Ever since I began reporting on homelessness, I’ve been going to the Venice Beach Boardwalk almost every Thursday evening to volunteer for a nonprofit that passes out burritos to the homeless.
I thought volunteering would be a good way to stay in touch with the homeless realm—not just from interviews with nonprofit CEOs and government officials, but from people actually on the streets who are still fighting their vices or hustling to beat the system, people who have become hopeless and live each day for no better reason than that their hearts are still beating.
Having written about how food isn’t a solution to homelessness, and in some cases even enables it, I at first had my reservations about volunteering for a food-serving organization: What were we accomplishing, really? Has anyone kicked his drug habit, or checked into an AA program, or earned a key to an apartment because of us? What do we do, besides fill an empty belly for a night?
For nine years, volunteers of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds have gathered each night to slop curry beans and rice on flour tortillas, roll them into burritos, then walk the streets passing them out with bottled water. Volunteers call out, “Anybody want a burrito?” Heads poke out of tents, individuals halt their bicycles, and high-as-a-kite tweakers curled up in corners grunt.
Sometimes we bring donated clothes and shoes and hygiene products. The most popular items are clean socks, razors, tampons, and bananas. Many of these people have health problems due to lack of potassium, so they cheer when they spot us with bananas: “Yes! Potassium! Time to get our potassium!”
Most of the beneficiaries are grateful: “You guys have no idea how much this means to us,” many have told us. Others exclaim, “You all rock. Thank you, thank you!” A few complain that the burritos have no meat, or are too spicy, or not spicy enough. One homeless woman asked if our burritos were organic and non-GMO, and was only mildly satisfied when we told her they’re vegan.
It’s been 16 months since I started volunteering for this nonprofit, and I’ve seen the number of volunteers grow. It used to be a small, cozy group—at most a dozen showed up, rain or shine—but when more people heard about us through social media and online communities, the number grew to over 30. Many nights, we were like a small army marching along the Venice Beach Boardwalk. Imagine 30 people surrounding a homeless person, waving burritos and water bottles in his face.
Most of these people came only once or twice, but every week we saw new waves of first-time comers eager to do a good deed. Some were parents wanting to teach their children to give back to society. Some were neighbors alarmed about the spike in visible homelessness and wishing they knew how to help. And then we’ve also had the few people who post selfies showing off how lovely they are to feed the unfortunate.
Recently, I began feeling disgruntled and annoyed. In a self-righteous, self-important way, I wanted to wag my finger at these selfie-snapping, one-time volunteers for using this service for a photo op. I wanted to preach that homelessness is much darker and more complex than physical hunger. I wanted to do more than just smile and hand out stuff. Deep down, I was frustrated that I couldn’t visibly see any impact I was making. I felt useless, helpless, hopeless. I wanted to turn people’s lives around—but I felt like all I was doing was rolling burritos ... and well, the problem felt very big and I felt very small.
I wanted to turn people’s lives around—but I felt like all I was doing was rolling burritos ... and well, the problem felt very big and I felt very small.
One Thursday evening, as my boyfriend David and I were driving to Venice Beach for our regular volunteering, I unleashed my complaints in the car. “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing,” I said. “This is a waste of my time.”
David looked surprised: “Where is this coming from? You know it’s never been just about the food. We go there every week to show that we care, and sometimes God helps us meet certain people like John.” He was referring to our friend John Simpson, who drinks a bottle of vodka every night.
“But John’s still on the streets,” I objected. Sure, we’ve prayed for him, talked to him, bought him a birthday cake and camping mats because the concrete was hurting his back. But, as I pointed out, “We haven’t truly helped him. Nothing’s changed very much. He’s still drunk every night.”
“You know, you never did have to go volunteer,” David said. “Nobody forced you.”
That response further irritated me. “Well, whatever, fine,” I snapped. “I won’t go anymore then.”
David gave me a pointed look: “Is somebody having an attitude today?”
“No,” I harrumphed, folding my arms and stomping my feet. David did the right thing and let me steam.
And then we met Mary. Strong-willed, spirited, 63-year-old Mary, who has been sleeping near the boardwalk since last August, who dotes on the other homeless young’uns around her, whom everyone calls “Grandma” because she’s the oldest woman on the block. Mary doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t drink alcohol, and landed on Venice streets because her last boyfriend abused her. She immediately caught our attention, because what’s an elderly woman with osteoarthritis doing sleeping on the pavement with her walker?
We got Mary’s number and email address and resolved to find a solution for her. Now every Thursday evening, we make sure to look out for Mary. And boy, does she have marvelous and heartbreaking stories to tell.
Last week, we invited her out for dinner at the famous Sidewalk Cafe, a Venice Beach landmark since 1976. And there, out on the restaurant’s patio as the sun dipped into pink clouds, Mary downed a 14-ounce, well-marbled, bone-in rib-eye steak, along with a plate of steak fries, a cup of clam chowder, and an ice-cold margarita with extra salt.
“I enjoy good food,” she said, stating the obvious. She licked the salt off her fingers and polished off every morsel from her plate except the broccoli. And with each bite, she lifted her head up with her eyes closed, her mouth squeezed into a delighted small “o,” in silent worship for the joy of a good meal.