Monday Night Mission
Every Monday Mel gathers people to give out food to those turned away from Skid-Row shelters.
Midnight Mission is one of the oldest continuously operating human services organizations in the Los Angeles region with 95 years of opening their doors to those in need. But, even they have limitations and have to turn people down, only allowing 95 people in a night. Mel wanted to feed those that are turned away. His cause, Monday Night Mission, is not funded nor given food or supplies. It's just Mel gathering people on a Monday night and volunteering on the streets.
Monday the 5th was Labor Day, a holiday, but rather than drinking beers and causing a ruccus with his buddies, Monday Night Mission was still in play.
Jason and I decided to participate. The cause is great and I felt compelled to show up and support his passion.
The usual schedule?
Anyone who wants to participate meets up Monday at 7:45pm in the Burger King parking lot at 700 West Cesar E. Chavez Ave, Los Angeles, less than a mile from skid row.
As we pulled up to park there were other cars already waiting. As more started to trickle in we all got out of our cars and Mel was there to direct us. He had us all get in a circle to introduce ourselves. That night he had 40 volunteers show up. I was really surprised. One very passionate person was able to reign in that many people. Mel isn't attached to any big organization name, nor was his kindness due to an organized church event telling him to do so. It was on his own and because he saw a need he decided to help in any capacity he could. Most people see need, but fewer take the initiation. I guess that is what I wanted to support.
First thing I noticed right away about Mel was his ability to remember everyone's name. Every time someone new showed up to the parking lot he would go around the circle and list everyone's name - names of people he had just met that night.
I don't know about you, but I have trouble remembering names, especially if it is our first time meeting and especially if I'm meeting 39 people at once. Mel introduced everyone and explained what the protocol of the night would be. He also wanted his cause to be about introducing other people's causes and introduced me, what my condition was and the organization, ARM, that is trying to propel HIBM treatment to the surface. He explained to his fellow leasing consultants in the crowd that though most of them try to avoid his tenants but we were tenants that he actually wanted to know. I was really touched. I was touched that he cared enough to expand my plight to his social circle and encouraged them to spread it to his social circle. I'm touched that he goes out of his way to think of ways to fundraise for HIBM and I've only known him a couple weeks.
The plan of action was to carpool from Burger King lot, follow him in a single file and park right in front on San Pedro Street, the center of Skid Row. Then quickly hop out, stack the food and start handing it out. The whole giving process would take 40-45 min. For many this was their first time with Mel or doing charity work in general. He told everyone to not to be afraid, nor expect a "thank-you".
I believe 8-10 cars packed pulled out of the Burger King parking lot took a right onto Cesar Chavez, a right onto Broadway, a left on first street and a right on S. Pedro street. All 8-10 cars pulled up one by one, single file in front of the crowds of Skid Row residences. We were about 4-5 cars back from Mel and it took us a little longer to get on the sidewalk because of the wheelchair, but as I rolled up, as quick as that, Mel and team had already piled up cases of water bottles to be used as a barrier, and stationed bags of food behind.
Mel was agile and alert. He used himself as a human shield and directed all the volunteers to line up behind him as he coralled the starving crowd. The crowd seemed to know the drill. Get in a line or no food. As soon as they did their duty we did ours right on the sidewalk, right next to where they sleep.
One particular situation stood out in my mind. A young homeless guy, my age, started yelling at an elderly gentleman who was not following the rules. Mel stopped the giving process and told him to get back in line so that we could proceed.
The young gentleman yelled, "Come on guys! Get the fuck back into line, let's all work together or we won't get fed".
Mel said the first couple weeks when he started giving out food they had to search for people and tell them to take food. Not every homeless person is looking for a handout. But, week after week as Mel and his friends showed up, the homeless community knew the consistency and the drill and followed accordingly.
I was really impressed with Mel. He was confident, in command, deliberate and keeping watch knowing that it wasn't the safest of situations in the streets. He called us volunteers up by name to give with our hands. One, to give drinks, one to give sandwiches, one to give cookies, chips or fruit.
