The coronavirus threatens those who need care the most and strains networks providing help
On Sunday, my fiancé, David, and I sent an email to our wedding guests and informed them that we are canceling our wedding on April 25. The last few weeks, we had been watching the increasingly alarming news about COVID-19 with dread coiling in our guts, wondering how this virus will impact what’s supposed to be the happiest day of our lives. We, like the thousands of other engaged couples across the nation, faced an agonizing dilemma: Do we cancel or postpone our wedding and potentially lose tons of money, or do we continue with our plans and lose valued guests?
For us, it began with disheartening calls from my relatives in South Korea. The coronavirus pandemic had just hit my mother country, and my aunts and uncles and cousins, who had all already bought their plane tickets and booked their Airbnbs, worried that they might not make it to our wedding after all. Come late February, things continued to get worse as new cases doubled each day in Korea. My relatives canceled their trip. We were bummed, but it never crossed our minds that we would have to eventually cancel our wedding.
Then inevitably, the epidemic hit our country. It began on Jan. 31 in Washington state, and then continued to scatter like baby cockroaches across state lines. New York and my own state of California are hit particularly badly, and as I write this, the virus has infected people in every state except West Virginia. As of March 17, more than 4,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 85 people have died from it in the U.S. The news kept getting grimmer and grimmer: The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. We were planning to go to Berlin and Auschwitz for our honeymoon, but President Donald Trump put a travel ban to Europe. Then he declared a national emergency. Los Angeles (where I live) closed down all schools in the district through April. Most churches canceled their services through March, including ours.
David and I went from discussing whether we should postpone our honeymoon to whether we should postpone or cancel our wedding. If we postpone our wedding, then when to reschedule? Who knew when this outbreak would blow over? Should we cancel our wedding and just have an intimate ceremony with our local pastor? We were possibly looking at tens of thousands of dollars wasted. And what if things got better before April 25? That would be maddening, if we had gone through that chaotic trouble of canceling or rescheduling dozens of vendors, only to realize things are fine after all. As we agonized over this, any excitement we had for our wedding started draining away. Each time I saw the boxes of stuff we had bought for the wedding, I felt my heart tighten.
Meanwhile, on social media groups, other brides and grooms who had weddings scheduled from March all the way through October were weighing the same undesirable options. At the time, most vowed to press on no matter what. One bride with a mid-May wedding wrote, “I refuse to move my day. We have planned too long and worked too hard to make it happen.” Many were willfully optimistic: Surely things will brighten up in a few weeks? Surely this is just overblown panic from overexcited media and overly anxious folks?
We too were desperately hopeful. Until last Friday, we were both convinced we can still hold a wedding, even if some guests couldn’t make it. Though we got messages from a few guests saying they might not be able to make it (pregnant friends, a cousin who is in danger of losing his job because of how the virus has affected the cafe he works at), we also got reaffirming texts from most guests saying they were planning to come no matter what. I was to be a bridesmaid to a friend’s wedding on March 22, and they were posting #stillgettingmarried hashtags on their Instagram stories. Yes, the show will go on ... but must it?
Then last weekend, I went to that friend’s bachelorette party. As I drove down to the resort hotel where all the bridesmaids would be staying, I cried the entire way, yelling at God for answers: What do I do, Lord? Why are you so silent right now? I can’t even hear you! Yet even as I talked to God, I knew that I couldn’t listen to Him not because He wasn’t speaking, but because my desires were louder than His voice at the moment. At the resort hotel, I was surprised to see people still swimming in the outdoor pool, even as they were discussing the pandemic. These people included older white-haired folks in their 70s or 80s. I feared for their lives. Throughout the day, my friends and I sprayed hand sanitizer on each other’s hands.
That night, while tossing and turning in bed, I dreamed of my wedding. It looked exactly how I had planned it—lots of warm-lit candles, twinkly string lights, bright-colored wildflowers in mini clear vases, ivory chiffon table runners—but it was the lamest wedding ever: I couldn’t see a single face I recognized, including my future husband’s. All I saw were strangers eating the Korean tacos and churros we paid for, drinking the wine we bought from Costco, sitting at the tables I decorated. And all I felt was deep unease and sadness. Nobody was celebrating.
