WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THIS?
A REFLECTION ON A VISIT TO SKID ROW, DOWNTOWN LA
My class “ Spiritual Leadership”, lead by Professor Danny Fisher, took a field trip to downtown Los Angeles to the famous Skid Row on March 19, 2013. It was a very interesting experience as I got to see a different kind of life that I have never seen before in America. Here we were in America, thought to be the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and all I could see hidden underneath big tall buildings and skyscrapers were people scrambling for bare necessities – food and shelter. It was like hell on earth. I am not naïve to poverty and poor quality of life as I too, come from a small village in the northern part of Thailand where people work for minimum wage as farmers in the rice field. But Skid Row as I witnessed it was far worse and beyond what I had imagined.
We walked through the blocks and saw homeless people sleeping, walking, sitting, doing things we normally do in the comfort of our own home, except these homeless people do it on the street. From the foul smell in the air everywhere, it is evident they go to the bathroom on the street too. These are people just like you and me, but they, at some point in their lives, lost their way and became homeless. It is a very sad reality.
It is a social problem every big city in America faces. Homelessness comes from poverty that may have been brought on by not being educated enough or being ignorant about education, but often times, it stems from addiction to drugs and alcohol. Most everyone I saw lying around at Skid Row was drunk and incoherent. They all looked intoxicated, high, stoned, and under the influence. To help a person who is down and out and homeless, you give them a roof over their head and the problem is fixed. But to help a person with substance abuse, you need professional help. There just is not enough resources and manpower to do all the clean up and so homelessness becomes the ugly, dark side of society.
Homelessness is an ongoing issue. Seeing how these people live, one cannot help but wonder how can a person ever get out of this situation? Or better yet, how does a person become this way to begin with? As a Buddhist, I see how living without finite rules and living aimlessly without a clear understanding of which is the right path can be destructive to one’s life, as seen in the people on Skid Row. Had these homeless people learned the Buddha’s teaching of refraining from intoxication, the Fifth Precept, their lives would probably be a lot better today.
The Buddha himself was once homeless. He left his royal palace, disregarded his Prince status, and lived his life on the street just like any homeless person. Although he was homeless, he was not mindless. The Buddha was alert, aware, and mindful. He was insightful in knowing how consumption of alcohol and drugs is very destructive, which is why there is a Fifth Precept to restrict the use and help people maintain a good way of living without negative influence. Substance abuse causes a person to lose their mind, their sanity, and I think it is one of the biggest reasons people become homeless.
The Buddha spoke quite clearly of the dangers of alcohol.
“There are, young householder, these six evil consequences in indulging in intoxicants which cause infatuation and heedlessness:
(i) loss of wealth,
(ii) increase of quarrels,
(iii) susceptibility to disease,
(iv) earning an evil reputation,
(v) shameless exposure of body,
(vi) weakening of intellect.
Dice, women, liquor, dancing, singing, sleeping by day, sauntering at unseemly hours, evil companions, avarice — these nine causes ruin a man.
Who plays with dice and drinks intoxicants, goes to women who are dear unto others as their own lives, associates with the mean and not with elders — he declines just as the moon during the waning half.
Who is drunk, poor, destitute, still thirsty whilst drinking, frequents the bars, sinks in debt as a stone in water, swiftly brings disrepute to his family.”Who by habit sleeps by day, and keeps late hours, is ever intoxicated, and is licentious, is not fit to lead a household life.” ( From http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=5929&start=0)
As I walk the streets of Skid Row with my class, I wonder if any of the people there had ever been told to stay away from drugs and alcohol. They might have heard it, probably. But in looking at how they are still there today, they did not take that advice. Skid Row remains to be a place these homeless people call home. The poor souls who are lost, addicted, and abused by much of their own doing. It really is hell on earth.