Despite the chaos he made it a point to make sure every volunteer that had showed up in that Burger King parking lot was able to go to the front of the line and literally hand an item of food to homeless receivers. That was something that really impressed me. That he cared enough, and knew the names of every volunteer, to make sure everyone that had showed up physically gave from their own hand. He even brought up one of the volunteer's son to come up. I loved that. How awesome of a mom to expose her young 8 year old child to charity and those that are less fortunate.
There is nothing worse you can do for your child then spoil them and give them everything. There is nothing better you can do for your child then make them work for what they receive in life and show them those that struggle.
The food was being passed fast and the block filled up with people while the glaring red of ambulance sirens blanketed the streets and our ears.
Then it was my turn and with every sandwich or drink I passed out I could feel the strain in my shoulder and arm but did my best to place it into their hand while making sure to look each one directly in the eye. At one point I was carelessly rolling outside our densely populated volunteer crowd and Mel verbally pushed me back into the line. I hadn't realized the danger of the situation, I guess. I mean, I knew it was dangerous, but wasn't as timid as I should have been.
As the food was nearing its end Mel screamed out to the volunteers behind him, "Everyone get into your car-food is running out!"
And that was that, in guerilla form-as quick as we came, we single-filed out of Skid Row leaving behind 200 people that were turned down from the shelter but now fed. We left the red sirens filling the San Pedro street and headed back to the Burger King parking lot.
For every face there is a story
I was very impressed by Mel. It's really hard giving up every single Monday night for someone else let alone groups of people whom you don't personally know. It's hard being the head of a nonprofit and seeking volunteers. It's like a 24 hour job of begging people to help, lots of responsibility and accountability. I know from experience. While most of us spend our time running from responsibility and accountability some run towards it.
Prior to going, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Mel's Monday Night Mission. I have worked in many homeless shelters but this was slightly different than what I had done in the past. This was right in the streets and not in an enclosure.
For Jason, my husband, this was his very first charity act, besides standing alongside me for all the ARM mayhem.
For me, I'm actually quite versed in homeless shelters. I had done a ton of volunteering when I lived in Detroit. I didn't even tell my parents because I thought they would be scared for me. I used cook and give out food in a shelter, paint houses in low income areas and even a driver in a program that transports drug addicts to their monthly injections in clinics located in impoverished areas. I actually didn't grow up being taught to volunteer or be kind with service to others. It wasn't a normal event in my household yet something I searched for and was curious about. I don't think my parents ever took us to a charity or homeless shelter but growing up I knew that was something I wanted my future kids to learn and know about. Nothing good comes from sheltering your kids from what is common for many.
My brothers and I grew up in decent income, Michigan white suburbia. We were fairly sheltered. Detroit was not somewhere we visited as kids. But I moved there for college and for four years I involved myself as a volunteer within the community and had experience from other volunteer organizations I worked with outside of Detroit.
I liked that Mel didn't judge those who put their hands out for food who weren't even homeless. He gave without judgement.
It's easy for us to say, "Well, they are addicts, lazy..." and while that may be true for some, not everyone can get out of their situation.
As a country we treat drug addiction like a crime and offer no real culture or programs in treating addiction. We don't treat those with mental illness. We send men and women to war, many of them proxy business wars, and when they return with PTSD, mental illness and develop addiction as a coping measure - unable to work - we allow them to live in the streets uncared for. And when I say "we" I mean government on both sides of the aisle. Corrupt politicians famously exploit the most impoverished areas, making it even harder to climb out of poverty. Corrupt politicians push favorable policies for corporations and the greedy, making the taxpayers pay for corporations employees' medical and living, like Walmart does, while corporations receive welfare and tax breaks, getting richer. We also have the most corrupt and expensive healthcare system in he world. The top three reasons for bankruptcy is medical expenses, job loss and divorce. Corruption is hard for any normal community to move beyond but when you're poor it's ten times harder.
