Be the Cause

More “food” for thought

Everytime we serve lunch at the Downtown Women’s Center, it keeps getting better. Because there has been so much support from all of you — especially you volunteers who have enthusiastically thrown yourselves into this adventure — we have been able to individually spend more time with the Ladies. While they were called for “seconds,” Rucha and I took some time to stand back, amazed at how things have changed. Having more volunteers has truly made a difference, not just in how the lunch service flowed, but also in how some of the Ladies have started to respond to us. Supun’s last post talked about a Lady named Julie. I had a chance to talk to her on Sunday, and was so happy when she told me that she now looks forward to Be the Cause serving lunch. She said that other volunteers do not take the time to chat with the Ladies, and they just leave when they’re done. I didn’t mention that that was me and Rucha about a month ago, despite our good intentions. I’m starting to realize again what good things happen when we all slow down and take some time.

With Sukh leading the way, in true Be the Cause fashion we gathered in a circle for a few minutes of silence to reflect on why we serve. Having not done that in a lllllooooonnnngg time, I tried not to giggle as I closed my eyes. After a minute or so, I couldn’t help but peek to see if anyone else was looking up yet. Anyone who has volunteered with me will know that sometimes I tend to spazz over the details, and when it’s time to get certain tasks done I’m all gung-ho. It’s easy to find something to do — prep the veggies, unwrap cheese, dress the salad, wash the dishes, load the ovens, etc. I think about those minutes of silence and how they were to contribute more meaning to these tasks. Sukh reminded me of something I’d forgotten a long time ago — one of the reasons we serve is to learn about ourselves, to grow, not just to have our actions benefit others.

Personally, I believe that one of the reasons why it’s so hard to slow down is because it’s scary to be confronted with all of your insecurities and socially-imposed presumptions about other people and “charity” work. Some of the same feelings I had when I first started going to the DWC this year are still there. It’s still daunting, not knowing how well we’d be received by women who have suffered through domestic violence. Will there be someone who hasn’t taken their meds today, a toughened runaway? Are other volunteers ok with doing more than serving food? Overwhelmingly, the answer to the last question has been yes. But of course those questions also have their underlying issues.

In reality, this adventure has been nothing less than beautiful and I’m grateful for it. For the record, no volunteer has ever been put in harm’s way at the shelter.

This and the project at Project Achieve are very timely with the Change of Heart Weekend coming up. Even though some of us may be aware of the of social conditions that cause homelessness, I know I can benefit from some time to adjust my perspective on how I personally contribute to those conditions and disparities. For one, I think that the fear I have can be assuaged by reevaluating how I interact with people overall.

The goals or meaning of this project seem to keep changing, but it’s all moving in the direction of self-awareness and social consciousness. Plus, I’m learning a lot about cooking for a tiny village. I know there will definitely be more inspiring and thought-provoking things to come.

When lunch was over, the Ladies clapped for us, as they always do. If any of you who were there didn’t hear it, there was an old Fiipino Lady who was saying, “Congratulations!!”

I can’t help but clap for all of us too! Congratulations!! Yay!!

Revitalization vs. Gentrification

Yesterday was a beautiful day. I am constantly taken aback by you marvelous Be the Cause people. Supun, thank you for sharing the fact that one of the ladies told you that what we served was “Love Food.” It’s amazing how that sentiment can be communicated without words. Thank you all for your time, for running around, gathering ingredients, mindfully creating healthy, filling food. Thank you for your loving hands as you served the Ladies, for carefully handling and presenting this food. Thank you for sitting down, for listening, for making the ladies laugh, for making them reflect on things other than how awful it is out there. Thank you for bringing love into a place surrounded by so much anguish.

The day before, we had the opportunity to take a tour of the Downtown Women’s Center (I’d link to Supun’s previous posting where he addresses this, but big computer make too confusing). Sophia was our resident tour guide — humble, articulate, perceptive and clever. She asked us to have an open mind and understand that people end up on Skid Row for a variety of reasons. She also gave us some history on the DWC, how it was founded in the 1970s by a woman social worker, how it was meant primarily as a permanent residence for ladies with mental illnesses. I like to think that the center was given birth or inspired by the women’s movement. And what type of change is my generation giving birth to?

Sophia addressed the “revitalization” of downtown. As Supun mentioned, “gentrification” is more the word for it. But revitalization? Was downtown dead?

There is life on Skid Row. Everytime I walk into the DWC I feel so much warmth. It is safe there.

Next to the residence is a big empty lot where there’s construction going on — no doubt more space for artists lofts. Many of the ladies who come for lunch are not residents. They come from the streets or nearby hotels, which are probably becoming increasingly expensive, or are soon to be converted into hip said lofts.

Whoever’s in charge of designing Los Angeles has been lusting after this dream of centralizing downtown. This is to be an entertainment center; you’d be able to walk to work, walk your dog and feel safe without fear of being accosted by panhandlers. They’ll have moved “over there” in time. Ironically, one of the biggest selling points of “gentrification” is the prospect of being able to interact with your neighbors, to feel part of an urban community, where you can tip your hat to your barista and say things like top ‘o the mornin to ya!…..Or not.

This is sick.

The DWC houses only 45 ladies. There are thousands of people literally fighting for a place to sleep. And they have all come to congregate on Skid Row. Maybe at some point the land in downtown was cheaper, and therefore “dead” in the economic sense. At that point thousands of low-income folks moved to this area because here they had a chance at survival. Moreover, several resources like the Union Rescue Mission, the Midnight Mission and the Downtown Women’s Center sprang up. I’m afraid that in the years to come they won’t have a fighting chance against those economic, social and cultural forces. I walked by that dirt lot next to the residence and it makes me sad to know that it’s off limits to the DWC.

The reason it’s so important to me that we serve the Ladies good food is because if they can’t get some good sustenance here, where can they? If we do not listen to their troubles, or extend a sense of comfort or love, who will?

The reason we call them “Ladies” is because it changes our perception of them. It may help them to change their perception of themselves. As Rupal observed, some of the Ladies don’t look homeless. A homeless person is supposed to be dirty, ragged, missing teeth. The Ladies at the DWC have their nails done, their hair coiffed, their clothes are clean, they wear more make-up than me. They are actually pretty mindful of what they eat. They appreciated that the food was healthy on Sunday. They are deserving of the same basic comforts as we volunteers are.

The reason we address the Ladies respectfully is because it reminds us and them that we are human. In that space we too are each vulnerable.


One lady asked me if I could smell the “Icy Hot” patch on her knee. Hmm…no, I couldn’t. Arthritis? Nah. The day before she was trying to get into “the Union” but 3 of the security guards had to keep this Lady from getting in. She claimed she had a knife. The police were called, they let her go. Now she wears Icy Hot and keeps the 2 bruises on her head covered with her hat. Looking more closely, I could see the edges of dark patches on her black skin.

To what lengths would anyone go to to survive? I also believe in self-fulfilling prophecies, where ultimately you will turn into whatever image authority figures or a majority of other people have of you, however skewed it may be.

Inside the DWC there was love because you Be the Cause folks were there. Thank you for reflecting that human part that resides in everyone.

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