all smiles, wearing pajamas. Her arm around another girl. “That’s my daughter,” he said. His eyes flinched, bottom lip shielded the upper. “She died. Six weeks months ago. Cancer.”
He began to cry. Full tears. Like little moons. Losing their place in the sky. I didn’t know what to say, so I put my arm around his shoulder and cried with him.
Ten minutes must have passed like that. Maybe more. Maybe 15. Or 20. You’re not thinking about time in those moments. By then, the church workers were milling around at the entrance. The coffee box had grown empty.
“Will you pray for us?” I asked Ray.
The others joined and we formed a circle. “We’re praying. Come join us,” Solomon yelled. Several made their way over.
As we joined hands, Brother Ray dabbed his eyes and found his voice. “God, thank you for these young men and women. Thank you for loving us and hearing our needs. We pray for your blessing on everyone here today.”
But his voice failed him. The sobs returned. So did mine. One can’t always shake off sorrow at the drop of a hat—or a spoken prayer. “God, I don’t know why you took my little girl,” he prayed. All around, I heard sniffling. “But I know you’re good. And I trust you.”
He spoke amen. We packed our things and made ready to leave. Big hugs to those who wanted them. Fetched the dog.
I waited until the end to greet Ray. I kissed him on the cheek. He did the same for me. Then I said goodbye and we walked away, back to our homes.
Stat: Some U.S. cities have taken steps to make homelessness illegal. Those on the streets are prohibited from using any material to shield themselves from the wind, rain, and cold. Some cities have passed laws forbidding citizens from feeding the homeless without a permit.