My point is poverty is not all laziness. It's also a derivative of badly allocated money, systemic corruption and a sense of selfish greed who buy their way into making laws work for the few at the top.
Poverty and homelessness is not so black and white and it doesn't represent every person in the situation. Not everyone is as fortunate.
There are multiple reasons people find themselves homeless.
For many it is a perpetual cycle. They were born into abuse, homelessness, addiction, mental disability, physical disability. An injury, an illness, a fire, or a car wreck can send people hurtling over the edge. If you're life is shit you're going to turn to drugs/alcohol to cope and that becomes your spiraling downfall. I mean, come on most of LA is on drugs or intoxicated, many of them privileged individuals that came from privileged backgrounds, to deal with problems that don't eve match real struggles. The only difference is they have someone to bail them out and support their lifestyle.
There are even reports of police from other jurisdcitions dumping their mentally ill into Skid Row because their city just isn't equipped with services to take care of their citizens. Many mentally ill swarm the streets without understanding or care because we don't want to be near anything we don't understand or are afraid of.
Five, six, seven years ago there weren’t any plans to gentrify Skid Row with condos and lofts that sell for $700,000 or more with a Grand Hotel a few blocks away. The rich don’t want the homeless to be in their neighbors and so the homeless in Skid Row are now getting pushed aside.
Solutions for dealing with the homeless on Skid Row: arrest and jail them for any minor infraction, from littering, for public urination, for sleeping on the sidewalks. It’s a strategy that wins the applause of the business community and real estate developers. As a result of this strategy, city jails are bursting at the seams with the homeless and cannot take in any more. County services for this population have been scaled back, and charitable organizations are severely understaffed.
LA is also quietly shipping Skid Row homeless and dropping them off in San Bernardino because they make the new Cosmopolitan Downtown LA look bad.
Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are finding themselves living on the streets faster than those who served in previous conflicts, including Vietnam.
Shannon, a soldier from 1957, got hit by a bus and sent his current injury spiraling down even further as he lays on the street next to another disabled man who is rolling dice with the rodents.
Kenyon with spinal infections and kidney failure unable to pay her medical bills or Daniel who used to work as a manager in retail stores for nearly two decades, but after suffering herniated disk in 1988 had to have surgery and was out of work for four years. After returning to work he was diagnosed with a tumor in his back and told he could not continue working. He went from making $70,000 a year to being homeless because of a herniated disk. His career was built around walking and lifting and once that ceased he had no options. He and his daughter are both now homeless.
Khadijah grew up in the streets of Skid Row along with her mother and sister. At the age of 6 they began moving from Skid Row shelter to shelter. Attending 12 different schools in 12 years she is someone who appreciated and understood the value of working for her education and is now a Harvard student. But not everyone can get out like this.
Ron Roberson came from an abusive household, tortured, in and out of foster homes and resulting in his own addiction to crack cocaine, despair and then homeless in Skid Row where he went to die. Today he is an Anchor for CNN headline news. But again, not everyone can do this.
These are real people and real stories that landed unsuspecting people into homelessness.
The problem is complex and there is no simple or quick solution.
People always tell me, "Don't expect anything from people", which is true, but underneath what I do hope for is for them to want to expect more from themselves. There is so much potential wasted, with fear as the triggering culprit.
You don't have to help the homeless or a rare disease cause but give yourself to something outside yourself. It's important and you may just save someone's life, both literally and figuratively.
If more guys like Mel gathered their friends to help someone for one night rather than party, think of what could be done. What Mel is doing isn't going to solve the gamut of the problem and may not save the receivers' life, but at least on that Monday night the natives know that more than 30 people are showing up with warm food, water, some clothes and showing that they are not only thankful for their own lives but extending their gratitude by passing it along.
Mel's Monday night Mission is serving on Monday AND NOW Thursday night. For more info visit their page: Monday Night Mission
The measure of any society is how they treat their weakest element. How we do anything is how we do everything.
UPDATE: Monday Night Mission now volunteers 5 nights a week and Mel gives up every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night for Skid Row.