I was asked to participate in a program called Empathy Encounter. It’s put on by Hope of The Valley, a group that runs several homeless centers in Southern California that provide services to the homeless including shelter, food, psychiatric and medical services.
The point of Empathy Encounter is to get a CEO or some other person of relative high standing in the community (I guess that’s me) to spend a night being homeless. At first I didn’t know if this meant being on the streets or what, but to me it really didn’t matter, so I volunteered.
My wife and most of my family and friends were fully supportive. Some offered to go with me, but I felt it would be better if I did this by myself. I also decided I wouldn’t shower for a few days leading up the day and I’d go find some different clothes to wear. No watch, no silver chain, no wedding ring. No cellphone (gasp!).
I really wanted to play the part.
Everyone asked if I was nervous. Honestly? I wasn’t. I’ve traveled the world and been in some pretty shaky places and never really felt unsafe. I’ve always been able to figure it out and I was pretty confident that that night would be no different: I’d dress warm, I’d find a place to sleep and I’d survive.
And of course the director of Hope of The Valley, Ken, told me that there’d be someone on the inside who would know my identity so if things went south I could yell “help Mr.Wizard, I don’t want to be a homeless person!” (for those of you who remember Touche Turtle.)
A couple of days before the big event, my bravado was starting to wane. What if I couldn’t figure it out? What if it turned out to be unsafe and Mr. Wizard lost track of me?
What if I was found out? Who would I call? Uh oh. Now I’m nervous. So I called Ken. I had no intention of backing out, I just wanted a little bit more information. The first thing I find out is that for the most part, I’ll be in a homeless shelter. 120 beds. I would be #121 (don’t want to take up someone’s spot). When I asked him what I should wear he said, “Just jeans and a t-shirt — nothing special.”
He said most everyone I encountered would be unrecognizable as being homeless. Hmmmmm. And, to my surprise, he said to bring my cellphone — as most of the homeless people would have their own.
The night comes. Dressed in the suggested jeans, t-shirt and hoodie, I set out to meet Ken. I did ditch the chain, the watch and the wedding ring. I met Ken at his office and he gave me the rundown. He’s drive me to the pick-up point where several others were waiting. From there, a van would pick us up and drive us to the shelter. I’d be fed and given a place to sleep. In the morning, it would be in reverse. He asked some questions in a video interview, the last of which was what was my biggest fear.
I told him the part about not being found out. I asked if other Empathy Encounter participants had expressed the same concerns and he said, “Others? You’re the first one!”
Hmmmm. We set out.
On the drive over, Ken told me that the shelter I was going to was going to be closed at the end of the month. “Why,” I asked. “No funds? No staffing?” No, it wasn’t any of those things. The city council would only allow the shelter to stay open until February 28 because they didn’t want a year-round homeless shelter in their neighborhood. Hmmmm.
I got to the pickup point. There were about 20 or so people already there waiting for their ride. Ken said it may be up to an hour before the van showed up and then left. Now I am on the streets. With my homeless brethren. And it’s a little cold. And a little scary.
But it’s just for an hour. The one thing that was comforting was that everyone seemed pretty nice and in pretty good spirits. There was mix of young and old, men and women, a few in wheelchairs, lots of tattoos, and I’d say two thirds were African American or Hispanic.
I found a little corner and kinda squatted, leaning on a building, waiting for my ride. I was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible but sure enough, a guy carrying a teddy bear pillow sits right next to me.
“The police stole all my stuff,” he announced. “Ah man, that sucks,” was my thought-out reply.
And in spite of his calamities, he was very nice and hardly threatening. But my guess is that he probably was in need of more than just shelter.
“I haven’t eaten in a couple of days,” he said.
“I was told they have food at this place. I sure hope so,” I responded. An hour passed and the van shows up.
We pile in. The most remarkable part of the van trip was that first of all, everyone seemed to know each other. Everyone knew the driver and the driver knew everyone. And more telling, everyone was very helpful to one another. Lots of help getting into the van, especially for those with physical challenges, giving up seats, just general shared caring. It was nice to see.
I was in the very middle, halfway back, middle seat. After a few minutes during the drive, the man next to me calls out to the driver..
“Rita, where’s the music?!”
“Oh yeah, sorry!” Rita answers. She proceeds to turn on the radio. Nice and loud. My seat companion, after saying thanks, starts to sing along with the song. Pretty good voice too. The next song comes on. The woman to my left starts singing along, and this went on until we reach the shelter.
The shelter is in a church rectory. It’s dark when we pull into the parking lot. After parking, everyone piles out and goes directly inside to get checked in. I see that everyone is emptying their pockets and getting frisked. Uh oh. My pockets have very little (I did bring the cellphone) but I do have my car key.
