On Saturday, May 21, my sorority sisters and I volunteered at Turning Point in Santa Monica, CA. Turning Point is a transitional home for men and women that provides a full range of services, including case management, mental health care, linkage with medical care, and assistance in increasing income and obtaining permanent housing.
On this Saturday, we chose to honor the residents by giving them the VIP Treatment. We cooked and served them a hot and hearty breakfast. We also played games, gave away prizes and genuinely tried getting to know the residents. Even though it was for a few short hours, during our visit, we wanted residents to forget their worries and simply have a good time. This is the second time in as many years that we've hosted this event and, on both occasions, I have walked away far more blessed than when I walked through the doors. This service activity is literally life-changing...usually more so for us, the volunteers, than for the residents.
As expected, there is typically some initial hesitancy from the residents. But, that doesn't usually last very long. Before long, residents are actively engaged. One resident was "hitting the dab" as he accepted his raffle prize while others shared stories of their gratitude that we chose to celebrate them. All of the residents were wonderful but, on this occasion, there were two women who especially warmed my heart and made me realize how small acts of kindness can completely change someone's day - perhaps even their lives.
Rather than simply articulate her gratitude, the first woman, we'll call her Valerie, chose to demonstrate it. After the activity was over, she came back to the dining area and presented each of us with a beautiful, multicolored rose from the bouquet she had received for her birthday. "You showed us God's love, today, so I wanted to show you God's love. And, look at it," she said pointing to the rose, "that is God's love." She was right. That rose exemplified God's love and splendor in a beautifully small package. And, if you know how much I love fresh flowers and how unbelievably kind it was for Valerie to have shared her gift with us, then you know I had to fight back the tears.
And, then, there was the young woman that I'll call Misty...at the end of our event, Misty came over to thank me for the gift bag that we gave each resident. She commented on the thoughtfulness of the bag's contents. Each bag included a printout with a list of resources that residents might tap into along with toiletries. For the ladies, we also included nail polish because, regardless of circumstances, ladies love beautiful nails. One resident started polishing her nails, immediately.
In a few short but precious minutes, Misty told me a lot about herself. She said, "When I was in college, I was in [a sorority]. But, I left to start a new house. It was more inclusive." We discussed the origins of my sorority, for which Misty knew quite a bit. She continued, "It (my sorority) was started because of segregation. But, there really is no such thing as race. Anthropologists don't acknowledge race. Of course, there are stereotypes about all people."
As someone who simply believes that we are more alike than we are different, I was intrigued by Misty's insight. "There are stereotypes about black people...about Muslims...about homeless people," she said. "Yeah, some of us are drug addicted or have mental problems. But, that's not all of us. When I leave here, I want to change the stereotypes about homeless people." I was moved by Misty's honesty and it certainly made me reevaluate my own thoughts and perceptions about homelessness.
Because I recently began working at a hospital that specializes in cancer research and treatment, what Misty revealed next hit me in my core. "This is my first time being homeless. I mean, I hope it's my last time, too. But, I'm homeless because...I have a brain tumor. I just ran out of money...and I waited too long to ask for help."
Misty's candor revealed something that we often take for granted. As most people will attest, Los Angeles is an extremely expensive city in which to live. While many people migrate here for the wonderful weather, it is very, very easy to find yourself living paycheck-to-paycheck. I've often heard that most of us are only one tragedy away from homelessness. Never before did that sentiment ring more true.
According to a January 2016 article on Forbes.com, a Bankrate.com survey found that "just 37% of Americans have enough savings to pay for a $500 or $1,000 emergency. The other 63% would have to resort to measures like cutting back spending in other areas (23%), charging to a credit card (15%) or borrowing funds from friends and family (15%) in order to meet the cost of the unexpected event." So, if 37% of Americans cannot weather a $500-$1,000 storm with their emergency funds, can you imagine how drastically one's life might change if she were hit with a $300,000 (or more) medical emergency?
Misty and I continued to talk and we agreed that there is absolutely no reason for homelessness in America, the richest country in the world. But, it is important to note that it is also the most unequal country in the world since, according to Fortune.com, "the most concentration of overall wealth [is] in the hands of the proportionately fewest people."
Simply put: America, we have to do better - especially by the least amongst us. We cannot merely sit on the sidelines, pretending that we aren't all complicit in this American tragedy. In this land of milk and honey, the place where overconsumption is a daily reality, the "American Dream" is so often tied to home ownership. Everyone deserves adequate housing and it's our (collective) responsibility to end homelessness for good. We owe it to Valerie, Misty, countless veterans and many, many more.