(written for my “Los Angeles Neighborhoods” journalism class, Spring 2014)
Sunken eyes. Long dreads. Toughened skin, like leather that’s been baking in the sun. The man slowly drags himself to one of the benches in the plaza, carrying several large green bags made of tarp material, and sits. I watch from the corner of my eye, finding myself instantly drawn to his slow-paced demeanor, his flat expression, and wondering what the contents of all his precious bags are.
It’s three in the afternoon on a Tuesday, and we’re in the middle of the over-populated Third Street Promenade in downtown Santa Monica. The outdoor shopping and dining plaza is bustling with sounds and people and live music; typical attributes of this particular beachside tourist destination. But I barely glance at the stores, glittering with their sale signs and colorful displays. I hardly notice the people—tourists with their flashy cameras, teenage girls wearing bug-eyed sunglasses, hipster couples, families lugging their children around. I don’t even notice. All I can think about is this homeless man, sitting alone in the middle of a crowded shopping center in broad day.
He sits comfortably on the bench, hands in lap, as if settling in for a long spell. Watching from afar, I am immediately drawn to his appearance; the sunken brown eyes, the raggedy clothes, the overstuffed bags filled with stuff. He seems calm, unfazed by his surroundings. People are rushing past him, shopping bags in hand, looking right through him as if he were a transparent sheet. It breaks my heart how no one stops to notice, or even smile. Suddenly I feel a pang of guilt wash over me—I had walked right past at least two or three other homeless people that day, and all in Santa Monica alone.
For a L.A. beach town, the city of Santa Monica has a pretty notable presence of homelessness. There are over 500 individuals who are currently living in the streets or sleeping in vehicles/encampments around the area, according to the city’s most recent report. Many of the homeless population are centered downtown, in urban places/tourist locales, such as the Third Street Promenade where I am currently standing.
“Mom, can we go into American Apparel?” I hear a girl loudly ask her mother, coming from somewhere behind me. They brush past the homeless man, hardly stopping to look in his direction. I notice how Mom takes special care to avoid eye contact.
The man doesn’t seem to mind; staring aimlessly into the street and watching the cars whiz past on Broadway. I can’t help but watch, taking in his disheveled appearance, his blank stare. But what hits me the most is this man’s feet: blackened, calloused, cracked and dusty from walking. He didn’t even have proper shoes.
Suddenly I can’t breathe, feeling strangely overwhelmed. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The plan was to come to the Promenade and walk around, maybe look at a few stores; take a “retail therapy” break from the busyness of school and midterms. I take a deep breath and look up. The sky seems threatening, and I feel a single drop of rain hit my cheek. I’m not sure what or how or why, but something has to be done. The image of his calloused, dirty feet would not leave my mind.
Feeling dizzy, I walk into the first store my own feet would take me: the huge Old Navy along the Promenade. Luckily they’re doing a huge sale on flip-flops and I am able to find a suitable pair, all black with rubber soles. I grab the shoes, hoping it’s the right size and durable enough for this man’s broken feet. Despite my own lack of funds, I purchase the shoes and tuck it safely within the shopping bag. After leaving the store, I stand back a little ways from the bench and the man with the calloused feet, feeling my fears trying to swallow me whole. Oh god, why did I even do this, I think.
It takes a while to gather the courage to finally walk up to him, nervously clutching the bag with the new shoes in hand.
“Excuse me, sir,” I say meekly, edging closer to the bench. “I noticed you weren’t wearing any shoes.” Hastily, I pull out the flip-flops from the shopping bag, waving them in my clamped-up hands. “So I bought you a pair.”
The man looks up at me, still dazed and confused. And then he freezes, holding up his dirty, bruising hand. “Oh no, I’m okay. I have shoes. Thank you.”
I look around, still feeling nervous. “You have a pair? How come you’re not wearing them?”
Pride (or shame, or a heart-breaking mixture of both) swells in his voice as the man replies, “Nah, I’m okay.”
I’m worried, but not pushy. “Are you sure?” I ask shyly. “I bought them for you.”
“I’m okay,” he says again, his sunken eyes lulling back into place. He remains silent and I walk off, feeling slightly embarrassed but also troubled. Why was he not accepting my charity? It wasn’t even that, really. I just wanted to give him the shoes because I couldn’t stand to see him without them. It physically hurt my heart and the image of his dirty feet haunted me. Buying the shoes wasn’t an act of charity or pity; it was something I felt in my gut that I needed to do. But more importantly, it was something that he needed.
