Friday, August 31, 2007

It's Me!

This is proof that I am still in fact alive and well at the Catholic Worker. Beside me is Margaret, a new Catholic Worker in Training. She's testing the waters for a month and will see if the place is right for her. It's nice to have another person my age in the house (she's 24), and it's even better that we're both still learning so much about the routine, lifestyle and quirks of the LACW.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Back to the Grind

After 11 wonderful days in beautiful Oregon, I am back in Los Angeles. The break from the big city was much needed. I even got to sleep well past 7am (i.e.: 10am at the earliest), which was quite a treat!

I had the opportunity to visit family and friends in both Eugene and Portland, and heard the following question more times than I would have liked: "So, what's the plan now?" I understand that most people meant this question with the best of intentions; however, when I hear that question, it translates, most likely incorrectly, to, "Seriously, what are you really going to do with your life?"

Preferably, people would ask, "So, how are things in LA?" Because then I can respond with something like...

"Things are great! I love LA, even though it's pretty challenging. Definitely not something I could do for the rest of my life, but I'm happy for now."

And then they could ask, "So do you know what you want to do after LA?"

I'd smile, or laugh or roll my eyes sarcastically and say, "I don't necessarily have a plan, but I'm working on it. I'm taking a break from the job hunt for a few months so I can feel settled and focus on the work and community in LA. Eventually I'd really like to get into social work, and I think the experience I am getting in LA is really fitting for that goal."

The other person would nod, smile, and say, "It sounds like a struggle, but it also sounds like you're doing a great job. I'm glad you've found something you enjoy!"

See, isn't that a much better conversation? I think so.

I am blessed enough to have the support of my friends and family concerning my involvement with the Catholic Worker. I was almost reluctant to continue living here without that support system, but my visit back to Oregon has relieved me of that stress. My dad even said last night before I left, "Take as much time as you need in LA." It's difficult to describe the comfort that kind of statement brings; the feeling of knowing that despite the hippie decisions I make, I can count on my family to support me as long as I am doing what I feel I am called to do.

Every once in a while, and by that I mean approximately everyday, I take a step back from what I am doing and just realize what a rich part of my life I am living. Now, I can defer loans, be unemployed, live in voluntary poverty, speak my mind with confidence and still ask questions without embarrassment. I am young enough to be considered young, but old enough that my opinions suddenly mean something (maybe not a lot, but at least something). And while living in Los Angeles, I am taking full advantage of all of the opportunities. Am I going to be able to do this when I'm 30? 40? Probably not. By then I'm sure I will have fulfilled some sort of plan I had mustered up years before; and as much as I anticipate my life will still be driven by causes of social justice, I will not be able to act on them as I am doing now.

So I will grudgingly take work shifts the community signed me up for this week; but I do constantly remember that this is a unique experience in my life, and knowing that keeps me working. The life of a Catholic Worker in Training is tasking, but it's the life I'm choosing.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Homelessness Is Your Problem, Too

A week and a half ago, my friend from Skid Row, James Brown, was arrested for not paying a $200 jaywalking ticket. His sentence is 60 days. About the same time, another friend, AJ, was arrested for sleeping on the sidewalk outside the Hippie Kitchen at 6:20am (the homeless are allowed to sleep on the sidewalk from 9pm to 6am). He got out of jail two days later and retrieved his carts that had been put in storage; the next day, someone set one of his carts on fire.

The life on Skid Row has become so much more hectic and brutal since last summer. Not only do the men and women have to be wary of each other, but there has been an extremely heightened presence of security and police officers in the area. There have been amazing consequences.

The guys who come to the Hippie Kitchen have been harassed by private security guards hired by companies in the downtown area. These officers are commonly known in the area as "shirts" because of the different colored uniforms they wear for the different districts in town. The Red Shirts often bike by the Hippie Kitchen, looking for men and women who are jaywalking, dealing drugs, sleeping on the sidewalk, storing their things in supermarket (aka: stolen) carts, and other crimes. The Red Shirts do either or possibly both of the following: (1) address the individual directly, search through personal belongings, take pictures of the individual, put the individual against the wall to pat down, and miscellaneous harassment; (2) contact the LAPD with the information they can receive from the individual, give the location and the police address the situation.

While it may seem that the Shirts are providing a service to protect the gentrified area, they are acting illegally. They have no rights outside the private property they are hired to secure. Outside the bounds of the company, they may wear a uniform but have only the rights as a common citizen. The Shirts are abusing their rights and are harassing the men and women on Skid Row.

