By Matthew Ormseth
When El Nino visited the Southland last month, it brought Los Angeles to a halt; streets became inadvertent waterways, traffic ground to a soggy standstill and Angelenos grumbled to high heaven about the gall of Mother Nature to interrupt their daily routines.
For most of us, the storms were an inconvenience, albeit a major one, but a few weeks ago, I met some people for whom the storms bore life-or-death implications.
In high school, I volunteered with a woman named Rebecca Prine, who distributed food, second-hand clothing and bedding to the homeless in Northeast L.A. But after I left for college three years ago, I lost touch with her.
A few days before Christmas, I was in the car, listening to National Public Radio, when a familiar voice floated over the airways. It was Rebecca. NPR was running a story on a project she’d started, a project that had gained terrible urgency in the run-up to El Nino.
Rebecca had convinced a church in Highland Park, Calif., to open its pews at night to the homeless. She was staffing the night-watch herself, organizing the storage of shelter residents’ belongings and procuring medical attention, benefits and temporary housing for those in most urgent need of it, all in addition to working her day job as a social worker for L.A. County. A few days after I heard the NPR story, I went to the church-turned-shelter All Saints Episcopal in Highland Park to see how my old friend was holding up.
A vegan spread of squash, blue-corn cornbread and beans was laid out for the shelter’s residents; Rebecca explained to me that the shelter offers dinner every night, prepared entirely by volunteers. During dinner, a local band of sixty-something’s set up shop in the cafeteria and played oldies like Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” and Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Someone started dancing, and before long, we were all spinning each other around in a confused, whirlwind marriage of square-dancing, swing and the twist. I didn’t know what it was, and it was beautiful.
I wanted to write about this shelter not to offer heartwarming testament to the dogged goodness of the human spirit or to thrust evidence of my own selflessness in your face. Rather, I wanted to write about this shelter to remind you of something I myself was reminded of when I visited, which was that it is well within our power to make life a little less difficult for other people, and a little more happy.
For a while, I was guilty of falling into a certain way of thinking, which shifted the responsibility of helping others from my shoulders and onto vague, abstract things like “the government” and “philanthropy.”
I’d think to myself that only something as large and powerful as the government could find housing for the homeless and provide care for their physical and mental ailments. Only philanthropists, people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, could alter the course of a life, as only they had the capital with which to do it.
In a way, that was true — I’m a 21-year-old kid on a student budget. I can’t provide anyone with Section 8 housing, a monthly stipend of $500 or even a trip to the doctor’s.
I can give my time and my attention, and that’s about it.
But my problem was that I hadn’t even done that. And seeing my friend, Rebecca, and all she’d managed to do with the few means at her disposal — namely a relationship with a church, an understanding of how to navigate the county’s red-tape labyrinth of social services and a little bit of time — was perspective-altering.
I realize that the vast majority of us can’t turn a life around singlehandedly. We lack the means, we lack the time and we have our own lives to deal with. At that church-turned-shelter, no one was handed the keys to a new house; no one was cured forevermore of the plight of homelessness.
Tomorrow, they would wake up with many of the same problems — no home, no work, ailing and failing bodies. Some might even argue that Rebecca’s efforts made little difference in the long run, that they only batted back the true problems for one more day.
Yet for a night, the residents had a warm place to sleep, out of the rain. They had a hot meal and live music with which to enjoy it. They had company. And I would argue that for them, it made a great deal of difference. For a night, it made all the difference in the world.
It is within our ability to help one another in some way. I know I am straying dangerously close to the brink of sentimentality here, but I was inspired by what I saw at that shelter. Philanthropy isn’t just for philanthropists.
For some, help might mean donating money; for others, it might mean donating a few hours a month. It might just mean being kind to someone else. And it isn’t just the homeless that need help; we’re all in need of it. We rely on each other for our happiness and misery.
If we each did only what was in our power to do, no more and no less, fewer people would be hurting, and life might seem a little brighter.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.