I woke up feeling depressed and texted David, “I had a dream that we had the lamest wedding ever.” He texted back, “I had a dream the world was ending.”
“We need some quiet time today,” I told him.
My bride-to-be friend had a restless sleep too. She woke up at 4:30 a.m. unable to go back to sleep. That morning, we sat in the hotel room worrying about what this virus might do to our guests. In both our cases, all our family would be flying out of state or the country. Several of them, including our parents, are in their 60s. “I just don’t feel comfortable putting people at risk,” my friend told me: “It just isn’t worth it.” As much as I didn’t want to, I agreed. My friend cut her bachelorette party short. She just wanted to go home and call her fiancé. Their wedding date was next weekend. They had a heavy decision to make. And so did David and I.
That Sunday, we went for a walk. By the end of the walk, tears rolled down my cheeks, and David was looking wretched. We read the signs that the pandemic was only going to get worse, not better, in the next couple of months. We simply couldn’t put our beloved guests at risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Is the wedding worth my parents infecting the older, sick people in their church? Is the wedding worth David’s parents infecting his ailing, 96-year-old grandpa? Is the wedding worth forcing our friends to self-quarantine for 14 days and impacting their jobs and families? No event, not even a wedding, is worth putting anyone’s health or life at risk.
Then we saw a tweet from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending no gatherings of more than 50 people in the U.S. for the next eight weeks. I cried harder. That was it—we absolutely had to cancel. It was simply the wisest thing to do: We wanted to start our marriage right not by throwing a perfect wedding, but by honoring God and others.
“I’m sorry,” David said quietly, putting his arm around me. “I’m sorry too,” I choked out through my sobs. We walked back home holding hands in silence, each struggling to accept the fact that this stupid coronavirus had killed our wedding. We both called our parents to tell them the news.
I cried all day in the bed before I was able to climb out, dry my swollen eyes, and write an email notifying our guests of our decision: We would cancel our wedding and do a small ceremony at David’s house. Instead of my father flying in to officiate as we had planned, we might have our local pastor do it. We didn’t want to wait another year or so in uncertainty. We can have a party next year instead of a wedding.
My bride friend texted me that evening: They were postponing their wedding as well. Online, many other brides and grooms had made the same decision, either by choice or by force because their venues canceled on them. Others had their bachelorette parties and bridal showers canceled or postponed. “More than a year of planning gone,” one bride mourned with a crying emoji. Another cried, “Tears ... all the freaking tears.” One bride with the same wedding date as me wrote, “I just broke down into a full emotional meltdown about an hour ago. I’m so glad I’m working from home so my coworkers didn’t have to see my sobbing face.”
Today as I write this, I’m also glad I work from home. David and I have already exchanged flurries of emails and phone calls with our vendors to cancel and beg for refunds that some businesses are reluctant to give, because everyone in the wedding industry is financially suffering right now. This afternoon we went to the courthouse to pick up our marriage license, only to find out all courts in LA County and Orange County are closed indefinitely.
Ha! Even our Plan B is combusting into ashes! All because of one spiky virus. All because one person in China got sick, and we human beings live in the same broken world and share the same flesh-and-blood body—no matter how divided we may seem right now, what with our politics and stereotypes, and no matter how advanced we may be, what with our rockets and robots. “We just have to accept the fact that this is completely out of our control,” David told me as we came back home from court empty-handed.
At the time, I hated him for being right. Now, I feel at peace: What a wonderful thing that we are not in control, for we—as our response to the coronavirus pandemic has shown us—botch so many things when we think we are in control. What a wonderful thing that we know that someone righteous and compassionate and all-knowing and all-powerful is in control instead: Our heavenly Father God, who created every cell in our body, every blade of grass, and even the infamous bat that may have started this whole global chaos. And what a wonderful thing to start our marriage (whenever that is) with that glad submission, knowing that we’re not even in control of a wedding, let alone the rest of our life together.
