By Simone Silvan and Maya Pearl, Mitzvah Corps Southern California 2016 Participants
“You don’t need to link arms, we’re not going to rob you.”
Last week, Mitzvah Corps Southern California got on the metro and headed to a place called Skid Row. Surrounded by overpriced exercise classes and gastropubs, Skid Row stretches four square blocks with a homeless population of roughly 20,000 people.
We had been warned as much as possible about what Skid Row would be like. Avram, our Tzedek America partner, explained that the transition would feel stark and uncomfortable. Upon arrival, a man came up to talk to us. Avram turned around and looked over at the participants protectively to make sure everything was okay. The man quickly pointed out, “I see the way you’re looking at me. I went to college.” Avram quickly responded, “Where did you go?” In that moment, I think we all wished to have the grace and ease of our staff partner.
As our journey continued, we visited a church in the center of Skid Row led by Pastor Tony. Every Wednesday, people in the Skid Row community come to an exciting night of karaoke, which we had the opportunity to join. Initially, we were overwhelmed by the large number of people and the loud music, but as the night continued, that began to change. Soon we started signing up to perform and talking to some of the people at karaoke night. The highlight of our night was when all seventeen of us sang our hearts out to Bohemian Rhapsody. Although this experience was exciting and happy, it did not change all of the misfortune we saw at Skid Row.
Have you ever resumed a movie after leaving it on pause for a few days and felt a bit disoriented? You remember the overall gist of the film, but a lot of parts are hazy and the transition feels unnatural. That’s what leaving Skid Row felt like. I didn’t know how to process what I had just experienced. How do I just go back to my dorm, with hot running water, a bed, and a loving mother to call (even with a time difference of three hours)?
Many people would expect one to leave an experience like that feeling empowered and ready to help solve the insidious problem of homelessness in Los Angeles or America at large. The unfortunate truth is that many of us simply felt helpless. And that’s okay. The important thing is that there is no doubt in each of our minds that something needs to change.