Within sight of downtown Los Angeles’ towering, silver skyscrapers live thousands of homeless men and women. They spend their days scavenging for food, a drink, a drug fix, and sometimes all three. Many sleep in tents pitched on sidewalks, or in alleyways in an area known as Skid Row. In its heart, on the corner of San Pedro and East Sixth Street, stands The Midnight Mission, offering hope to those who are ready for help.
Halfway through our tour of The Midnight Mission, David – hefty, clean-shaven, dressed in dark slacks, a long-sleeved shirt and a tie – led me into a gymnasium-size room partitioned into eight by ten feet cubicles. Each has a bed, a small desk and a dresser. “This,” David said, “is where I stay.” He was so well spoken that only then did I realize he was not an employee of The Midnight Mission, but one of its 250 live-in clients.
There are many factors contributing to today’s coast-to-coast rise in homelessness. Chief among them is the scarcity of jobs and of affordable housing. In Los Angeles, the smallest studio apartments start at $1,200 or more per month, making housing unaffordable, even for persons working minimum wage, full-time jobs. In addition, many among the street homeless also struggle with mental health issues, alcoholism, and drug addiction.
Adults tend to only open to making major life changes when not changing becomes more painful. This is nowhere truer than among those struggling with addictions. To participate in one of The Midnight Mission’s programs, one must be sick and tired of being sick and tired. David is one of those.
After showing me through the reception area, living quarters, kitchen, offices, and meeting rooms, David took me to a quiet reception area. For the next thirty minutes, I listened in amazement as he told of the pain-full and grace-filled twists that constituted his life. His spiral into alcoholism and cocaine abuse had led to unemployment, estrangement from family, and the loss of most of his friends. Unable to keep a job, David could no longer afford to pay rent. That’s when – several years ago – he found himself living on the street.
By the age of 13, he was addicted to cocaine. One year later he joined a gang. His drinking triggered rage; struggle with teachers led to expulsion from high school. By the age of 17, David was a high school dropout and an intravenous heroin user. He left home to share an apartment with friends who had also dropped out of school. He worked in fast food restaurants at minimum wage, got evicted more than once, made and lost friends, had numerous short-term relationships with women. All the while, David’s abuse of alcohol, cocaine, and heroin grew worse.
Despite his addictions, by his early 30’s David was married and had two daughters and a son. Family obligations did not keep him from disappearing for weeks, sleeping on sidewalks until his wife or parents found him and brought him home. Once his father discovered him huddled in a pile of old, smelly blankets, hungry, dirty, tired and drunk. “We love you, David, and we are not giving up on you,” he recalls his father saying. But David refused help.
He had become at home on the street. David drifted in an out of his wife and children’s lives. Longer and deeper relapses followed stints at sobriety. Finally David became a permanent “resident” of the streets. Estranged from his family, he learned survival skills that are now difficult for him to discuss.
The stress of living on the street, particularly coupled with alcohol or drug abuse, can trigger on mental illness or make existing emotional problems worse. This was certainly true for David, who wound up shuffling along the crowded sidewalks, talking to himself, while pushing a grocery cart full of his ragged belongings.
By the time David was 50 years old, however, he had finally had enough, allowing a friend to bring him to The Midnight Mission, where he entered The Midnight Mission’s Life Recovery Through the program, David learned how to stay sober. He also learned life management skills, such as how to budget, make himself more valuable to employers, take care of him health, and nurturing relationships. David has now restored his relationships with his parents, his wife and his children. David is thinking clearly again. He is holding down a job as an assistant volunteer coordinator at The Midnight Mission, and he is hopefully about his future. “I feel honored, and I feel privileged to be doing the job that I am doing, because I never would have thought,” voice breaking, “when I was a homeless bum that God would have me where I am at now, because I was of the hopeless, hopeless variety,” David said.
Late last year, before a crowd of hundreds, and accompanied by his son, David shared his story at The Midnight Mission’s annual fundraising dinner held in Beverly Hills. His is a story of estrangement and reconciliation, and of hope restored. David is not alone. At the Midnight Mission, and at similar programs around the country, lives are being resurrected, proving the homelessness does not have to equal hopelessness.
Note: David recently graduated from the Midnight Mission’s yearlong life recovery program. He is living with his wife and is employed full time with BMW in Beverley Hills.