Dear brides and grooms out there who are in the same boat, I feel your disappointment. But hey, what a valuable lesson to be gifted so early on, just for the price of a wedding. Some would say that’s a mighty fine bargain.
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Since I started reporting on homelessness three years ago, I’ve been learning a lot about poverty—who it affects, why it happens, and how it keeps someone there for a long, long time. One common thread I’ve seen among people experiencing homelessness is a lack of social support. Without consistent, empowering, dignity-giving help, it’s almost impossible for someone to lift themselves out of poverty, because the entire system works against them.
I witnessed this broken system again through a church friend named Olivia (who gave me permission to write about her). Olivia and I became friends two years ago when we both joined a new church at the same time. She had just moved back to her hometown, Los Angeles, after a stint in Arizona and was working as a regional manager over a restaurant chain. Because she had just moved to LA and had really bad credit after a terrible marriage with her ex-husband, Olivia was staying at Airbnbs, hoping to save enough to eventually rent an apartment in LA. Then one storm hit—and then another, and then a full-blown hurricane and hail and earthquakes, until it seemed like her life was shattering.
It all started with the repossession of her car. I was with Olivia when repo men took away her red Kia. We had just finished eating dinner at a Korean restaurant and were walking into the parking lot when we saw a man fiddling with her car door. “Hey, hey, hey! What’s going on?” Olivia exclaimed.
The man showed her documents from a car repossession company. He was towing her car away because she apparently hadn’t been making her car payments for the last two months. Olivia was flabbergasted. Her ex-husband had verbally agreed that he would make her car payments in lieu of paying child support. But now that her oldest daughter had graduated high school and joined the Navy, her ex-husband had stopped paying without bothering to tell her. So we sat on the sidewalk, watching the man hitch her car onto another car and drive away, while Olivia muttered over and over again, “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand!”
That was the first storm. Olivia bought a dinky used car for $6,000. It was a dud. Within two weeks, the car gave out in the middle of the highway. She exchanged the useless vehicle for an extra week of free lodging at her Airbnb. Her cash reserves were almost dry, but at least she had a job—and then the next storm hit: The company that hired Olivia faced a lawsuit that forced it to shut down its operations. The company laid off Olivia and all her staff. Now she was jobless, carless, and soon-to-be homeless.
A note on Olivia’s history: When she was a baby, her mother left the family because Olivia’s father was abusive. Olivia said he became physically abusive toward her instead. A teacher noticed Olivia kept coming to school with bruises and told authorities. Olivia testified in court against her father and entered the foster care system. She lost a lot of family that day—her relatives blamed her for airing the family’s dirty laundry in public. She had no helping hand in her life except a church she had been attending for a few months.
We reached out to our church, and people poured out love offerings. The church raised enough funds to pay for Olivia’s Airbnb for a month while she applied to as many jobs as possible. One place reached out for an interview but required her to work on Sunday. So she turned it down, telling them she could not miss church on Sundays. Then a start-up company reached out, willing to let her take Sunday mornings off to attend church.
Meanwhile, because of her horrible credit report, nobody was willing to sell her a car. So she rented one for about $1,300 a month (she had to pay extra because she had no credit cards—due to bad credit). Her $50,000-per-year salary was barely a middle-class income in LA. She still couldn’t afford to rent an apartment: Most apartments in LA require tenants to pay at least a security deposit and one month’s rent up front. But continuing to stay at an Airbnb would be unstable and more expensive than a monthly rent. So I helped pay the $3,600 for her to move into a modest apartment.
Things seemed to be looking up: Olivia had a new job, and she was saving to buy a car. Then three months later, her company’s investors suddenly pulled out, and the company shut down their operations overnight. Once again, without warning, she was out of a job. She received no severance.
That was November. Today, Olivia still hasn’t found a new job even though she’s been applying to anything she can find. Most good-paying jobs she applied to require a weeks-long application process. My fiancé and I helped her rent a car for a month to get to interviews, and although she reached the final interview process for several positions, she never got a job. She even dumbed down her resumé and applied for positions at Subway, McDonald’s, Starbucks.