If you spend just 15 minutes in the garden at the Hippie Kitchen, you will hear stories about Shirt and LAPD brutality. Two ACLU attorneys came to the kitchen last week to talk with our patrons about their experiences simply with police searching through belongings without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Last year, they would have stayed for an hour maximum. Last week, they stayed from 9:30am to noon, speaking with as many people as they could. Everyone has a story, whether it is their own, friend's, neighbor's or something they witnessed. This doesn't even cover the arrests that are made for jaywalking just so the individual can be given a citation at the police station, or the tents and bags that are torn (not searched) apart, or the woman who was beaten outside our kitchen two months ago by four police officers, or all the unspoken and unknown crimes the victims are too afraid to speak about.

The men and women in Skid Row live day to day not only in poverty but in fear. They are being pushed out of Skid Row and into different districts of the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. The downtown area has developed into a loft-city. New high-rises are popping up all over. Ads are seen throughout the media. The city is making a point to clean the city up a little, and have an "art walk" every month to help display the fun and exuberant aspects of the area.

But the city has seen that the area needs protecting. The abundance of police and security force only helps to prove that the city is preparing to help the men and women who plan to move into these lofts and eradicate homelessness at the same time... or at least make the homeless someone else's problem.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

First Day of Line Watcher Training

On Tuesday, I came the closest I ever have to a fight in the garden at the Hippie Kitchen. Currently, I am in training for line watching. I have to be aware of people cutting in line, fighting or leaving their spot in line. If a fight breaks out, I have to call another line watcher (a community member) to stop the argument. While I do not have the proper training and/or courage to put myself in a position to stop the arguments now, I will be one of those people in the future.

Sitting outside with Clare and Martha, I was learning about basic line watching skills (eyes on the line, always say "hi," communicate with other line watchers, etc.). While Martha was just a few feet away from me, I felt there was just enough space between us for me to have my own space to watch over as a rookie. And then I saw a streak out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see a man dump a cup of water on a woman in the garden, exchange nasty words, and then spit on her. By the time he was walking away, the woman started to walk after him. I knew from the second I saw the water hit her face that the situation would turn ugly very quickly; and when I realized that these actions did not correspond with the atmosphere of peace at the Hippie Kitchen, I anxiously called Martha's attention to the fight.

Martha, 53 years old and as gentle as anyone could be, hurriedly brought herself in between the man and woman. She waved her hands in small, nonthreatening circles, only saying, "Please don't. Please don't." The look on Martha's face expressed her dread for the situation, but more so it described her complete heartache that she should have to encourage peace. As if the man she stood in front of had personally let her down.

Meanwhile, I stood no more than 10 feet away wondering why I had not acted sooner. Why did I watch him spit on the woman? If I had called Martha just a second earlier, would the situation be much different? And just as these thoughts raced through my mind, I saw the woman struggling with a young man who jumped in as Martha did. The woman had picked up a pepper container (a glass bottle) off a nearby cart and threw it at the man who spat on her. The bottle crashed on the ground, and the woman ran out of the garden to the street.

Martha handed the remaining salt and pepper containers to me and asked me to bring them inside the kitchen. Her tone was firm but calm. I, on the other hand, could not control my anxiousness. I scurried inside the kitchen holding the two bottles and thrust them at the woman who was serving the main dish. "Take these!" I squeaked.

"What?" she replied, holding a plate full of beans in one hand and and a ladle in the other.

"Just take them!" I held the containers, looking at her with desperation. Seeing that she was not in a rush as I was, I shoved them towards another woman who was standing next to her. Still not knowing exactly what to do, I went back outside to see if there were more containers I could frantically pass around the kitchen, or if the garden was as it should be.

I found that Martha was no longer waving her hands, the woman had left, and the man seemed to be less aggressive. But right as the guard seemed to have been let down, he sprinted past me toward the door of the kitchen to cut through to the street. This time, Clare joined Martha in begging this man's cooperation. Only 21 years old, but full of the necessary power and confidence of a line watcher, Clare held her arms out and chanted, "Peaceful garden. Peace. This is a peaceful garden," over Martha's heart wrenching pleas. The man simply turned around and left for the street.

Taking a few deep breaths to bring myself back from the panicked few minutes, I only felt embarrassment. I did not help. I stood and watched. And when I was asked to help, I was an anxious mess. Am I suited for this job? I spoke with Martha later that day and received the affirmation I needed: I did do a good job; I took the containers as I was asked; I did not overstep my boundaries; I did not assume responsibilities as a trained line watcher would.

I have mixed feelings about my position as a potential line watcher, but the negative feelings are only based in fear: fear of failure, timidness, weakness. Now finishing my third day of line watcher training, I can notice on my own the skills I need to develop. I am excited to prove to myself and the community that I am strong enough to confront the men and women, but kind enough to offer friendship. I have no doubt that the training will continue to bring stories just as nerve-racking, but I know that I will grow stronger because of them.