Today marks the first year anniversary of my blog. It is hard to believe that it is actually been one year since I started writing it. I started writing the blog the same day that I moved out of the Transition House into the Marshall House. I shall never forget that day. I was quite fearful of my future, though, when I went to sleep, and woke up in the morning it was the beginning of a new life. You see, It was the first time I slept soundly for twelve months. Four months in jail followed by eight months in The
Transition House were not places were privacy was something that was remotely possible. In addition to that I was told when to wake up and when to sleep. I slept way into the morning that first morning. It was what I needed to start me on the next phase of my journey on Skid Row. So, I left people behind. They stayed with me in my heart. It was a good thing because most of the people that I met fell prey to circumstances, one way or the other. That candle that you see is not only for the one year anniversary but it is in memory for all who touch me and there were so many. I have been thinking of all of them. The ones that made it, I am more in awe of them than I was previously. The ones that did not, I am in awe of them as well for they gave me their wisdom and they fought a courageous battle with their demons. It was just not meant for them this time around. I miss them. I miss them deeply.
I recall when I first wrote about Skid Row I said that I knew nothing about it. Yes, I had been on Skid Row for eight months but I was in a compound and I rarely ventured out. However, when I moved to San Julian St., to the heart of and soul of the neighborhood, I knew I was going to learn a great deal about it. But as I said in the profile introduction, I began to learn a great deal about myself. My strengths and weaknesses were magnified. I was not able to enjoy my strengths as I had to battle and endure the weaknesses. The strengths meant nothing if I would succumb to the weaknesses. No, I am not talking about using drugs. I am talking about losing faith. And let it be known that I am not talking about losing faith in making through the Skid Row tunnel. I could not think that far ahead. That would be a weakness that would bring about inner chaos and emotional turmoil. The risk was to worry about the future and that would paralyze you from progressing through the day.
"Don't trip." That is where that phrase comes from. Many learned not to trip in jail or prison. They tried to teach me in jail. I understood it in jail. I did not have to deal with it as I had to focus like a robot to survive mentally and emotionally. I tried to deal with the concept when I first arrived on Skid Row because I had more time to let my mind wonder. I could speculate more about the future. In jail, there was no future--just the moment.
Some moments were extremely profound-in ways that are hard to describe. After all that I had experienced, the smallest act of kindness to me would evoke a body shiver and a waterfall of tears. Each act of kindness allowed me to regain faith that softness existed in the world. I would thank the person who extended that human kindness over and over again. Within the first couple of days of moving into the Marshall House and starting my blog, I went to the store to purchase something. A man was sitting on the ground in front of the store. He sat on the ground and asked me for some change. I ignored him. Each time I saw him, he asked me. Each time he asked me, I ignored him. I had my own anger at the time.
. I was not looking down on the man as much as I was fearful that if things did not go as I wanted them to go, needed them to go, I would end up on the ground like him. But in the final analysis, I was rejecting him and his needs. I learned later that his needs were far beyond the money for which he asked. I was hurting at the time and probably angry that someone would ask me for anything. Of course, I forgot that I had asked people for answers to my questions and the time they spent giving me those answers provided comfort and reassurance in my moments of insecurity. And believe me, there were many of them.
Last week marked the end of my first six months of employment and thus was eligible to receive medical benefits. On that day a woman who lived in the building where I worked asked me if her television had arrived for her. She has to urinate in a bag and many times it leaks on the floors and in the elevator. People complain about her and she can be very insistent on what she wants and demands immediate service, service for which I do not have the authority to provide. She gives me hell sometimes. But the woman had to be in a hospital for sometime and was transferred out of here to another location. When she returned the television was delayed in coming with her. Upon hearing that the television was here, she gave me the biggest smile in the world. Behind those otherwise sad eyes, you could see that she felt that somebody cared. She even said that she could hug me.
I saw that man again last week, the one that I told you I ignored. I went to the very same store and he was there. He looked at me like he was familiar with a hostile vibration from me though he obviously did not remember who I was. I went into a conditioned response mode when I saw him. I went into the store, bought what I wanted to buy and walked out and passed him. I walked ten feet and froze, standing dead in my tracks for about 20 seconds. I turned around and approached the man. He looked at me with a wonder in his eyes. After all, so many men like him are attacked every day by those who have such anger they feel that the mentally ill are available punching bags for anyone that feels they need to get out frustration.
