One perk of being unemployed is the fact that I have a lot of time on my hands.
This week, partly in an attempt to get to know some people at my new church Ecclesia, I signed up to help out with something called the Hollywood Homeless Registry. The way I understood it, it involved collecting census information for the homeless in Hollywood. The hours we were expected to volunteer were from 3:00 to 6:00 a.m., as in, in the morning.
Seeing as I’m unemployed, I thought, hey, I have time, I don’t have to really be up early to go to work, sure, why not.
Two things initially surprised me about the experience. First being that the actual percentage of Ecclesia volunteers was small. Very small. Secondly, we weren’t collecting official government census data—in fact, we were collecting data that was a bit more valuable. See, the organization we volunteered for, Common Ground, seeks to end homelessness. End it. As in, completely.
In their quest to do this, they’ve developed what’s called the vulnerability index, which takes into account age, length of time of homelessness, diseases suffered, etc. These factors are plugged into an algorithm, and out pops a ranking of who, among the homeless, is most at risk of dying on the streets. Armed with this information, Common Ground then seeks to find adequate, permanent housing for those they deem the 50 most vulnerable homeless people in any particular area. So far they’ve mounted this campaign in New York, New Orleans, D.C., Phoenix, L.A.’s Skid Row, and numerous other cities. This time, it was Hollywood’s turn.
The catch, of course, is that those homeless people had to be found and identified before any of this information could be determined, which is where we, the volunteers, came in. Armed with clipboards and flashlights and granola bars and $5 Subway gift cards, we took to the early-morning streets, attempting to wake and survey as many Hollywood homeless as we could. If you think the idea of waking a homeless person up to do a 20-minute survey is daunting, well, you’re right. It was, but not as daunting as I expected it to be. Most were, understandably, a little cranky about being woken up at 3:30 in the morning, but almost everyone we encountered agreed to be surveyed and photographed. Many were downright friendly after a few minutes. All were, undeniably, human—in their desire to not be condescended to, to conversate, to express their needs and tell their stories—all of which is easy to forget when you’re busy avoiding the gaze of the man asking you for your spare change.
Over the course of the three days, I began to notice a pattern in a lot of the stories we heard. One guy, Gary, used to work for IBM, another woman for Dreamworks, both one-time successful people, neither of whom probably ever imagined they’d now be spending their nights curled up asleep against a bus stop bench. A lot of their stories revolved around recreational drug or alcohol use that turned into dependence and eventually spiraled out of control. I mean, this was the prevailing, nine-times-out-of-ten reason that they ended up on the streets.
Listening to them, I couldn’t help but think about my own propensity to sometimes go ahead and order that third, that fourth drink during a night out, and it hit me that, hmm … I can’t fathom a life that includes pan handling and can collecting, either, but as Mom likes to say, “there for the grace of God go I.” While I won’t say the experience turned me into a teetotaler, or that I won’t ever cut loose for an evening occasionally, but it has made me think twice about drinking and my motivations behind it.
Despite having signed up to get to know people from my church (that didn’t end up happening), I ended up taking part in something much more valuable and much more unexpected: not only in doing some Kingdom work and potentially helping those in need turn their lives around, but also gaining a bit of perspective about a certain continuum, how causes can lead to some unintentional effects, and to maybe be a bit more careful about my actions when it comes to partying it up.