On Monday night, I went to a life skills class at Union Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter looming over the heart of skid row. Fifth and San Pedro, blocks and miles away from where I go to work everyday. I had been there once before, when I interviewed for a freelance job I found online: copy-editing a book compilation of the stories of skid row: of this homeless shelter, of the people that have passed through here.
The people that have passed through here—the people that are still here—are surprising and varied. Monday, it was a group of twelve kids. Kids, teenagers, young adults, whatever you call them, they were eight and eighteen. People who shouldn’t be expected to take care of themselves, but are being asked to anyway.
The class started with a breathing exercise. In and out, sit up straight. “If you can’t control your breath, how can you control your life?”
These past few weeks (since, actually, right around the time when I finally articulated my need to spring forward and the span of the day started manifesting it) have been emotionally, um…full, but this was so searingly simple (breathing in and out; being a kid and being homeless) that it didn’t have space for my own feelings. They weren’t sad, at least not on Monday night—they were teenagers, chatty and sassy, full of attitude and slouching, whispering behind the teacher’s back.
I met a girl who wants to be a writer—or actually, just loves to write, and writes and reads and paints and dreams, and do you have any book recommendations, and loves blogs (omg you have a blog!) and wants to be someone big, someone with influence, there are so many things I want to do. She was just thrilled, and had had a great day (she figured out she wanted to take Japanese in school instead of Chinese, and what a relief it was to make that decision, finally). Her story will appear in the book of stories, and it’s next in my queue to edit. I almost don’t want to read it, don’t want to find out why this expanding energy of a girl is here, now, at a life skills class at a homeless shelter on a Monday night. She’s just like any kid I’ve tutored, or coached or taught, and I imagine it must be weird for her, too, to have ended up here… to have to identify herself as homeless.
There are all the presumptions about who is homeless, but for as many stories as I’ve now read about drugs and abuse, there are stories of risks taken and no safety net. And, as much as the rowdy teenagers—now milling about the room in the after-class free time—were just teenagers, they also sort of weren’t. They could articulate that it’s tough to live here. It’s hard to leave this place behind when I go to school and act cool and normal and hip with my friends, and my friends don’t know I live here, that I’m homeless.
When I left, I finally enjoyed my long drive home… the driving, the control over my life, and little home I get to rent all for myself.