Monday, May 16, 2016

The Longer the Candle Burns: How to Take Action, Demand Compassion, and Create Homes for the Homeless

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The wind died down, and quickly we formed small circles to light one another's candles, crowding Hollywood & Highland, our poster-board signs demanding action and compassion on behalf of the homeless held between our knees as we used both hands to cup the fragile flames. As the wicks caught fire and burned down, the wax dripped onto our fingers and splashed the Hollywood Stars beneath our feet. The longer the candles burned, the better they stayed lit, and we held the lights above our heads. They required attention and care; when the flame started to flicker, my boyfriend and I lowered our candles, protecting them with cupped hands against the wind, until each one grew strong again and could be raised on its own.  The homeless man next to me guarded his candle behind his poster-board sign, completely transfixed by the flame that lit his face with a golden glow.  

Photo by Cynthia Vance, view here on her Facebook page.

It was a bizarre picture for the foreign tourists visiting Hollywood & Highland. Their Instagram feeds had just been full of celebrity names on sidewalk stars, selfies with wax tributes to movie icons and Disney princesses and men painted gold and Michael Jackson and Marvel hero impersonators. Suddenly their SnapChats showed hundreds of nobody famous: nearly 1500 people holding signs about the homeless crisis, chanting about housing and equal rights. Organized by the Monday Night Mission in a city known for its sprawl of space and the isolation of the car culture, we crowded in, standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers, greeting like-minded people as newfound friends.

“Hey Garcetti: Keep your word! Help our homeless off the streets!” we had chanted at tourists that stepped aside to give way to our wave of protesters marching down Hollywood Boulevard.

At first I wasn’t sure why the Mission organized the march in the heart of Hollywood, and then I got it: Every tourist had a camera and wanted to capture the loud locals demanding love and respect and housing for their fellow Angelenos. Our city’s growing cost of housing and resultant exponential number of homeless is one of L.A.’s most shameful attractions. A countywide survey conducted in January found that homelessness in Council District 13, which includes most of Echo Park, rose 34% from last year, The Eastsider reports. That’s 3,036 persons living on the streets in just a small section of L.A., a few minutes walk from some of the most affluent areas of Silver Lake where we rent.

Photo by Cynthia Vance, view here on her Facebook page.
Every month as I walk, car-free in L.A., I see more and more tents and encampments each month, people taking shelter under freeway overpasses and bridges. According to the L.A. Times, “Los Angeles County has the most homeless people without shelter in the nation, studies have found, and over the years local officials have made tackling the problem a top priority. One tally released earlier this month found that nearly 47,000 people were living on the streets and in shelters countywide, with about two-thirds of those living in the city.”


My neighbors break out in online arguments of how to help, or, on the uglier side, how to rid the city of these people some view as trash. The underlying capitalistic “get a job / pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality infects many of the negative comments in the forum: about being fearful to walk through certain streets, unable to invite friends to your house as they don’t want to be faced with this homeless person, this problem.

Tell me: how should a person get a job without an address to list on the job application?  Factor in the exhaustion of terrible sleep on the streets, a life of uncertainty: will tonight be the night that the city will clear out your encampment, destroy your shelter, toss away any of the few things you hold dear, including your medicine that may be the one thing helping to treat a mental illness or a heart condition that has prevented you from keeping said job?

How are you to vote for the best interest of the marginalized if you don’t have an address to show for your voting rights? Not only have people been stripped of their dignity, forced to find a private place to go to the bathroom, unable to bathe on a regular basis, they’ve been silenced, from choosing their representatives and leaders, from telling their stories. I have no idea why most people are living on the streets. I don’t know if it was the fact that, like most of us, they were one paycheck away from being homeless, and downsizing at a company or an illness or the raising of one’s rent forced them out of their apartment. I don’t know if they were raised by abusive parents who never taught them the coping tools of nonviolent communication, and they landed in jail, losing the life they’d created. I don’t know if they live with unchecked mental illness that needs treatment. 


I do know that, as the organizer of the march and rally reminded us, they were once someone’s son. Someone’s daughter. Perhaps someone’s sister or brother, or mother. That society often calls them trash, and looks the other way, but that they are our neighbors. And that, stripped of their voice, their rights to vote, to speak to the resolutions of this systemic crisis, we must help them regain that voice. We must stand up, and show up. We must demand Mayor Garcetti follow up on his promise of declaring a state of emergency, and then pressure Governor Brown to redefine what that means to include this shameful treatment of humans.  (Read more at the L.A. Times here.) We must continue to show up, to use our voices and our votes to find solutions to the growing housing crisis, to demand affordable housing.

We had shown up, but that was not enough. Callor email your council member, the organizer instructed us. If nothing changes, vote them out, and vote in someone who will enact their campaign promises.  If nothing changes, we will march in Sacramento.  We cheered, emboldened by numbers and the feeling of taking action. The final exhortation: “remember to recycle your signs!” felt hilariously anticlimactic, but every action counts in creating the L.A. we want to inhabit.

We blew out our candles and rolled up our poster-boards. The sun was setting, and the wind was getting colder. I wrapped a scarf around my neck as my boyfriend and I walked away from the rally, looking for a place to get a bite to eat, to get off the sidewalk. Later that night, after the tourists had returned to their hotels, and we were home and safe, tents would be pitched all over Los Angeles.  

Lighting the flame of activism, showing up for change, for a better life for everyone takes each of us lighting each other’s candles, handing out water and signs and marching, walking in the same direction.  It’s a complex problem, and keeping those candles glowing requires constant attention, knowing when to shield them from the wind, when to raise them high to light the way, guarding the flame from being blown out.

“It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” ~ The Christophers

Photo by Cynthia Vance: Facebook


(More photos from Cynthia Vance can be viewed on her Facebook page here.)
 

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