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Something I’ve noticed in my travels: Homelessness in America looks very different from homelessness in other countries. Two years ago I was in Batam, Indonesia, where I visited a homeless couple who lived in a “hut” made of trash. They lay on a wooden plank with their two young daughters and toddler son, surrounded by flies and hoping to find enough rice in the dumpsters.
Here in America, poverty looks a little different. I’ve been following the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles for more than 10 months—and I’ve never met a truly starving homeless person. I’ve met several scrawny ones, but their emaciation was due more to substance addiction than to scarcity of food. Here, the homeless have smartphones, Facebook pages, beer bellies, and tents.
That’s not to say their poverty isn’t physical. These individuals are called “homeless” for a reason: Some sleep on the streets, some in emergency shelters, others in motels and cars. They have many real needs. But what they don’t seem to need is more food. So why is it that every holiday season, so many churches go on a charity binge, running food drives and donating stuff and serving meals? Come Thanksgiving, Christians across the nation will preach about remembering the poor and needy—but what does that mean, and how should it look?
From what I’ve observed, here’s how many people remember the poor: Whenever I visit downtown LA’s notorious Skid Row, an area with high-density homelessness, I see volunteer teams passing out food and clothing on the streets. Then a block away, I see homeless men and women peddling similar goods for instant cash—and I have to wonder where they got those items in the first place. On a recent visit to a rescue mission in Skid Row, I smelled hot food wafting from the cafeteria, while across the street another mission was also dishing out lunch. One woman walked out with her plate piled high with chicken and croissant, and when I remarked that it looked good, she replied, “Yeah, we can’t go hungry here. It’s impossible. There’s lotsa food—too much food.”
Last winter I met a homeless couple who arrived in LA with little more than two backpacks. Within four months, they had accumulated a mountain of stuff from do-good strangers: clothing, dressers, blankets, shoes, even Christmas lights. During the holidays, people dropped off lavish meals at homeless encampments until trash cans overflowed and untouched turkey rotted in the streets, attracting rats and vermin.
Several churches in LA now open their sanctuaries for winter shelter programs, which meet a huge need in a city that can get surprisingly cold in winter. I visited a shelter at an Episcopal church in town during one miserable rainy night. There, more than 50 people curled up on pews with sleeping bags and pillows. The church was so full that program workers had to bus a dozen people to another emergency shelter.
But I also saw a separation between the volunteers and the shelter guests. Five volunteers stood in front of a giant wooden cross, ladling chicken curry onto plastic foam trays and making little conversation beyond polite exchanges: “More fruit?” “Yes, thank you.” In came the volunteers with their trays of hot food, and out they went within an hour. Had they stayed a little longer, that chatty old lady would have told them a man had broken her jaw and stolen her belongings. The quiet father-and-son pair would have told them they had no bed that night after dinner, because the pews were full.
Throughout my reporting, I’ve met many, many well-meaning and good-hearted people who “just want to help.” And the simplest way they know how is to give—an instinctive human response. But as those who get more involved recognize the sheer complexity of this issue, they feel overwhelmed: So I can’t give money? Well, can I at least buy them a sandwich? Yet what if they spend the money they’ve saved on food on drugs or alcohol instead?
I too had that internal struggle every time one homeless woman I befriended asked if I could order her and her boyfriend pizza—and I knew they were both able-bodied individuals with food stamps and a penchant for weed. Finally I told her no, feeling intensely guilty afterward. I thought she would stop contacting me, but then one day she called me again in tears, desperate for comfort, and so I listened to her and asked if I could pray for her.
Ordering her pizza took me five minutes, but listening and praying with her took much more time and effort. I knew that one prayer didn’t solve her problems: That woman needed a lot more than I, a nonprofessional, could provide—she needed affordable housing, health services, employment, therapy—but at that moment, what she also needed was friendship, which was something I could give. And I felt then that all the pizzas I ordered for her were worth it—those pepperoni pizzas had built a consistency of communication and trust between us that I hope one day leads to her finding more help.
This Thanksgiving, let’s remember the homeless among us. We set aside a special day for thanksgiving precisely because we forget to give thanks every day. Like us, people experiencing homelessness need a warm meal, a roof over their heads, hands to hold and pray with, words of gladness and thanksgiving. This Thanksgiving, let’s remember not just the needy, but their real needs.