Her savings dwindled to nothing. She advertised for a roommate. One woman responded, but then she too abruptly lost her job and couldn’t pay rent. Olivia canceled her internet service. She couldn’t pay her cell phone bills. She couldn’t sign up for quick gig jobs such as Uber or Postmates because she had no vehicle. She tried to apply for benefits such as unemployment and food stamps, but the government said she had previously made too much money to qualify. Come back in six months, they told her. But she had $0 in her bank account and was subsisting on runny rice porridge and cheap tacos that gave her diarrhea.
One Sunday, she came over for lunch after church and sat at the counter crying: “I’m just so exhausted, Sophia. I feel like I can’t breathe. I just don’t know what to do anymore.”
I share Olivia’s story to show how expensive it is to be poor, and how self-reliance and self-determination only go so far.
I share Olivia’s story to show how expensive it is to be poor, and how self-reliance and self-determination only go so far. No matter how hard Olivia works, all it takes is one crisis for someone who’s already teetering on the edge of poverty to tumble onto the streets. She may be an able-bodied, smart, hard-working individual with an impressive resumé. But she can still be stuck in poverty when the only jobs available are entry-level, minimum-wage positions with companies that won’t hire her because she’s overqualified. Liberals understand this broken system, which is why they advocate for more government assistance, more social programs, more progressive policies.
But there’s something different about Olivia that sets her apart from other people trapped in the cycle of poverty: She’s been free-falling for the last year, but before she smashed rock bottom, she always had a church community that stepped in to catch her when even social welfare programs couldn’t. At some point, she had to give up her pride and not be ashamed to ask for help from her church family (nobody knew she had been behind on her cell phone bills until she lost her phone service).
When I first met Olivia, she told me her favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That’s still her life verse, even when she feels like some stranger has punched her in the face and she’s lying flat on her back, wondering what just happened. That faith gives her hope and purpose. It gives her awe and insight as she reads the Scriptures, breathing in the fresh power and sweet grace of God’s Word, divinely tailored to strengthen and encourage her weary soul.
Olivia worries that she’s a burden to the church. But I wish she’ll see what a blessing she is to us, for pushing us to reflect what the Church is called to be as the body of Christ (Hebrews 10:24-25), to witness a faith standing strong while tested, and share the love and grace that we ourselves first received.
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Last week, U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson came to my city to discuss Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis with Mayor Eric Garcetti. While in L.A., Carson bused down to South L.A. to visit an accessory dwelling unit (secondary housing in a single-family unit’s backyard) as one possible solution. The Trump administration has criticized California for having excessive red tape that makes it harder to develop new housing but hasn’t offered many strategies to address California’s housing and homeless crisis other than to remove regulatory barriers.
Carson is not wrong about the cumbersome regulations—and it’s something many California politicians are working on—but to get a clearer understanding of why it’s so hard to solve homelessness, it would also be worth the secretary’s time to sit with a street outreach team and observe the cases they deal with on a regular basis.
That’s what I did one morning. I visited the Echo Park branch of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles (HHCLA), a nonprofit clinic that treats the most impoverished population in L.A., to join a medical outreach team composed of a physician and two nurses. Because of patient confidentiality laws, I can’t provide the names of the patients, but here are three typical cases that show why helping the homeless involves more than offering them shelter, treatment, or housing.
Let’s start with an elderly woman, whom I’ll call April. April has a bad injury on her leg. It’s so bad that the flesh is stripped off, leaving a red, infected gash. The infection has seeped into her leg and is now dissolving her bones. The last time she agreed to see a doctor, the doctor said she needed surgery soon or she would lose that leg.
The infection is getting worse and worse, but April still has not been admitted into a hospital for surgery. Partly, it’s because many specialized surgeons in the area don’t take Medi-Cal and thus refuse to operate on her. But mostly, it’s because April herself has refused to go. She says she’s unwilling to leave her belongings.
