A cardboard box, one sleeping bag and a slab of dense frigid concrete is all I have to get me through the night. The pavement digs into every nook and cranny of my body no matter how I twist and turn, from the waist down my body is numb. A mountain of layered clothing can’t get me through the night warm.
Freeway noise on the interstate ramp above my head invaded my ears. A steady melody of squealing car brakes fill the night’s rhythm a few feet from where I’m trying to sleep. Shoe scuffs from a passerby to close for comfort causes every inch of my body to go on high alert.
I was homeless for one night and was terrible at it.
On November 17th, 2016, I slept out on the streets of Los Angeles to help Covenant House California raise funding for its homeless youth programs. According to studies nearly 6,000 kids search for a safe place to sleep, most hunkering down in the worst parts of L.A. hoping to make it through the night. This broke my heart. How could so many be homeless in one city?
Feeling motivated and desperate to make a dent in the homeless youth numbers, I created a fundraising page through Facebook. This made my palms sweat and I agonized for weeks about posting anything to raise donations for the cause. I hated the idea of asking people for money. Self doubt crept in and the tiny voices in my head started to make me second guess my ability to raise any.
“Nobody will donate. You’re going to look like a failure and everyone will know because it’s Facebook.”
“When’s the last time you’ve even seen these people? Or been in the same state? Now you expect them to give you money?”
Time was running out and I needed to just do it. I hit submit and prayed for the best. The next morning, I realized my mistake by stupidly assuming people with money were the only ones who could donate.
The next morning $50 had been donated by my husband’s life long friend’s mother, who I had only met a handful of times. Why would someone I barely know, help me raise money? Over the next week donations poured in from family, friends and former coworkers, most I hadn’t seen in years. The unconditional feeling of support was overwhelming, in the best way possible.
Those who couldn’t afford to donate shared the fundraising page with their Facebook friends in hopes someone on their timeline could. The kicker for me was knowing a few of my friends who donated had struggles of their own. They had little mouths to feed, were raising their families alone and stressed about keeping their own roof over their heads.
I was wrong to assume only people with a fat bank account could help those in need, and I got reminded each time someone else made a donation. It had nothing to do with what financial bracket they fit into, it was about wanting to make a difference.
Thinking back to my worries about looking foolish “online” makes me cringe. It never had anything to do with me and unfortunately that wasn’t the only time a jolt of reality slapped me upside the head during the Sleep Out. I suppose I needed reminding of the kind people living in America.
Growing up close to the Big Apple meant weekend trips to the city. It wasn’t uncommon to see someone tattered, dirty and begging for money every few blocks. In my teens I watched a news story about “professional panhandlers,” who weren’t homeless and only looking to make a quick buck on the side. I was disgusted and that story stayed with me until November 17th, 2016.
The word bum and beggar got thrown around a lot and looking back, these choice words helped make it easier to separate myself from “them,” as if they weren’t “as human.” I assumed a homeless person was homeless by choice or had messed up their life because of drugs and therefor deserved their present situation.
I could not have been more wrong. I forgot the magic rule about assuming.
During the Sleep Out I was fortunate enough to meet many of the kids who were benefiting from the homeless youth programs. The young man at my table had been living on the streets since he was seventeen. After a series of unfortunate events, his unmedicated-paranoid-schizophrenic mother left him at a park claiming she was “done” and checking herself into a mental facility. Dad was long gone, too.
Can you imagine your seventeen self surviving on the streets every night for three years? This kid also made sure to get to school every morning, not showered, wearing the same clothes and half starved. Now imagine being homeless and having to get through high school in those conditions. Each story had the same common thread, none of them chose to be homeless, because who would?
After making it through the Sleep Out, I woke up focused on beating traffic and left as quickly as possible. I wanted to get home and get the show on the road, eager to get back into the swing of things. It wasn’t until my car rolled into its familiar slot out front of my apartment did the full weight of the night before sink in. Tears poured down my face and the emotions from the night before constricted my throat.
I only did one night on the streets knowing the next morning a warm bed and hot shower would be waiting. These kids do it every night with no relief in sight. The wonderful people I met that night do their part to make the world a brighter place. I feel fortunate to have met them. They taught me more than one valuable lesson.
It’s easy to take for granted the little things in life. A bed, hot shower and a clean pair of underwear mean more to me now than ever before. We all have our struggles, but it’s important to remember it could always be worse.
There are plenty of kind people left in America. I know, I spent the night out on the streets with a handful of them.