Friday, May 16, 2008

Skid Row

Street Art

One of the questions I am always asked is, “Do you know what field of medicine you want to go into?” and truthfully, I have no idea. It’s something that I have struggled with—what population do I want to serve? Older people? Little kids? Everything in between?

One population that has always interested me in the homeless. I remember in high school going to a soup kitchen to help serve food, so when I was invited to go to Skid Row, I jumped at the opportunity. Skid Row was totally unimaginable to me. I had read articles about it in the LA Times (if interested, google Steve Lopez Homeless), but it still didn’t prepare me for what I was about to experience.

This quarter I took a missions class for my religion course. A pastor from Skid Row spoke to our class one evening about missions for the homeless. From my perspective, his views were fascinating in ways that we shouldn’t help the homeless, but I didn’t feel like he covered ways that we could help. A couple of months later, we were invited to a prayer meeting at his church and a couple of us were interested in going. We drove to downtown LA and had no idea what to expect. We met him at the Nazarene church and he gave us a tour of some of the ways that his church is helping. For example, they have an after school program for children (he estimated that there were 400 homeless children). After that, we went into the church and sat down quietly and prayed to ourselves. At the end of the meeting, everyone stood up and we held hands and the Pastor prayed.

After the prayer meeting, we received our official tour of Skid Row. For me, this was where I was out of my element. He told us about the Skid Row Brigade, a group of homeless people that clean up the streets 24 hours a day and then he took us over to a mural that was also aimed at cleaning up the streets. Some of the paintings were really inspiring.

I thought this sign was cool.

Gabriel the Archangel

Close Ups

After that, he walked us down the main street of Skid Row. We walked past The Lamp, a resource for the mentally ill, and then past numerous other homeless shelters. I had never actually seen people sleeping on the sidewalks, but we had to step over people to get past. The pastor also warned us to watch where we were walking, because there might be needles lying on the ground. The main stretch of Skid Row was packed with people. Some were lying on the ground sleeping, most were just standing around. We also walked past a park that looked surprisingly nice for the area, and the Pastor pointed and said that it was controlled by the Crypts and had significant drug activity. Needless to say, we didn’t stand around too long. Finally, we came to another park where guys were playing basketball. The homeless people had started a basketball league with 3 on 3. They discussed the program with us and told us how popular it was and also how they felt it was helping. For example, every week they chose something they wanted to emphasize like self control. They tried to teach that the way you handle yourself on the court if a call doesn’t go your way can also relate to how you handle yourself at home if you argue with your wife, or how you handle issues with your boss if you’re angry, etc. It was really neat to hear them talk about it and one man told us how it was basically a way for him to stay off of the streets. One of the scary things about this encounter, though, was that we stood there and talked to them for about half an hour. When we walked away, the Pastor asked us if we noticed the cross tattoo on one of the young men. It was in the corner of his eye, and the Pastor told us that was a sign that he had killed someone. The guy with the tattoo was only 22 years old, and it just seemed so unreal.

Overall, I learned a lot about the culture of Skid Row, but it also left me feeling more depressed. The entire situation seems so hopeless, and then I wondered what one person can do. I’ll admit, I also felt like I stuck out the entire time. Our group was literally the only white people that we saw the entire 4-5 hours that we were there. I have never felt so white, out of my element, and unsafe in my life; it felt like a little target was painted on me. Still, I was definitely glad that I went and it made me realize how blessed I am to have grown up in a loving, safe, Christian home. So, thanks Mom and Dad!

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