How did I feel, walking among the homeless, seeing their tarps covering the three foot by four foot areas where they kept everything they had?
I had many different emotions arising. Initially, even before the visit to skid row, I had fear. I have been attacked in South Central Los Angeles when I went there to help teach a newcomer Buddhism. A couple of years ago a young man on a bike tried to steal my purse as I put change in a parking meter on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. I have experienced life-threatening situations with volatile and angry drug addicts, and I know of someone who was recently murdered on skid row, having gone there to help a couple get sober So, I had fear.
I had curiosity. What was skid row like these days? Years ago I was teaching someone on Skid Row the Buddhist practice I was engaged in. When I would arrive at her room, I had to pay someone on the street to watch my car. In those days, when I would go there, there were people teeming in the streets. I would fervently chant my mantra, hoping to get away without someone throwing a bottle through my window or attempting to car jack my car.
I had hope. There are a few attractive looking public bathrooms right on the sidewalk now. How amazing. And the people we encountered seemed more curious than angry. Some even said hello. And there were hundreds of people sitting on the patio of the Union Rescue Mission eating breakfast. It looked like a popular café. This was a lot different than twenty years ago.
I felt protective. I know some homeless people in my old neighborhood who are homeless because they are widowed, mentally ill., or just couldn’t find work before unemployment was extended. I wanted to show only respect to those we encountered.
I had anger. There is no reason in the world why there should be so many homeless in a city as large as Los Angeles. There is no reason in the world that the United States should have homeless people. No one will ever convince me otherwise. And truly, there is enough wealth in the world to provide basic sustenance to every human being on this planet.
But I must accept that this is my world, this is where I belong, or I would not be here. What to do??
In an amazing book I just read, called Rabbi Jesus by Bruce Chilton, Chilton talks about how Jesus decided that the Israelites no longer had to completely immerse in water to become pure, because Jesus believed the Israelites were already pure inside. Buddhists teach that we all possess an inherent Buddha Nature. What we have to do is help people wake up to this purity, or this Buddha Nature. But we can not do this by just talking about it. In his CD entitled Being Peace, Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh says, “It is with our capacity of smiling, breathing, and being peace that we can make peace.” The average human being has to care, and not just the non-homeless, but also the homeless.
There is a line in the movie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which says “we accept the love we think we deserve.” Well, I think we can change that statement a bit and say, we accept the world we think we deserve. We have to become a people who no longer accept a world with thousands of homeless people, and sick people, living in the street, right next door.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Summit Entertainment, a LionsGate Company, 2012
Chilton, Bruce, Rabbi Jesus, Doubleday, NY, NY, 2000