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Friday, March 18, 2011

Hands-on Help for the Homeless

By Shelby Renee Nesheim

Sitting in a circle in Humanities Hall room 220 sat S.H.O.U.T. members, both old and new. The question to start off this week’s regular Tuesday meeting was “What do you think about Valentine’s Day?” As the question went around the room almost everybody seemed to dislike the day, except for Mary, the club treasurer, who in an almost delusional voice responded “The day just fills me with loving thoughts toward my friends, but then I get stressed out planning everything and it’s a lot of work, it’s like a party in my head”.

“So we are going to make candy roses and Valentine’s Day cards even though most of you don’t seem to like the day” responded Cindy, and the assembly-line like team began to get to work on the piles of pink, red and purple cellophane, kisses, and wire. While one group assembled candy rose bouquets to be sold on Ring Road for Valentine’s Day, another group designed small Valentine’s Day cards to be passed out at Venice Beach that Sunday. Leilani and Cindy, the co-presidents of S.H.O.U.T. ran the meeting while Bianca, the ex-president and now Secretary helped out. “So we are going to meet Thursday night at my apartment to finish everything up. Who can make it?” Bianca asked. No response. “I’ll make everybody margaritas…” Suddenly 8 out of the 10 people in the room raised their hands. Everybody looked around and laughed. “They are only in it for the alcohol” Kyle joked.

S.H.O.U.T. which stands for Student Homelessness Outreach United Together is a club on campus at UCI aimed at helping homeless individuals in the Southern California area. This club is very small, averaging about 15 constant members, however it has a large impact not only on UCI’s campus, but in Orange and Los Angeles County as well. They help the homeless through personal interaction, such as making trips to Venice Beach to pass out food, water, and hygiene bags, spreading awareness about homelessness by holding their annual SleepOut event at the flagpoles, and also through community service by helping out other organizations. “I really want to spread awareness” stated co-president Cindy “and I really want people to get involved, but I feel like it’s kind of hard at UCI because people seem really indifferent about it. I know everyone is busy but I feel like if you really wanted to you could make the time to help out.” However, no matter how indifferent certain students at UCI may seem, Cindy, along with the rest of her S.H.O.U.T. board members never give up helping homeless individuals in any way possible.

On the way to Venice Beach, Kyle’s car zoomed down the 405 freeway heading north and Bianca, being much more conscientious of speed limits, trailed along far behind in her little red Honda. Both cars were filled with S.H.O.U.T. members, mostly new, eager to participate in this annual event. With the sun shining brightly in the blue sky it seemed like the perfect day to spend at the beach. However this beach trip was not being made for pleasure, but rather with a purpose; to help the homeless.

As Kyle, S.H.O.U.T.’s co-vice-president, merged onto the Marina Del Ray Freeway the almost 200 hygiene bags which had been made by S.H.O.U.T. could be heard shaking around in the trunk. “What’s my name” by Rihanna played in the background as Kyle made the turn onto Lincoln Boulevard, and everybody was carefree and relaxed, watching the multitude of used car dealerships and small family owned restaurants pass by the windows. However, upon turning onto Rose Avenue, the scenery began to change dramatically. The buildings began to get older and the fences began to appear taller. All of the windows were covered in thick iron bars and graffiti seemed to cover every surface which faced the poorly paved street. By the time Kyle’s car finally arrived at the beach parking lot it had become obvious why Los Angeles County’s Venice Beach has gained the unfortunate name of being the “ghetto by the sea”.

“Welcome to Venice”, Kyle sarcastically remarked as his car full of new S.H.O.U.T. members stepped outside, only to be met with the musky smell of urine which was wafting from one of the beaches only public bathrooms. A man’s feet could be seen purtrudring from the bottom of one of the stalls, making it appear as though he was passed out, and the entire round restroom was covered in green and black swirling graffiti. This beach, though less than an hour away from Irvine, was an abrupt change from the suburban landscape which most of the S.H.O.U.T. members were used to. The sidewalks were dirty and dank, covered in forgotten tidbits of trash and a dusty layer of sand. The odd smell of trash, oily pizza, and weed filled the air and the sidewalk was dotted with crusty white and black pigeon poop which never seemed to be cleaned up. However, the thing which seemed to stick out the most were the dozens of people covering the small grass patch in between the sidewalk and the sand. These people were lying around on the grass, or socializing in small circles. They were both young and old and wore strange arrangements of tattered clothing. Most carried large backpacks filled with the meager amount of personal belongings they owned, but worst of all, they were all homeless.