I handed him the few dollars that were in my hand. He looked at me as if he was wondering if there was a mean trick in store for me. He looked deep in my eyes and finally saw that I was willing him to take it. It was as much for him as it was for me. "God bless you," he said. And in his eyes I understood that look. I had wore that look myself not too long ago. I felt that look. I ached when I recognized it.
It was the look of hope, a look that let me know that I nourished that hope in him enough for him to fight long enough to have someone provide him with some more hope--The hope that human beings still care for one another in a cruel, mean and vicious world.
I turned away and tears ran down my face. I fed my own need for something inside me to stay alive and grow, something where I can be of service to my fellow man. I looked down and saw the logo of the company for which I work and I had to smile.
As the CEO said one day to me when I told her that her organization can lead the way, "Walter, we are trying." Trying in Skid Row is not an easy task. It takes allot. But all of the people that I have met, gave their all with me when I was in the Marshall House. And now a year later, I am able to do the same for others.
That is what will bring change in Skid Row.
People have asked me what I think of the non profit organizations. That answer is not easy to come by. One must be objective and when in Skid Row it is difficult to be objective. It is easy to grab onto something at which arrows of your own anger and frustrations can be aimed. Any story can make you pull out an arrow from your quiver.
Let me tell you a story. My story. And I tell this story not in anger but as a matter of fact in hopes that the spirit in which it is intended is received in the right way.
I was released from jail on February 7, 2007. It was two weeks after the court released me when I was picked up by Volunteers of America. I did not know I was going to be released in their custody. I was told differently. The judge, himself, did not know where I was. Each time I went to a court hearing he thought I was in another program other than to where he sent me.
I did whatever they told me to do at the Transition House. 7 months later I walked into the court room and the court released me from their custody. However, he said to me that though he appreciated all of the cocaine anonymous and alcohol anonymous meetings that I attended, that was not what he wanted me to do. He wanted me to go to an anger management class for a year. I did not know that. Basically the whole 8 months I that I spent in the program was a waste of my time because I had to still find a program as the judge still wanted me to attend an anger management class.
If I was not angry before then, I was angry after court. Why because I was already frustrated etc etc. I still had to go to a class. Volunteers of America had failed to deliver what they were supposed to do. Somebody in a decision making capacity dropped the ball. It cost me 8 months and I had to find a program before the next court date in December. No program was available. The free ones had a waiting list of 6 months. Perhaps, with a note from several programs, the judge may have understood and not sent me back to jail. I could not count on that.
One of the counselors from the program told me of a program that started at the LA Mission in February but that was speculative in my point of view. Even so, I would have to postpone my life another 4 months. It was already costing me a couple of years.
One counselor came up to me and told me that I should sue Volunteers of America. because they failed to deliver services and I lived in that 100 bed dormitory for no reason. He was right and most likely I would have won. But at the same time I would have lost. And that is my point.
Yes, Volunteers of America failed to do what they told the court they would do on one level. But on another level, on an interpersonal level, each and every person in that organization was there for me. The judge did not know where I was and he ordered me there. How can I assume that Volunteers of America was told I was to be in a certain type of program. Everybody that goes there is there for a drug program.
Should they believe that I was any different? I would say NO.
Each employee gave me wisdom in how to deal with my emotions. Each employee taught me how to deal with the separation and isolation from my family which was court ordered. Each and every employee fought to make me believe in myself and that all would work out if I just was patient. They were patient with me as I would as the same questions repeatedly. They mended my heart as best they could.
What happened to me was not so much a Volunteers of America failure, it is a Skid Row SYSTEMATIC DISORDER. There are communication problems between courts and organizations. There is under staffing. The staff is overworked. Organizations do not hire enough. People cost money. Counselors tell me that they are frustrated because of the unprofessionalism of their peers. Their colleagues do the best they can. It is not their fault that they are not being provided the training.
In cases where training is available, then you have a high transition rate of employee. Some relapse. Others seek other employment after cutting their teeth in the trenches of Skid Row. Some are there just for a paycheck. Is it because they don't care or they can no longer afford to care emotionally as they have been disappointed by clients that let them down or bureaucratic handcuffs that prevent them from doing what they feel needs to be done.