I walk around the main plaza for a bit, trying to come up with a new game plan. I had to give him the shoes without hurting his pride or pissing him off. More determined than ever, I briskly walk back to my car parked along the street and find an unopened granola bar, a bottle of water, and an unused travel-sized bottle of lotion. I put these along with the flip-flops into the shopping bag (taking out the receipt and price tag), and walk back to this homeless man sitting alone on the bench. I must have walked up close to him at least five times, feeling nervous because I don’t want to further upset him, before finally handing him the bag. I walk up close, drop the bag beside his feet, smiled and kept moving. “God bless,” I call out, before ducking into the nearest store. The man looks surprised and tries to call after me, shyly insisting once again, but I disappeared before he could say anything else or try to give the shoes back to me. I watch from afar as he shyly opens up the bag, noticing the contents inside.
A sense of achievement, relief, and gratitude overcomes me as I walk back to the car. Even though it wasn’t money, I am beyond thankful that he took the gift. As nervous/intimidating as the whole thing was, it was something I felt I had to do. Sometimes, people just need to be shown love and reminded of their worth.
I don’t know what will happen next, but all I know is that that moment changed me—a cloudy Tuesday afternoon in the middle of a crowded shopping mall, surrounded by people minding their own business, as everyday life goes on. That moment reminded me of how precious every little thing is, how much a small gift such as a simple pair of flip-flops could mean to someone in need. It reminded me of the inner pride humans have and need to let go of, pride like that man’s, afraid to be accepted. It showed me that real, genuine love is selfless, expecting nothing in return. It taught me courage, the importance of a smile, and the way people see what’s around us—even the broken, rejected and homeless whom we pass daily on the streets.
Homelessness in Los Angeles County has been apparent for as long as the region has sprawled into a bustling, diverse urban area. According to the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center Association, an estimated 254,000 men, women, and children experience homelessness in a single year in L.A. County. About 82,000 of those are homeless on any given night. In the city of Santa Monica, the homeless population has been slowly decreasing, down 5% according to the city’s report from last year. The city has been taking great care to keep its streets clean, especially in popular visitor regions like the Third Street Promenade, and there are several key findings that make a difference.
“The downtown area saw a very significant 40% decrease (from 141 in 2013 to 86 in 2014), in the area between Ocean Avenue, Lincoln Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard and Pico Boulevard, including all of Palisades Park and the Pier,” the executive summary reads.
Why this matters: because homelessness is such an issue all over West Los Angeles, and especially in “beach town” regions like Santa Monica and Venice Beach, it is important to look at the figures and find out why this is happening, and what people can do to help prevent it. One significant way that directly addresses the problem? The homeless shelter.
Non-profit organizations and facilities—including soup kitchens, church-sponsored programs, and temporary housing—that tailor to this specific group have been popping up all over Los Angeles, which has the second largest population of homelessness in the country. Many of these centers are located in regions where many homeless are concentrated: Skid Row, South Bay, and Metro Downtown. In West L.A., a number of newer organizations have been established around the neighboring Culver City, Venice Beach, and Santa Monica areas. These shelters and facilities have been extremely beneficial in helping reduce numbers. For instance, over the past 2 years the amount of homeless persons in the city of Santa Monica has slowly gone down -13%, from 453 to 396, because of these new shelters which provide learning services and temporary housing, and help individuals get back on their feet. Because of their efforts, these organizations are giving people a place not just to inhabit, but to live.
The Upward Bound House is located off of a dusty residential corner on Washington Ave. in Santa Monica, merely a minute’s walk from the always-populated Third Street Promenade and the Santa Monica Pier. Blending in with the colorful one-story homes and older apartments, you’d never even notice its presence—if it weren’t for the sign, full-sized with bold letters. It blends in with the rest of the lively neighborhood.
It’s a cloudy afternoon; the sky smelling like rain. I lock up my car, walking briskly over to the main building before the first few drops start to fall.
The administrative offices are tucked away behind a senior facility center, across the street from a large Presbyterian church, and painted a fading, daisy-yellow. The doors of each building are painted, in contrast, a bright shade of maroon, with little numbers on each side. It looks like an old apartment complex from the 90’s, rather than a housing facility and homeless shelter.
Krystle Ruiz, a long-time employee at Upward Bound House, takes me around the facility during my visit. I’m fascinated by the different areas and spaces used for various activities. She walks me through each of the rooms, starting from the permanent low-income senior housing where many of the elderly and retired live, through another series of halls leading to the children’s room and the Life Skills center.