That’s something many people don’t realize about chronically homeless folks: The stuff they have piled high on a cart that they push around all day? Those things may look like stinky, rotting junk to you, but to them, it’s their entire economy. It’s their life. April’s case is complicated by her undiagnosed mental illness. She picks up random stuff from the streets to hoard, and they’ve become as valuable to her as high-priced items are to a collector. Something in her mind finds enough security and comfort from these seemingly worthless belongings that she’d rather hobble in pain than give them up.
Over the last few weeks, the outreach team went to visit her regularly, trying to convince her to go to the hospital. It almost worked twice—the pain was so excruciating that April let the nurses accompany her to the ER. But the wait at the ER takes as long as 12 hours, and during that time, the woman began worrying about her belongings, and so left. The nurses can’t force her to stay, so they let her go and tried again the next day.
The physician suggested giving April some psychiatric medicine, which might alleviate her hoarding symptoms. Legally, they cannot force her to take medication against her will unless she’s a danger to herself and others or is gravely disabled. April’s injury and lack of housing do not make her gravely disabled under state law. She is willing to take medication, but few people living on the streets are capable of taking medication consistently and regularly. Without constant monitoring, many of them lose their medication or completely forget about it.
The day I visited the outreach team, April finally seemed ready to go to the hospital. The nurses recommended that she divide her belongings into three categories: One pile for “must haves,” another for “maybes,” and the other for “throw outs.” She agreed to do it, because she said she couldn’t bear the pain anymore.
The outreach team hurrahed, but as soon as they got together to discuss the situation, they scrunched their eyebrows with worry: Now, where were they going to put her belongings while she’s in surgery? April has two carts packed with things, and it was highly unlikely that she would be willing to part with more than half of those things. And after her discharge, where will she go? After working so hard to convince patients to seek treatment, the outreach team now has to scramble to make that happen, and it’s not easy.
“That’s the hardest thing about this,” one nurse sighed. “She’s finally willing to go to the hospital, and we need to strike while the iron’s hot, but we can’t just snap our fingers and make it happen for her.”
The nurse calls a program in L.A. that helps with housing, employment, education, and mental health services to the homeless. They say they may be able to get her a motel voucher to store her belongings, but it could take a week to get one. Unfortunately, April doesn’t have much time. She might have a flash of rationality to seek treatment now, but in a week she might lose that resolve. Worse, if she waits any longer, the doctors would have to amputate her leg, or she might become really sick from the infection.
Later, the team talks about another patient. Let’s call him Adam. Adam also has a mental illness. He has delusions that cause him to wrap wire around himself to “protect” himself from outside forces. Those wires cut deep into his skin and are very painful and potentially dangerous. Adam has a housing voucher, but housing won’t do him much good when he’s constantly psychotic and refuses to take medication for his mental illness. Again, doctors cannot legally force medication on him unless he meets specific criteria for involuntary treatment—and even with his delusions, Adam is well-versed enough about his “civil rights” to insist on living his life the way he wants to live it.
One more case: an old woman who sits at the bus stop all day, wrapped in layers of coats and sleeping bags. People can’t tell if she’s blind, but she wears thick sunglasses and crumples newspaper between her eyes and the glasses. Passers-by became concerned—a heavily bundled old woman sitting exposed to the blazing sun for hours could suffer from heat stroke. So they called the police, but when the police tried to take her to the hospital, she flipped out. “You have no right to take me!” she screamed. “I have rights! I know my rights! You have no right!” The police officers stepped away, knowing how it looks to the public for a poor old lady to be screaming about her rights at the cops in L.A.
The physician turned to look at me: “See? Not so easy as it seems, huh? So many barriers!”
Multiply these cases by hundreds and thousands. Currently, California has more 150,000 people experiencing homelessness. Officially, about one-third of them suffer from a mental illness, but people who deal with the homeless on the streets tell me the percentage of those with mental illness is much higher.
That’s why even as I get frustrated with my state and local leaders for not solving the homeless crisis quickly enough, when I look at how homelessness looks on street level, I get it: It’s not easy. It will never be easy. If there’s one thing I learned from reporting on homelessness, it’s this: Fellow citizens, be wary of anyone who tries to present simple solutions to this mind-numbingly complex issue, because there is none.