Organizations have a fear for being sued, and lets face, many who are in Skid Row come from a background where scams are a traditional source of employment. Fraud does not only live in Health Care Hospitals. A large percentage of the people that "seek shelter" in the LA Mission, the Midnight Mission, and the Union Rescue Missions are merely taking advantage of the system. They are running some type of scam. Two people were evicted from where I work and they told me they did not care because they can go to one of the missions. Indeed, that is where they told us to forward their mail.
Lets face it. and many in Skid Row believe this. Many counselors believe this. Many of these non profit organizations serve as enablers for those who want to continue to scam the system or do drugs. "Walter, I will relapse when I damn well please." Is it bravado hiding their shame of relapsing? Is it mental illness bred from many things, the seeds of which were planted long before they were born. Let us be clear. There is a socialization process in certain mental illnesses particularly if the roots stem from the eggs of disenfranchisement and the growth comes from a need to survive, whether through ignorance or expedience.
If the missions were to throw out all of those that rotate to one mission and then the other when they have overstayed their welcome at one place,or if they would be tougher on relapsers, then I pretty much guess that their would be enough beds available for the mentally ill and emotionally crippled who are not slick enough or whose souls are not corrupt enough to "run game" to have shelter. They are the ones who are suffering. They are suffering deeply. The other sufferers are the people that relapse after fighting a hard battle and resources are being depleted by those who make a lifestyle of it. These missions are homes to them.
There is an argument by many that the missions do not want to turn anyone away or kick anyone out who is relapsing. To do so would discourage those from stepping forward to receive help. Some say that is nonsense. Some say that the people who are "full time residents" are playing a game and are playing the missions for fools.
Some say that the missions need the crack smokers more than the crack smokers need them. The missions need them to fill the place in order to receive funding. That view is echoed by counselors who believe that the goal of some of the missions or non profits is to obtain funding and that everything else is secondary.
Some also say that at the LA Mission and the Union Rescue Mission you must first commit to being a Christian before you can either gain employment or receive assistance for drugs. Therefore the perception on the street is that help is subject to being converted over to a religious group. I have not talked to the leaders of either place. I do not know. I have read the employment application of the Union Rescue Mission. It does ask you to state some commitment to Christianity. If one is excluded from employment because they are not Christians, I do not know.
I believe the missions have their purpose. I also believe that it would be politically a tough call to throw people out after they have relapsed repeatedly. Everyone is conditioned to certain policies. Business on Skid Row has been done a certain way for a long time. But lets be honest. Everyone knows that drugs are sold by those that live in the missions. Some believe that low level employees protect those that are buying the drugs and even supply them as well, taking a percentage of sells as a supplement to their incomes which are definitely low.
Temptation is there. I was walking with a woman a month ago and she told me to wait for her because she had to stop in the mission, where in front we were standing, in order to purchase her bag of heroin.
It is a difficult call. So no one can expect expect things to change from establishments that have been in Skid Row a long time. They have their axes to grind. It is harder to bring change in huge organizations--too bureaucratic.
It is just like trying to get the agencies or government to committees.
I can recall many times in the last year when government officials would call me to rant and rave about how frustrated they were. County and City agencies were in agreement for a couse of action for Skid Row but everthing was held up because one of the Agencies did not only want top billing. They wanted ONLY billing. Therefore the people who needed assistance did not receive it because of marqee issues.
That led some of the people participating on Skid Row issues to conclude, as do people on the street, that everyone wants Skid Row to stay the same. "Walter, nothing gets done. We have meeting after meeting. We have meetings to discuss the next meeting. Everybody gives lip service of agreement in public. As soon as the meeting adjourns, everyone is backing out of their commitments. it is as if they want to sabotage it. It makes you think that not only nothing is going to change but that everyone wants it to stay the same," spoke a several year front line veteran of Skid Row issues.
"Walter, this thing about containment. It is actually true. No one will state that it is the case but the decisions are, in effect, a defacto policy position. We have this discussion to spread out the services that are offered to the homeless. Every government organization says "yes", we should not put the pressure on the city of Los Angeles. But then they vote down money allocations for their own municipality or respective counties. So in effect nothing changes and LA maintains it position as the homeless capital with Skid Row being the center for it all. But,of of course, eveyone would deny indignantly, feigning trmendous umbrage, if you mentioned that they were in effect perpetuating the 'containment" policy.
So with that, I believe that innovation will come from new sources-sources that are not set in their ways and are open to ideas. There are organizations in Skid row that are open to change. They are more able to adjust to the needs of the community if management feels the situation warrants it. More on that in Part 2 of my first year in review.