Monday, May 7, 2007

Tonight I experienced something that will forever change my life...

Tonight I experienced something that will forever change my life perspective and opinion about homeless people. I visited what is considered to be a "last resort" homeless shelter in Santa Ana, CA. This home is on a street like any other home, but the houses around it have bars on their windows and the sound of car alarms rings often. The director of the shelter was welcoming and was eager to show us what she experiences everyday. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a baby, the smallest baby I have ever seen, no more than a week old. This baby was laying in blankets on the floor by himself. His mother came to check on him after a few minutes had passed, but the image was incredibly disturbing that this is how this child is spending his first week of life and I was told, most likely the next 10 years of his life.

This home provides shelter for anyone who needs it. Warm, balanced meals are served for breakfast and dinner and sack lunches are sent to school with every child. This home operates really like any normal Orange County home, kids coming home from school and doing their homework and playing with their friends. Except in this home there are at least 100 people sleeping there each night, at least half of them are children. At bedtime, everyone gets a small green mat, similar to a gym mat, that they put on the floor. Sometimes it is so crowded that people are sleeping mat to mat and other nights families have more room to spread out and have their own areas. Many people also sleep in the backyard on park benches. There are 2 or 3 showers for anyone to use. While this facility provides the essentials, there is very little else.

The most shocking part of this experience for me was that several children looked exactly like the impoverished children that live in third world countries, like you see on infomercials. These children were between 2 and 5. Their clothes were filthy and torn. Their faces were dirty and had cuts on them. Their hair was matted and they weren't wearing shoes. Although this is not acceptable for any child to live under such conditions, I had no idea that children living in Orange County, right in our backyard, were living like this.

I talked to the director for hours asking her every question I could think of. She explained that her goal is to provide food and shelter for as many people as she can each day. She knows that much more is involved to get these people off the streets for good, but she does what she can with what she has. She's just amazing. This director lives in a room upstairs with her husband. They work every hour of the day helping all of the guests in the home. She said that she doesn't understand why there aren't more homes like this all over. It's usually because the city won't allow it, or perhaps people don't know just how bad the situation is.

Another disturbing observation was watching the teenagers, girls and boys ages 13-16 and comparing it to the behaviors and attitudes of the 5-10 year olds. The teenagers sat on benches outside, didn't smile or look up much. Most of them had clean clothes on and seemed like they were in pretty good shape. Except for that fact that they all looked so sad as if everyday they looked around that backyard and realized this is their present and there's nothing on the horizon that would indicate this wouldn't be their future as well. On the complete contrary, the children playing inside, were as happy as any children I've ever seen. The image that I will remember forever is a 12 year old girl playing the flute and her 5 year old sister spinning like a ballerina to the music. They were laughing and happy and playing like any other children. Some were clean, some were dirty, but all were happy. They have very few items to play with, but they made the best with what they had, sliding on the floor with their socks or trading off playing the flute. I asked the director at what age this attitude changes. At what age do the young children realize their reality? She told me that it keeps getting younger and younger.
The director told me a story about a priest who came into the home. He asked a young boy what it felt like to be homeless. The boy replied, "I'm not homeless, I live here." At least these younger kids feel a sense of security and shelter. It is when they get a bit older that the harshness of their rough lives sets in.

I almost feel like my account of this place doesn't even do it justice. It really has to be experienced. I cannot make the worlds strong enough to indicate the incredibly sad and appalling way that these children are living. There is no easy solution, but in the meantime I would like to help provide the life essentials that these children are not receiving. And almost more importantly, provide these children with the life experiences that they are not experiencing. These children and teenagers experience only a small fraction of what most do. They do not play sports, go to school dances, act in plays or go on field trips. They attend school without experiencing all the things that every child should.

Many people dismiss homelessness because they tell themselves that these people put themselves in this position or didn't work hard enough or made terrible mistakes to end up where they are. Sometimes, this is true. But the reason why we can't look at homelessness this way is because there isn't a single child who did anything to deserve this awful situation that they're in. They don't deserve to sleep on the floor or shiver at night because there aren't enough blankets. They don't deserve to have nothing and to grow up thinking they are nothing.

Lindsay Alderson
Co- Executive Director
The Happiness Project

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