“The homeless.” Living in Los Angeles, California, you hear this term every day. This faceless, nameless group that so many would prefer stay out of sight, and out of mind. We quickly walk or drive by them — clutching our belongings, avoiding eye contact and denying a shared existence.
But who are the homeless, really? They are 53,1951 unique human beings. They are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. They are each one of us, merely divided by circumstance.
I have the great privilege of serving as the board president for the Downtown Women’s Center — the only organization in Los Angeles focused exclusively on providing for and empowering women experiencing homelessness, as well formerly homeless women who are transitioning into new lives.
I visit the center on Skid Row each month, often catching an Uber from my office to get there. The 30-minute commute brings me to a 50+ block area in Downtown Los Angeles that feels like a war zone. Streets are filled with tents, trash and feces; hearts are filled with agony, fear and despair.
Without fail, the driver asks me why I’m headed to such a dangerous part of town. And with that simple question, I’m thankful for my opportunity to change one person’s view — to convert one Angeleno from bystander to agent for change.
I tell the driver that I’m on my way to volunteer with the Downtown Women’s Center — a safe haven for women who need help overcoming homelessness and poverty. A place where they can rest, enjoy a home-cooked meal, access clean bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities, and secure a change of clothes. A place to restore their dignity.
I can’t even begin to recount the number of times I have heard people say, “The homeless chose this life” or, “They are all druggies and criminals” and, “If they only had a college degree, this wouldn’t happen.” The truth is, homelessness doesn’t discriminate.
Just last month, I heard the story of a woman who lost her job as a top-performing bank teller after her employer discovered she was living out of her car. Her apartment had become unaffordable due to a rent hike, so her car was her only form of shelter. After she was fired, she could no longer afford her car payment, and she soon found herself on Skid Row.
Los Angeles is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Growing up here, I’ve seen this epidemic unfold right before my eyes. Many people are one paycheck away from losing their home. In fact, a 20172 study showed that a five percent rent hike in Los Angeles County would send 2,000 residents into homelessness.
Domestic and sexual violence are also primary drivers of homelessness — in particular for the 16,410 women experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County. In many cases, the streets may be the only escape from an abuser. Research shows that on Skid Row, 40 percent of women are survivors of sexual assault, 55 percent are survivors of domestic abuse, 68 percent are survivors of child abuse, and 91 percent have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.3
The realization that we can all be vulnerable to this situation is a wakeup call. So, how can you help? Here are three simple ways.
First, be heard — be an advocate for change. Visit your local city website, like www.lacity.org, for information on ways to contact your designated council members and neighborhood representatives to push for more affordable housing and permanent supportive housing in your community. Second, help bring an end to NIMBYism (“Not In My Backyard” mentality) by debunking stigmas and educating your friends and neighbors about the root causes of homelessness. Third, and perhaps most important, be kind. When you pass by someone who is experiencing homelessness, look them in the eye. Smile. Let them know they matter.
One action, one conversation, can have a ripple effect that makes a world of difference as we work together to ensure no one has to live on the streets.
Learn more about the Downtown Women’s Center at www.downtownwomenscenter.org.