You hear stories every day. Let me share one with you on this Thanksgiving.
I was living on Venice Beach, California. I met a young homeless boy, whose name was Nick. He grew up in a foster house and never met his mom. He told me: "I found my biological mother and I'm hopefully going to see her in one week time. She lives in Kentucky."
“How did you find her?"
"My sister and I have always stayed in touch. She found her and let me know."
"How are you going to get to Kentucky?"
"Well, there is a man who comes to the pier. He said he will get me the ticket. I'm hoping to see him today."
I asked him what he knew about his mother: "She can't forgive herself that she has abandoned me. But I am not upset and I forgave her long ago. She has some special gift; she hears voices and so do I. My dad was a schizophrenic. It's hard to keep those things under control. She works in a factory and she secured a job for me there too."
He continues: "You know, since I have been on the streets I've learned a lot about being humble. I began to understand a lot of things. "He noticed me looking at his wounds and said: "Try not to get run over by a car if you ever sleep on the street."
Another experience I had with a homeless person happened while visiting Sunday's Mass in a community center in Santa Monica. The Pastor's guest that Sunday was an 80 year old black gentleman named David, who stood tall, strong. Looking very smart in his brown Sunday suit. You would hardly believe that he used to be homeless and an alcoholic just a few years ago.
Today he is cleaned up and helping people get out of the streets.
He had a way to go though… When he used to be homeless, he looked forward to every Sunday, when the pastor and a group of volunteers came to give food to the homeless. Not only they were giving food, they were giving HOPE.
One day, David didn't show up on Sunday. The Pastor noticed that and was puzzled. He asked everywhere for David and since no one knew where he was, he decided to find him. Later he did. David looked very upset. The pastor asked him why he didn't come for the Sunday lunch and told him that he was missed. Then they started to talk and David talked and poured his heart. The pastor carefully listened.
David then replied his initial question: "I didn't come today, because I didn't want to waste the food. I was about to commit suicide. But then you came, you cared for me and listened to me like no one else had ever since I was a little child. Thank you. You gave me hope and I want to do something about my life."
After the Mass was over, I found David and hugged him in silence.
Homeless artists on the Venice Boardwalk, Los Angeles, California.
Do you see failures who didn't make it? Or do you see Bohemians who are homeless by choice? Do you think that homeless
people just take advantage of those who want to help, making tax free money that we have to work so hard for? Healthy people who are too lazy to work? The homeless subject is very controversial and I wanted to find out for myself.
I wanted to meet the homeless people and talk to them on a daily basis. Find out who they are and what brought them to the bottom. I wanted to see what truly lies behind their surface. I was intrigued. I came to Los Angeles in October 2013, four weeks before Thanksgiving 2013. I lived in a little Beach House literally next to the boardwalk and I started my research, which lasted for 9 months.
Venice community that shares their neighborhood with homeless people. I found that the homeless people on Venice Beach respect and are mostly respected by local the community and nevertheless, respect each other. I have been spending more than enough time discovering the core of their fundamental being. In most cases, they gave up on life. But thanks to the kindness of strangers, they live on.
I often meet a war veteran, Jeremy, who's missing a major part of his body. He only has two strong arms, a head and torso. No legs. He moves around on a skateboard, yet he still smiles. Needless to say, for him to find work is almost impossible.
There is Douglas Hill, another war veteran who lost his leg and is forced to be on the boardwalk, since the system doesn't take care of him. And with his condition and age close to 60, no one is willing to employ him.
I could name these people one by one. They all have incredible and moving stories.
Why to help homeless people while most of them are capable of working?
Yes, many are alcoholics.
Yes, many are drug addicts.
Harry Perry, an iconic Venice Boardwalk musician famous for playing an electric guitar on rollerblades, who has a home and family, gave me his opinion on why people even end up on he street: "People have all different problems. Mental problems, they are mentally damaged, they have physical problems, they are handicapped. They could be out of work simply because they had a car accident or broke a leg. When this happen to you, most employers are not going to support you, so if you get into a car accident and don’t have the right type of insurance, you won't be able to do your job, get paid and keep your apartment- that's how you can get to the bench. Many people wouldn't care whether you sit there and whether you freeze to death or not. I mean you won't freeze in Venice Beach.
There are people who come from a good family. They don't have a drinking problem, have good education and good opportunity for a job- well God bless them, but that's not everybody. Some people just are not employable. They get into a problem, get a criminal record and no one is then going to employ them. Plus many homeless people have drug habits, they need to go to a rehab program."
We were discussing the help they are getting and the shelters available. "During the winter, there is a shuttle bus. People can go on the bus and go to the shelter. But there is no funding to keep the bus going all year long for people who need to be inside- the homeless people can get clothes there and take a shower… They can clean up, have a good rest which could make a big difference the next day. Everybody needs a home. The choice should be here for people who want to have the choice."
We all make mistakes and everyone deserves a second change.
Venice was home to genius musician Jim Morrison or poet/writer Charles Bukowski, to name a few. Also well known for the happy, hippie-like vibe and the scent of marijuana starting already at the breakfast time. Mainly on the boardwalk, which is a promenade on the beach, right between Santa Monica and Marina del Rey. On the other hand, there is upper class Abbot Kinney with many fashionable and trendy shops that belong to the world-class places for temporary shopping and is definitely a place worth to pay a visit. Like everywhere, you will also find many hipsters having coffee in organic coffee shops. This street is all about style. It cleaned up and changed a lot compare to a decade ago. Now there are farmer's markets every first Friday in the month and this place vibrates.