While tourists and natives alike strolled along the sidewalk, admired table after table of street art, took in the sun and watched the waves, a whole homeless subculture of Venice had embedded itself in the small grassy strip which separates the boardwalk from the sand. The lucky ones set up tables along the boardwalk selling artwork or small trinkets, and some other’s made their living as traveling street performers doing magic shows or playing guitar, but most would spend their days sitting or laying about in the grass. Most of them were dirty and hungry. Few could afford food, let alone a shower, and they struggled each night to find a place to stay as police patrolled the beach to enforce a midnight curfew.

According to the 2009 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count Report conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority there are approximately 48,053 homeless people living in Los Angeles County. However, the problem does not stop with Los Angeles County, as according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, California has one of the highest rates of chronic homelessness in the United States. This was the reason S.H.O.U.T. had driven to Venice Beach: to attempt to help California’s homelessness problem in any way possible. On this trip it was being done by providing the homeless of Venice basic necessities, water, and on this particular occasion, Valentines Cards.

“The Venice Beach trips we do, that was an original idea from Jessica and myself coming from my sophomore year” Bianca informed me “and it happened after I participated in alternative Spring Break with the Center for Service and Action. I got the opportunity to talk to homeless people there and kind of see what other outreach programs did, and one of the ladies I talked to there, she said that one of the best things to get is bottled water”.

During the S.H.O.U.T. SleepOut event held the third week of November during the National Homlessness and Hunger Awareness week, S.H.O.U.T. members made almost 200 hygiene bags. All of the materials used for the bags, including the bags themselves, are donated from local stores and hotels. “We will call hotels and ask for donations of toiletries and some years are more successful than other years. In the past we have gotten like toilet paper, soap, a lot of soap actually, shampoos, and lots of laundry bags, which has been really great so we can actually put our hygiene kits in it.” Bianca stated.

After Bianca’s car finally arrived, all of the S.H.O.U.T. members got out of the car and began to disperse the hygiene bags among them. Kyle and Ivan, the only two men on the trip, were forced to carry a case of water each, and all of the girls carried around 100 bags between the 6 of them, saving the rest for a second trip. With light blue stripped Hyatt bags and generic Albertson’s water in hand S.H.O.U.T. members began the task of dispersing their hygiene bags and Valentine’s Day cards. Kyle, Bianca, and Diem, all wearing their neon orange S.H.O.U.T. shirts led the group, immediately stepping off of the main boardwalk and into the grass. “We should stay in the grass areas, that is where all the homeless are, on the Boardwalk it’s mostly just artists” Kyle loudly announced to the group. At first club members just handed out bags to individuals laying in the grass, even placing a bag and water at the feet of a sleeping man. However, soon Kyle spotted a shirtless man in the distance who was quite ragged looking with ripped pants. “Would you like a hygiene bag and water?”, “Sure, I’ll take that” the man by the assumed name of Sunshine responded as he carefully rubbed a huge scab on his side. The man was dirty, slightly smelled, and his large stomach hung over the waistband of his khaki pants, but worst of all he had a scab which started on his forehead, continued down the entire right side of his body, and ended on his lower calf. He was clearly in pain and as his hand brushed over the healing skin he winced slightly. “Got hit by an Escalade” Sunshine explained with a chuckle “That bastard didn’t even stop, ran right into me and then just took off, but what can I do”. “Have you seen a doctor?” Kyle questioned him with much concern. “Doctor?” he laughed even more, “I haven’t even eaten today, I can’t afford a doctor, think its getting infected too”. Sunshine winced again pointing to an oozing white portion of his scab.

“It is just really sad, because you know that you can only kind of do so much to help people.” Bianca said looking slightly disheartened, “but we do what we can.”

Further down the grass patch a man named Eric noticed that S.H.O.U.T. was handing out bags and came up to ask for one. As he dug through the hygiene bag he found the sample sized Axe brand deodorant which had been donated to S.H.O.U.T.

Eric looked more like a gangster than anybody else on the beach, he was dressed from head to toe in black bulky clothes and wore a black beanie, he had thick black plugs that stretched out his ears and a bandana hanging from his back pocket. When Eric found that deodorant though, his voice squeaked like a little girl. “Axe? Hell Yeah! Gotta stay smelling fresh. Even though I can’t shower I always try to smell good, I don’t wanna be smelling gross now. I always try to take care of myself”, he said with an ear to ear smile. It was amazing that something as simple as deodorant could make somebody so happy.

Techno music blasted out of the Titanic metal sculpture store, and mixed with the out of tune electric guitar being played by one of the street artists. As S.H.O.U.T. continued to walk further down the beach, a very well dressed man wearing designer sunglasses approached the group. “What are you guys doing out here?” he curiously inquired. “We are passing out water and hygiene bags to the homeless.” responded Diem rather quietly. “Like for community service, or for a church or something?” “Nope, just on our own.” responded Bianca, “We are a homelessness outreach club at UCI.” “Really? That’s awesome. You guys should be very proud of yourselves, not enough people care to help. You know what, can I help too?” Rico questioned with a smile on his face. So, Rico began to tag along with the college students handing out bags and water. This was a true example of the awareness which even a small club could spread in a large city.