“We have Kids Night every Tuesday and Thursday in here,” she says, motioning towards the colorful bookcase stacked with hundreds of children’s books, art supplies, and toys. A hallway space with brightly painted walls, it resembles a classroom without the desks. “We have arts and crafts, games, and mini school lessons. We have lots of little kids who aren’t even in school yet who love to play in this area, while their parents are at work or out looking for a job.”
The children’s room has a few computers, large desks and tables, and plenty of books and toys. I’m welcomed by the smell of crayons and drying watercolor paint from the artwork lining the colorful walls, instantly brought back to my own kindergarten classroom.
Upstairs, the Life Skills center is much simpler. Black couches line the walls, and a large TV playing infomercials on mute is hanging next to the window. A few of the residents are sitting down, silently interacting with one another through hand gestures and sheepish grins.
“The adults come here to learn basic life skills such as paying bills, opening up a bank account, using a computer, etcetera,” Krystle tells me. She seems excited, giving off an aura of familiarity and friendliness when she smiles at some of the room’s inhabitants. They smile back, and I am moved by this simple act of kindness.
Walking back outside, we pass through a playground, deserted because most of the older kids are still in school. “They go to the local elementary school across the street,” Krystle mentions when I ask about their absence. “Their parents, meanwhile, work with our Upward Bound case managers who help them find permanent jobs, housing arrangements, and other necessities—because they aren’t actually allowed to live here.” She seems sad when she says this, and I nod sympathetically. The inhabitants of the transitional housing facility and shelter at Upward Bound are only allowed to stay here for several months, receiving aid from the organization’s case managers about their next moves.
I don’t know as much about the residents as Krystle or any of the Upward Bound staff does, but I notice the way she smiles at every single one, calling some by their name, waving at some of the old ladies. For them, it’s a community—from the many different programs Upward Bound offers, to the simple, homey way every living area is laid out.
“Each of the apartment units come fully furnished, with a single bedroom, kitchen, and living room that can house up to 5 family members,” Krystle mentions cheerfully as we slowly walk past a group of inhabited units. “The Adopt-a-Unit program through the family shelter provides residents with the necessary furnishings and household items, so that they feel welcome and secure in their new home.”
The 21 different units are simple, painted a muted gray, with a single window looking out into the main street. Even from a short distance, I notice how they blend in with the rest of downtown Santa Monica’s bustling, lively community. “You often get people asking us what these [units] are,” Krystle tells me with a laugh. “They never guessed it was a part of the facility; the apartments just blend in so well. We purposely built it that way because it makes the families feel more welcomehere;not like they are living in a shelter. But Upward Bound is not just a shelter—it’s a home, a community.”
I certainly believe it, and I’ve only been here an hour. The units remind me of little villages with identical layouts, yet each seem to have their own little style and flair. I imagine the many different kinds of families inside, who struggle every day but still manage to keep their hopes up and spirits alive. Suddenly, I am grateful for my own blessings, and for the spirit of this humble community.
Finally, Krystle takes me down to a small parking garage and basement where the Food Pantry and the Hidden Treasures thrift store are located. These are special Upward Bound programs where resident families can go twice a week to get food, clothes, and other necessities for living.
“These,” she says, motioning around the area and smiling, “exist because of the goodness of people.”
The Food Pantry is in a little gated area and stocked with canned goods—baby food and vegetables, bread, rice, meats and beans. It’s open on Mondays and Thursdays during the day, and families are allowed to “shop” for grocery needs at no extra cost. At the Hidden Treasures thrift store, located just next door, residents can get clothes, toys, furniture, and other goods that are donated weekly to the Upward Bound organization. It’s a small room stocked with piles of old clothes for men, women, and little children. Dusted shoes and warm jackets line the shelves, ready for pick-up. “We get food and clothes donations from all kinds of places,” Krystle says, “grocery stores like Whole Foods, churches, other non-profits, food banks; everywhere.”
Of the whole operation, the Food Pantry and family thrift store catch my eye the most. I like the idea of a “grocery store” within the facility where disadvantaged families are provided with everything they need and more, and they don’t have to beg or feel embarrassed.
At Upward Bound House, volunteers are always helping out, families are well taken care of, and there never seems to be a shortage of food or supplies. Generosity and community are what keeps this operation going, and it honestly doesn’t feel like the average “shelter and soup kitchen” for families without a place to live. No, it isn’t just another city shelter. It is truly something else. It is a home.
