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The Problem With Volunteering On Skid Row On Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is a day unlike any other on Skid Row. It's when homeless residents will eat a menu designed by Chef Michael Voltaggio and get served by Neil Patrick Harris and Kim Kardashian suited up in aprons. It's a day that volunteers are clamoring to get involved: the Los Angeles Mission says that it was already booked for Thanksgiving early in October.

And that's all well and good except for one thing: it's only one day out of 365. (Okay, more if you want to count the also-busy days before and after, as well as Christmas—the other day when middle-class people seem to remember the less fortunate, if they're not crying about getting an iPhone in the wrong color)

Mel Tillekeratne, who works with the Monday Night Mission, wrote a post on the group's Facebook page decrying people who only drop in on Skid Row during the holidays:

This week from Wednesday through Sunday, thousands of people from all over Los Angeles will descend on Skid-row. There will be tens of thousands of meals handed out by the shelters, groups, and individuals who want to celebrate thanksgiving by sharing food with the homeless. There will be so many volunteers that you won’t know who from who on Skid-row and there will be so much food given out that a lot of it will go to waste. As a friend who used to feed on thanksgiving told me:

“Finding a homeless man who hasn’t eaten on thanksgiving is like finding gold!”

Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t see anything wrong with sharing food with the homeless or anyone. Far from it as I’m writing this Monday Night Mission has gone to Skid-row 234 days so far for 2013 just to feed the homeless. The problem I have is the fact that there is so much emphasis on giving on thanksgiving but then magically nothing afterwards.

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Tillekeratne goes on to say it's all well and good to come to Skid Row during the holidays, but he encourages people to continue coming, "Promise [residents] that you will be back to help them when the holidays are over and keep that promise!"We talked to some of the groups that help to coordinate volunteers on Skid Row, who make a concerted effort to enlist volunteers year-round. They gave us some tips on volunteering whether it's Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July:

  • Do your homework. If you're interested in volunteering, it helps to do research to learn more about the 53,800 homeless people in Los Angeles County (many of whom are on Skid Row) before you go. If you're volunteering with a group, read up on the needs of its clients. Lamp Community says sometimes its volunteers were a little jarred to realize that the group mostly served adults with mental illness when they first arrived. If you want to get involved in political advocacy, make sure that you understand the issues, the needs of Skid Row and the right politicians or media outlets to contact. Go that extra mile to make sure you're not wasting your time, energy or doing the wrong thing.
  • Follow the golden rule. It should go without saying, but here it is: treat the residents of Skid Row like humans. If you're walking down the street where people have their belongings and tents set up, remember that that is their home. Some residents complain that they can feel like they're on display when volunteer groups walk through, so be mindful and respectful of residents' personal space. When you're volunteering, say hello to residents, ask them their names and get to know them—just as you would anyone else.
  • Serving food isn't the only way to get involved. Anyone can serve food, but if you've got a special talent or expertise, consider donating that. Los Angeles Mission says it can use the help of chefs, tutors who can help people learn to read, teach ESL classes or offer job counseling. Homeless Health Care Los Angeles has volunteers who make it possible to offer Zumba, cranial massage, acupuncture, pilates and yoga on Skid Row.
  • Be smart about what you donate. Don't just donate your old junk. For instance, buying travel-sized toiletries makes more sense than bulky, full-sized ones, says Nancy Storey at Lamp Community who add that they are always looking for donations for their hygiene kits. During the winter months, residents need socks, winter coats and other things to stay warm, like mittens, scarves and hats. If you're not sure, you can contact some of the different agencies that serve the homeless population. If you're having a holiday party, you can encourage guests to bring along donations in lieu of presents. Homeless Health Care Los Angeles encourages supporters to buy $5 cards from Subway or McDonalds—they have labels with their address, phone number as well as the 211 LA County resource number.

Here are some places we spoke with that are always eager for volunteers: Los Angeles Mission (volunteer page)
Homeless Health Care Los Angeles (volunteer email)
Lamp Community (volunteer email)
And here is our round-up of places to volunteer during the holiday season—or any season.

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