This is a large urban area. After our outreach to Skid Row with our Survival Boxes—a 3-5-day supply of food, masks, gloves and personal care items—I went out with our outreach team to Hollywood, West Hollywood and West LA on the same mission. Three seasoned counselors from our Lifeline for Vets hotline, me, and our NVF van full of Survivor Boxes, another truck full of water, and some blankets. Normally we’re looking for men and women veterans, but in the current crisis, we’ve broadened our outreach to all homeless, not just vets.
We were remembered by some of the people we’d met on earlier missions to these areas. “Thank you for coming back,” a homeless woman told us. “Thank you for caring about us. Nobody cares about us down here, but you do.”
We’d brought a small professional film crew, courtesy of Bobby Sheehan, a documentary film maker who believes in us, because this story needs to be told. The woman offered to talk to us, “but not here in my camp,” she said. The NVF team, the film guys, me and this homeless woman who stood erect and strong, walked across four lanes of busy street traffic to a place that would not be easily identified. This for the protection of her community. Because make no mistake, this is a community.
Being homeless in any big city at any time is not something anyone would choose. Add a pandemic with the critical need for access to the simplest things like soap and hot water to wash hands, then masks and gloves to slow the infection rate. On top of that, add the current climate of civil unrest and the crowning blow, curfew.
When the curfew was first imposed, it wasn’t clear how the homeless would be treated. How do you shelter in place when you have no home, no place? When where you sleep is, if you’re lucky, in a tent pitched on the pavement. When you have no way to purchase food without going out on the streets, it is worth it to risk arrest?
No matter what’s going down—from a massive lockdown to bad weather, these are the most vulnerable people. They’re hit first, hardest and longest. Efforts to provide housing for them have largely failed. Currently hotel rooms are being allocated for them. But how long can that go on?
I was walking point, first out of the van with a Survivor Box in my arms. One of the things that happens is we get to talk to people who are accustomed to being totally invisible. Nobody notices them anymore. It took me back to the 70s, when I was first working the streets of LA looking for vets. It felt good to be the tip of the spear again.
Things were busy in all three areas we covered. Protests were in progress two streets over. Trucks and caravans full of National Guardsmen were ferried past us. Most were friendly toward us and toward the peaceful protestors. And then there were what I call the Missing in America. I want the story and the images of this day to go out to the widest possible audience, so we can keep filling those Survivor Boxes and delivering them.
There was a moment in the afternoon when we all looked at each other and thought of why we were there: no one left behind; and all lives matter. It would have changed the life of anyone who came along with us that day. It revitalized me. Join us by supporting the work we do at www.nvf.org.
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The worst part of war should not be coming home.