March 24, 2014, 4:15 PM, Washington Ave. – Feet flying, I rush into the main office of a brown building that was once an old, dusty motel. I’m late. I almost couldn’t find the place. The whole building looks nothing like a homeless shelter, but instead like an older apartment complex tucked away beneath the busyness of the street. I trust my gut and step inside anyway. The room resembles a typical office setting, with old computers at each desk and stacks of files everywhere, but it is practically empty. I take a deep breath, noting the faint smells of ink and office supplies, food cooking from somewhere behind the room. A large sign near the ceiling reads: “Sponsored by The Mark Teppel Foundation” and right next to it, a paper-white banner with “Welcome to Upward Bound House!” scribbled in colorful marker—the handiwork of little kids, no doubt—and tiny signatures surrounding the letters. The banner is warm and inviting, and I smile, remember why I’m here.
I am 15 minutes late to my meeting with Shae Webbs, the volunteer coordinator at Upward Bound House’s Family Shelter program. I’m supposed to be helping her serve food to the residents of the facility for about an hour, hour and a half. I have no idea what I’m about to get myself into.
“HAY GIRL! You must be Allyson!” Suddenly a loud female’s voice fills the room, and it is then that I meet Shae. A young African-American woman of maybe 25 or 26, she is clutching a clipboard and wearing a smile on her lightly made-up face. She’s ecstatic, bouncing around in her black Converse sneakers, a casual choice for work clothing. “Glad you made it!”
After apologizing for being late, we get right to work. I put on a dusty apron and white latex gloves and Shae shows me around the office, first taking me out back to the kitchen area, where hearty meals for the temporary shelter residents are prepared each morning and afternoon. It’s a small, humble little set-up, with barely enough room for three people to squeeze by, but it certainly does the job. Shae takes out a tray of hot, steaming chicken tenders—“I call ‘em chicken nibblets; they’re a fan favorite!”—from the metal oven. I help her put the rest of the food onto a long serving platter: heaps of brown rice, baked beans, and a tray of petite black-and-white cupcakes donated by a local bakery. Everything smells delicious. Quickly we finish setting up, stacking empty plates on the table and setting out the cutlery.
“And now,” she says, settling down into a spinning chair at her desk, “we wait.”
It’s about 10 minutes before the first group of hungry residents wander in, so Shae and I take the opportunity to get to know one another. She tells me she just graduated from a culinary school program at St. Joseph Center in Venice, and is working part time at a kitchen in one of Google’s many L.A. offices. “I just love to cook,” she laughs, twirling around in her chair. “Sometimes it’s the bougie stuff—filet mignon, glazed apple strudel, the sort of thing them fancy eaters like. But when I’m cooking here for the residents, it’s a lot more simple: beans, rice, pasta, meatloaf. The staple foods. The residents don’t give smack if their meals are made with some sauce; they’re just grateful to be eatin’.”
It’s a valid point. Interested, I look around the room, taking in my surroundings: the buzzing lights of the office, the smell of beans being warmed, the distant whizzing of cars in the background. Hanging on the door is a faded sign with the rules and guidelines for residents in the program. I notice the first few rules:
- Residents must meet regularly with staff and case managers.
- No overnight guests without sign-in and approval.
- Be friendly with the other residents!
I smile, imagining the different scenarios and families that come to live here each month, how guests would interact with one another, what it’s like to never have the same neighbors living next door. Shae is typing something rapidly on her computer, and for a moment all is quiet when—suddenly, the door to the office opens with a small group standing outside, and then dinner rush begins.
First we serve food to a young woman wearing a bright yellow dress and her daughter, also in matching yellow. They are extremely pleased to be there, the little girl sucking her thumb animatedly as she watches me scoop a large portion of beans onto her plate. As more people begin to file in and out for dinner, Shae lights up, the animated features on her face coming to life as she greets everybody. “Shontelle! How you doin’ today?” and “Mister Mason, how’s life treatin’ you?” She seems to know and remember everything about the residents, making small conversation, saying hi to each mother and giving an extra cupcake to some of the children. I watch as a little boy’s face changes from somber to overjoyed when he gets to pick the biggest cupcake—a bright, frosted pink creation—on the platter.
“I try not to get so attached to the residents, since they’re only allowed here for so long,” Shae admits to me later, after we’ve served food to around ten families. “But sometimes, like, you can’t help it, you know?”
The residents at Upward Bound House’s family shelter in Culver City come from different backgrounds and ages, some living alone and some in larger families with mouths to feed. While the children go to school, the oftentimes-unemployed parent(s) are supposed to go find work or more permanent housing, since Upward Bound Family Shelter program is only allowed to accommodate them for three months.