After passing out the nearly 200 bags, the club had reached the end of the boulevard and was about to turn around when they noticed a man digging in the trash. This man had multiple hats and a helmet atop his head. He wore a neon orange reflective vest and carried with him a walking cane and a large backpack. Bianca carefully approached the man, asking if he would like water or a hygiene bag, but rather than respond he simply stared at her. He then slowly turned around, motioning to the backpack he carried. With a great amount of difficulty, and the help of Kyle, Bianca was able to place S.H.O.U.T.’s last

hygiene bag and bottle of water in his backpack. The man nodded, and then turned back around and continued digging through the trash. His hand shook as he attempted to pick up his cane and he seemed to be suffering from some sort of mental or physical illness. A lady sitting down next to him quietly whispered, “He is here every day, every day I have been here for the past 5 years. He just digs through the trash, he isn’t right you know. Most people don’t help him though, they just stare and walk by. It was very good of you to help him”.

With a mixed sense of accomplishment and sadness the club walked back to their cars. Although they had done a great deal, and helped a great many homeless people, they could only do so much. “You can’t really say like ‘Oh, here is an apartment to have’” Bianca joked, “That’s why we have to try just as hard to raise awareness as we do actually helping. A small club can only physically do so much, but hopefully the biggest thing we do is make other people aware of the huge problem homelessness is.”

Although the Venice Beach trip is a huge deal because it is the only event involving direct involvement with the homeless which S.H.O.U.T. is personally in charge of, when asked what their most memorable moment in S.H.O.U.T. was, most of the board said it was the speakers at the SleepOut. The SleepOut is one of S.H.O.U.T.’s biggest events of the year and is and overnight Sleep Out at UCI’s flagpoles. The SleepOut begins with enterainment, featuring performances and speakers, and ends with all participants spending the night sleeping outside, much like a homeless person often would. The main point of the SleepOut is to spread awareness about homelessness through speakers, but also to give sheltered students a small glimpse at what it is actually like to be homeless. “At the first SleepOut event I went to my sophomore year,” Lani explained, “that was when I heard a speaker talk about his whole experience. I heard another speaker talk about how we should change policies to a better situation in Orange County or California, so it was an educational experience, and I think that’s it, that’s what made me want to be a part of S.H.O.U.T., to contribute to S.H.O.U.T.”.

While the majority of experiences which club members have with S.H.O.U.T. are positive, there have been some scary moments which have resulted from working directly with the homeless. “I remember once me and this one girl ended up talking to this one guy and he looked like he was in his late 50’s early 60’s, and he was Hispanic, and he basically just spoke in Spanish to us, and he kind of started telling us the story of his life, in Spanish. Her and I, we both know only a certain amount of Spanish, and definitely not at the rate he was speaking it at, it was really fast and everything. He would just like tell part of his story and then he would start crying, and then he would start talking again and then start crying again, and we didn’t really know what to do, and basically we kind of just like listened and like we gave him what we had to give.” Bianca said, “Then like another time that we went there was a pregnant lady there, and it was just really sad because she was pregnant, she was eating for two, and when you are pregnant you have to take care of yourself and you know there is all these extra health things you have to take care of. We just didn’t know if she was getting access to health care or what, and so once again we are just like we can give you this water and this food, like of course we gave her extra of everything, but it was just really sad to have a baby grow up and you know just like right off the bat be homeless.”

However, no matter how upsetting a situation may get, S.H.O.U.T. as a whole works continuously to provide any assistance possible directly to the homeless, and to spread awareness to the homeless. Whether it is through their annual SleepOut, small events like volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, or trips to Venice Beach, S.H.O.U.T. is continuously making an impact on the community, as well as on UCI students. “Joining S.H.O.U.T. kind of made me feel that yeah there are a lot of people who are indifferent, but there are also people who are really passionate.” Cindy said with a smile, “It has made me more confident and brought me out of my shell a little bit. I love it, and I have made some great friends who I feel I can really count on for the rest of my life.”

Reporting Notes:

Sit down interview with club secretary Bianca Szczesniak (30 min)

Sit down interview with club co-president Leilani Isozaki (15 min)

Sit down interview with club co-president Cindy Le (22 min)

New York Times Article: Cities Are at Odds With California Over Beach Curfews

Personal observation at 3 meetings

Personal observation at trip to Venice Beach

Short interview with Sunny the homeless man

http://ucishout.weebly.com/

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2211102051

http://www.lahsa.org/homelessness_data/reports.asp

http://www.endhomelessness.org/content/article/detail/2797

http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/526/homeless-facts.html

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