There is an increasing number of people in Los Feliz who live out of their van. Like a big, old school passenger van with the seats taken out. They park along the side streets where there’s all day parking and move only when there is street sweeping or they have to settle for two hour parking.
It’s their home. They have a bed, curtains, a make shift kitchen with a hot plate and boiling pot. They stock canned goods and go to our Farmer’s Market every Wednesday for a handful of fresh fruits and vegetables. They use the van radio for entertainment and exercise music. One woman put out her yoga mat this morning at the park to do her stretches while the music played from out of the van.
One man, Michael, has a gym membership so that he can shower, take classes, have unlimited access to water and maintain a sense of normalcy and community. He has a job. He has a cell phone that he charges at the gym or from his cigarette lighter in the car. He is underemployed and paying off debt from school loans and a divorce. He is meticulous in the care of his van. He doesn’t drive it unless he needs to. He rides the bus to work and has a bike that he rides locally.
Last week, I met a woman who wanted me to watch her dog. She asked if I could pick the dog up at 6pm on Friday and I explained that I feed the homeless on Fridays and would be unavailable, she launched into a tirade about our Homeless “problem” in Los Feliz. She said “they’re disgusting, they park their big ugly vans all over our community and are just lazy drunks who don’t want a job!” This from a woman who wanted me to *cook* special meals for her dog every day. Frankly, I come up against this mentality more than I care to share. Sometimes their heart is open enough to listen, but mostly it’s a personal hurt and hearing from me won’t yield their thinking to anything else. This was such a case. So I simply said “That’s not my experience, but I can understand your frustration and I pray they are able to find their way and hopefully you can be patient while they do.”
I left thinking about Michael and all of the people I see every week. The intention in their lives. None of their decisions are passive. Every penny is considered an asset. Coffees aren’t a daily part of their lives. Whole Foods isn’t their local grocer. They don’t know that North West is Kimye’s baby – it’s the direction to Griffith Park where they can use the bathroom facilities. They don’t have “skinny” jeans that they keep around hoping they’ll fit into them again one day – they have the clothes that they wear and that’s it. Every inch of their van has a specific use. They don’t have stacks of dvds and books, they have library cards. They’re not drunks. They’re too busy being their own security systems to risk being inebriated and unable to protect themselves.
These people are some of the most intentional and dedicated people I have ever met. Their responsibility seems tremendous to me, but it’s so simple to them. They’re living. They’re making decisions based on need, not want. They forecast what they’ll need for the day, the week, the month. They monitor their bank accounts with precision. Their food is what they need, not an over flowing plate with left overs in the fridge. They take care of their bodies because health insurance isn’t an option. Their lives are so incredibly intentional. Their interactions with people are very, very intentional. I’m just a girl walking her dog. They didn’t know what I do on Friday nights, and they honestly wouldn’t benefit from it. Prayer, yes, my little bag of rations, not so much. And I can pray from afar. Any of them opening up to me has been a Herculean feat. The people in their lives are either held very tightly or kept at an arms length. They don’t have time or access to Facebook for tertiary relationships. They’re not flirting with people in hopes of bedding them or building a life. The friendships they have are built on trust, acceptance, and hope.
People think the worst, it’s our default. We’ve had so many reasons to be apprehensive and judgmental. It’s the easiest thing in the world to keep walking, to not get involved and cast aspersions from afar. Getting involved opens us up to change – internal and external. The idea that a difference can be made seems illogical anymore. Greed is such an overpowering theme in this world and especially in Los Angeles. Minimalism and simplicity are confounding and even reviled.
Intention. It’s so powerful. It wrecks me. I’m often accused of being too systematic, spiritual and / or stuck on what the best path to a goal is, but I call that intentional. I communicate with purpose. I look around my own house and see how failed I am. Stacks of books and movies, clothes I never wear, piles of shoes, purses I never use – they’re not intentional, they’re passive acquisition. I love (almost) every single book and pair of shoes I own, but my life isn’t dependent upon their being in it. I’ll survive if they’re gone. It’s my want that keeps them there, not my need.
So why are these people in their van more looked down upon than me? They have more discipline, more restraint, more intention and vision for a year than most of us can muster in a single day. It’s dumbfounding. Hero is a word thrown around too loosely these days. I’m not saying living in a van equals being put upon a pedestal, but neither does being on TV. Excess: mansions for a one or two person family, fast cars for gridlock traffic, designer water for $12 being sold next to a water fountain, it’s passive acquisition. I want, I can, therefore I have.
Something’s got to give. Generosity, patience, compassion, those are the guides. Love our neighbors – the ones inside and outside of a house. A person is a person. They’re no more or less a person because of how or where they live. They have a body, a beating heart and a thinking mind. They have as much purpose on this earth as I do. What would it look like if we all smiled instead of sneered or looked away? “Hello.” A nod of the head. It’s so ridiculously simple. The effort that goes into being angry with or rude to a person in peril is astonishing. The stories of the people we often marginalize are life changing and filled with hope. It’s mine to miss if I don’t pay attention and keep an open heart. I’m so grateful for how they’ve shaped and challenged me.
Smile. Please, smile. I promise you, I promise you, your heart will thank you. The person you’re kind to might just thank you, too.