Moved, mad and motivated
Once again, the homeless disappeared on us. This past Saturday, I joined the Trejo family, along with my friends Bianca and Robert, to serve a meal to some of the homeless people living in downtown Santa Ana. Previously, we had been going to the riverfront near the Anaheim Angels stadium, but all 700-plus homeless were evacuated from the area due to safety and cleanliness issues. So instead, we pulled up to an area next to the City Hall in downtown Santa Ana where about 400 homeless reside. Well … at least they were there up until a week ago, when they were evacuated for similar reasons.
A police officer directed us to the old bus station around the corner, which has since been converted into a temporary shelter with 400 cots. We asked a social worker if we could set up a table and serve food just outside the building (you need a permit to be inside). She expressed concerns that there would be a mad rush to grab food, and that we didn’t have enough for everyone. We told her we were willing to take the risk and convinced her to turn the other way. “I don’t know you’re here,” she told us while walking back into the bus station.
A few people saw us setting up our table with aluminum trays filled with pasta, so they began to form an orderly line. After we finished setting up, some of them joined hands with us for a prayer. It was a beautiful moment of unity, all of us grateful for this moment. But it was soon interrupted by another official who came out of the bus station and asked us to stop serving our meal. “You can’t be here,” he said, even though we were on a public sidewalk. “The cops will give you a citation. But you can move everything about 100 feet that way,” he said, pointing farther down the sidewalk.
We kindly obliged, although the frustration and anger was building inside me. I felt like I was getting a small taste of what it felt like to be homeless, constantly being told to move and given conflicting orders. But I don’t have to sleep on a cot in an old bus station. Or rely on people to provide meals for me. Or worry about survival on a regular basis.
Still, the whole experience felt demeaning and demoralizing. I was less frustrated about how we were treated than about the greater homeless situation in general. That’s what overwhelms me and makes me feel helpless sometimes. It’s a complex issue, no doubt—a confounding cocktail that involves housing costs, education, mental illness, drug abuse and city ordinances. But here we were simply trying to provide a meal for these people. And we were treated as though we were flirting with the law.
Despite the frustration, there were also signs of hope. While we were serving food, I noticed a car driving by and tossing hygiene kits out the window to people along the sidewalks. Bianca had a conversation with a man who had just found a temporary housing situation nearby. He and his wife had been homeless for years, and this was a big move for them. They also had a cat inside a little carrier. “My wife and I saw this abandoned kitten on the street and didn’t want to take it because we were homeless, too,” he said. “But how can you turn down a face like that? So we feed him and move him around in this carrier.” For the record, the cat looked healthy and happy. Which just goes to show you can never be too poor to give back.
I spoke with another man in his 60s who walked around with a cane. We were handing out boxes of Cracker Jacks in addition to our pasta meal, and his face was priceless when we offered him a box. “Cracker Jacks? They still make these?!” he said with a chuckle. Immediately being transported back to his childhood after the first bite, he dug out his little prize (a sticker). After scarfing down his box of caramel corn and peanuts, he asked me where I was from. I told him that I was taking a break from the cubicle life to give back in a more tangible way. “No offense, but I hope you never go back to work again,” he said.
That really hit me, hearing those words from a homeless person. It reminded me of what’s important in life. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean I shouldn’t work at all. Rather, that I should find a job that doesn’t confine me to a cubicle. How privileged am I to have the option to choose.
After our afternoon of serving 100-or-so people, we headed back to the church, and I was ready for a nap. Still frustrated by the sequence of events earlier in the day, I popped into the food pantry next to my room to see if there were any sweets for me to munch on before hitting the hay. The pantry was a bit of a chaotic mess, with unpacked boxes stacked everywhere. It was almost impossible to move around. So I unpacked a carton of chip bags and moved a couple of things on the shelf to make room for them. And then I unpacked another box. And another. And slowly I felt the frustration moving out.
I was being productive, and productive felt good. A couple hours passed in a flash, and the food pantry was completely reorganized. I was in such a sorting frenzy that I forgot to drink liquids, and I nearly fell over. So I chugged a bottle of Gatorade in about 10 seconds, crawled into bed with the cats and said a prayer of gratitude for this soft bed and these furry friends and this feeling of satisfaction despite the sometimes frustrating ways of the world.