The one I used to drive over to meet Ken earlier. And my car is a Tesla. And in my mind it’s very recognizable as such. Uh oh again. Normally I’m proud of being a Tesla owner, but this is one time I was a little embarrassed to be so entitled while those around me had so little. So I do the ‘ol slip the key into my underwear move and hope it’s a less than complete frisk. It was, and I’m in.
The shelter is more like an army barracks. 121 cots lined up in avery linear fashion. You are about 2 feet away from your neighbor. If they’re snoring, you’ll know it. My neighbor was a young guy, not poorly dressed, not particularly dirty. Pretty normal looking. He was asleep when I got there.
Evidently, vans had been bringing people in all night, and in fact my ride might have been the last one, as the shelter appeared pretty full at this point.
Time for dinner. This was what you’d expect at a classic homeless shelter, or at least what you’d imagine it’d be. :ine up and some nice volunteer would spoon some slop onto your plate. Actually, though, the “slop” was a macaroni and beef entrée and a vegetable medley of sorts — and it wasn’t half bad.
It was really strange looking across the counter at the volunteers. I’d been on that side before. I guess I fit in because no one seemed to look at me any differently than anyone else.
Lights-out came at 10PM. By that time I’d already been in possession of my space and was even starting to doze off way before curfew was called. I couldn’t help but notice that my next door neighbor was at his cot and under the blanket up to his shoulders. He was awake and watching something, maybe a movie, on a tablet.
Most everyone had a cellphone, but interestingly there were not too many calls/texts in progress. Most everyone was connected to their phone by ear buds, I assume listening to music.
The only thing they gave us was a blanket. No pillow, and it was a little cold in there, but in spite of that I fell asleep shortly after 10 and actually slept pretty well.
At 5AM, I woke up to a loud call that I thought was “Last call for Van Nuys!” It actually was just “Call for Van Nuys!” but I was half asleep. Thinking this might be my last ride out, I jumped up and joined others outside for the van ride back to the original pickup point.
On the ride back, I was again sandwiched between two very friendly people. The woman on my right asked to be dropped off on a street corner before the final destination. It seemed like she might be going to a job. So I asked her, “Going to work?” She said no, but that she did have a job working for a temp agency and that jobs did come along…she wouldn’t get called until later that morning, if at all.
We pulled up to the Van Nuys original pickup point and most everyone disappeared into the darkness. Not me. I needed to call for my ride back to my car. The original plan was that I was going to be picked up in Van Nuys, but much later. I kind of jumped the gun on the 5:00 AM ride. So, yes I could have stayed out on the street for another couple of hours and probably should have — but I didn’t. I called an Uber. Which took me back to my car. And I went to work.
I’m really happy I did this. You just never know exactly what things are like until you experience them firsthand. That’s true with anything.
First of all, let me say that what I experienced was quite different than what would have been if I was dropped off under the freeway. These were functioning homeless folks. They’ve at least figured out the system enough to know where to go for food and shelter. But with that said, homeless is homeless and the cot wasn’t exactly the Four Seasons.
My biggest takeaway was that at least for this group, homeless people are not the stereotypical drunk derelicts begging on freeway off-ramps. It seemed like this group was functioning, intelligent and willing to work if given the opportunity. I’m sure that this is not unique to the homeless population.
The other thing is the perception that money and housing is the biggest drawback to solving the homeless problem. That may very well be true, but the public’s willingness to contribute more than just money has to be considered.
I don’t want a homeless encampment in my front yard any more than anyone else. But offering up a facility in my neighborhood like the one I was in (Church, Motel, Apartment) doesn’t seem like a huge sacrifice from the community. I was absolutely welcome that in my neighborhood!
Like anything else, the homeless problem cannot be solved by one quick fix. It’s a complicated problem with a myriad of potential solutions. But as I’ve said before, a big solution requires a lot of little solutions. And my night in the homeless shelter gave me a firsthand look at the problem — albeit an abbreviated sample, but enough to learn a lot about the experience.
This is a problem that won’t go away on its own. These are real people. The Hope of The Valley solution is working for some. What about all the others who never knew about Hope of The Valley?
It seems like the first step to solve the homeless problem is to find people homes, even if that means an overnight shelter like the one I visited. Then go from there.
Homelessness is a community problem. I think we have an obligation to care for our fellow human beings. That might mean some small, but meaningful sacrifices like allowing — and even encouraging — homeless housing in our neighborhoods. At least that’d be a good start.
Then go from there.