“They come to the shelter, we take ‘em in, we house them and give them a nice place to sleep for a while; save ‘em a damn good amount of money too,” Shae tells me. We’re walking to one of the empty units in the building now, which had been recently vacated by a family who had graduated from the program. The identical apartment units all have maroon-painted doors with numbers, and a small window looking out into the street. It’s hard to believe this part of the facility had once been the Sun Bay Motel, bought recently in 2010 and converted into Upward Bound House’s newest temporary shelter for small families and individuals.
“It’s funny,” Shae laughs, unlocking the apartment door of Room #310 with a small gold key, “we still get guests from time to time come in and ask if there are any rooms available at the motel. Or they can’t find us; that’s just how blended-in we are with the rest of the street.”
We step into the one-bedroom block, and immediately I take notice of the cramped, but cozy surroundings: there’s a wooden bunk bed for children; a small baby crib; and a queen-sized bed for the parents. Equipped in the back is a fully-functioning mini-fridge, freezer, and a small bathroom and shower. No TV, but there is a beautiful piece of artwork hanging on one of the walls besides the baby crib. A simple oil painting of black-and-white flowers, their shadows spilling from the grass onto the contrasting white background.
“A lot of the furnishings and artwork is donated by families, churches, and other organizations,” Shae mentions. “We’re very fortunate, because they come in here and decorate the place; make it feel like a home for the new residents. It’s somethin’ special.”
I think of what a typical home looks like. The place reminds me of a confined, somewhat-decrepit motel room, but I immediately take back my thought. For some, this is luxury living. I breathe in, appreciative of my surroundings. It truly is beautiful.
After the brief tour, we go back into the main office/kitchen to serve a few more families. I find myself easing into the work, talking to people, greeting little kids and smiling at the adults. I feel comfortable, surrounded by people I don’t even know but feel strangely connected with. It is beautiful to think of how these families are gathered here for one purpose, as simple as sharing a meal together with their loved ones. Being in this community is what keeps them going, despite the struggles of getting through a single day. They are happy just to have food on their plate and a roof over their heads, to be here together, if just for this day, this moment. I watch as families sit together at the table and talk about their day, Shae saying hello to every face she serves, and I now understand why the Upward Bound House is more than just a transitional shelter. It is this beautiful, uplifting idea of place for these people who technically don’t even have a permanent place to live. It isn’t anything fancy, or really anything you’d see headlining the news. But it gives me hope.
Before leaving promptly at 5:45 PM, I help clean the dishes and give an extra slice of bread to a little girl with cornrow pigtails. She looks up at me wondrously with a gap-toothed, appreciative smile.
And it hits me: this is why I’m here.
April 14, 2014, 5:25 PM, Upward Bound Family Place Shelter – Roberto “Bobby” Valenzuela is hungry. He gives me a blank stare as I ask him a simple question, silent while chowing down on his chicken and yellow rice. His furry mustache moves up and down slowly, matching the steady rhythms of his mouth.
“What’s your story?” I had asked. It was basic, nothing too elaborate or unfriendly.
At first, he doesn’t seem to understand or is too occupied. I had just walked in on dinnertime, after all. He’s sitting alone at a small table in the corner of the Upward Bound facility, thoroughly eating his meal, when I went up to say hello. I wait patiently for his response, watching his light brown eyes go from confused to curious.
He tells me his name is Roberto, but most people in the shelter call him Bobby. “It’s just easier to remember,” he explains sheepishly, finishing up the last of his chicken. He sets down his knife and fork neatly on top of the emptied plate, looking mildly triumphant. “But back home in San Salvador, they’d call me Roberrrto.” He rolls his r’s.
I want to ask where his family is, where he came from, what happened. But I clench my jaw, feeling the knots in the pit of my stomach unravel. Instead, I ask him what it’s like to live in Upward Bound; the real truth of it, not what you see on the website and pamphlets or what the staff members will tell you. His response is short and to the point: “It has a roof, a bed, food to eat. It’s better than not living anywhere.”
It’s a gritty, but valid truth. Bobby speaks pretty good English, with a slight Salvadorian accent. His dark skin looks tanned from the sun, and his hands are leathery from years of hard work. Suddenly I remember the homeless man with the dreads sitting at Third Street Promenade a few weeks back—his sunken eyes and calloused feet, the look on his face when I showed him the shoes I had bought for him. And then I realize something else from my visits to the shelter at Upward Bound for a couple of weeks: that it doesn’t matter if the people I meet are homeless, destitute, living on the street or in a temporary shelter, helping those in need, or even just writing about them. What truly matters is that we are all just people, with individual stories, in need of each other. We are home.
© 2015 ALLYSON R. ESCOBAR