But one thing about Venice, actually a part that creates Venice for what Venice is, and I am not talking about the beautiful canals and bridges evoking the feeling of Italian Venice. The main thing is the creative art community. Home to many music composures, writers, painters, sculptures, and photographers. People famous or not famous yet.
There are lot of other artists on the boardwalk; those who pay thousands dollars rent or are fortunate enough to own a house, or the OTHER artists; unfortunately homeless. Yes. Venice is a popular and expensive place to live which offers a lot of diversity- which is exactly what attracts many tourists to cruise around here every single day.
On the Boardwalk, you will find people selling all kind of things- skilled craftsman selling jewelry, painters or photographers selling their original pieces of artworks.
Less-skilled homeless guys who became artists sell their creative ideas and write quotes on pieces of anything that the ocean washes away. Many call the boardwalk "the freak show." After living here for few months and observing the boardwalk every single day, I would think that absolutely nothing can shock me any more. People dressed head to toes in incredible outfits- scary, funny, creative, obscene or just weird. You often pass by a bulldog chained to his master, casually wearing sunglasses. After a while you even stop noticing people walking past with snake as pets.
As for the homeless artists, there is a whole range.
You can meet Vincent, painter/guitarist, with clothes covered in colorful paint from when he was creating one of his clowns, his iconic paintings. A signature of this painter who has been on the boardwalk for past 5 years and yet still believes to be discovered. You will meet good old Mo, who sells pretty much anything he finds next to a trash cans- but mainly books. His art is to make people smile. You will see number of tarot card readers, Reiki healers, people, who makes flowers of palm leaves and many jewelry makers. "The Doll House Man", who is always in a good mood, rides his bicycle with a doll house as his head.
Performing arts are the most phenomenal part of the boardwalk.
There are stand up comedians, hip hop dancers engaging passing tourists of all different ages. There is regular a group of talented musicians who always bright up the already cheerful mood on the beach and bring their beautiful little daughter, who is in the wheelchair and always seems happy being around the crowds. I could also stand for hours and listen to the incredible sound of piano and a man who reminds me the main character from the beauty and the beast. He seems to wonder far away taken away by the speed of his music. A truly exceptional experience. Although you can hear many classics, from Tchaikovsky to Chopin, I often don't recognize the tune and I am firmly convinced that it is the genius improvising.
Probably the most phenomenal is the drum circle- a large group of random people gathering together, bringing different types of drums and drumming together in an unpredictable beats and rhythmic sounds that create a lot of energy. Often, there could be around 50 people participating.
At last, but not least, there is a guitarist/singer named Dale, who used to be an engineer, before he lost three of his fingers in his scientific research and decided to leave his work and go travel. He has been trying to get work, but since he close to 60 in age, no one wants to employ him. So there he is, on the boardwalk, putting balm over peoples’ hearts as he plays and sings his songs.
When I visited Venice the first time, it was just before Thanksgiving. I knew that all the homeless artists would have loved to enjoy the real Thanksgiving too- with all the pretty table dressing, candles, flowers. The real experience. I wanted to give back and make a difference to the lives of the local residents- the official and the homeless. Thanksgiving; the celebration of SHARING being celebrated now for more than two centuries. Dating back to the old days when Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.
I decided to prepare the Thanksgiving dinner for 50 people who are living homeless on the Venice Boardwalk. I didn't know how I am going to raise the money and who is going to help me. I wanted WholeFoods. local food store, to be a part of the little project that will make a difference for the less fortunate people of Venice. At first, I got rejected. Twice. I didn't give up and since I wanted to keep shopping there, I wanted to find a way how to get them engaged. I was fortunate enough to finally get through to the WholeFoods store team leader David, who has been most amazing and kind and agreed for WholeFoods to donate seven already roasted and smoked delicious turkeys! He also set me up with Anthony Perez, the man behind the Send Me a Penny organization, which feeds homeless people on the boardwalk every weekend. We teamed up and created the most amazing celebration. Not only we had delicious Thanksgiving food, we also had food for thoughts as little cards I personally wrote and was giving away with the food. It read HOPE, KINDNESS, SMILE, MIRACLE, JOY, LOVE, GRACE… I also got a bunch of flowers from WholeFoods which I put into 20 little vases and those bunches were decorating the Thanksgiving tables. They were blue and white and matched the beautiful ocean behind us. We were giving away those flowers as wells as cards and food and experienced one of the most emotional days of my entire life. People were stopping by, donating, talking to us and often crying, for various reasons. Having warm food being one of them. Some of the homeless people were expressing their gratitude by bringing different gifts in return. I was given a dressing mirror that day, flowers and songs. It all felt so genuine and like a pure blessing. We fed over 100 people at the end. Mission accomplished.
This experience inspired me into such extend, that I have been often coming and helping Antony at Send Me a Penny to make sandwiches on the Boardwalk. Food Sendmeapenny.com got from food bank bought from donations.
Today, I am publishing the article. One year later and living back in London, I really made up my mind about homelessness.
My aim and purpose is to raise awareness and bring a personal approach into the subject of homelessness.
I wrote this article as I sat on a bench on the Venice Boardwalk, listening to Dale while he is playing his guitar, singing from the bottom of his heart. He says to people: "Every little helps. I do not do this for living, I do this to survive." And he smiles with kindness.
Sides to check up and support
Love & Grace,