It is ironic that homelessness has become an "emerging" issue.
During college, I lived in Santa Monica. There was a very large population of homeless people in that area, but nowhere was the issue so prominent as it was at the Third Street Promenade. I would take my daughter there, and I still remember how dirty the parking structure was. It was so dirty, smelling of urine and unwashed bodies. The homeless would park themselves and all of their belongings on the sidewalk. They begged for money and like most people, there were times when I would just toss it at them. Others times, I made an effort to put as much space between them and myself as I could. No matter what, I made very little eye contact and a whole lot of mental judgements. This changed when I embarked on a school project in my bonus year at USC.
Statistics was the last class I had to finish before I started the Nursing program, and I failed it. I remember being so sad, frustrated, and disappointed in myself. I had a choice: enroll in an extra year at USC and re-take statistics... or quit. At the time, there was a small part of me that wanted to quit. Really, a big part of me. Thankfully, I was successful.
It was during this bonus year that I met the man who would change my view of homelessness. His name was John, and I met him while handing out "nutritious" snacks on the street as part of an assignment for a class. John was an unkempt older man, and I saw him sitting on a filthy blanket with a simple sign that read, “God Bless.” I offered him what I had. He seemed pretty safe, and almost normal. It was not planned or part of the assignment, but something compelled me to ask him his story.
I knelt down, and struck up a conversation. I don't know what I was expecting, but it was definitely not what he shared with me that day. He proceeded to tell me that before he was homeless, he was a painting contractor. John had a small painting business, which gave him just enough to survive. He wasn’t flush with cash, and so he let his truck insurance lapse. One day, his truck was stolen with all of his tools inside. In an instant, his livelihood was gone. From this small blow, his entire house of cards fell. He no longer had a vehicle to get himself to work, and he had no tools to use when he got there. He couldn't pay his rent without an income, and so John became homeless. Poof! Just like that. Now I don’t know about you, but I have had plenty of times in college that I had to make a choice. I could pay my rent, pay my insurance, or eat. We all know what wins.
I realized in that moment that could easily be me. It could be someone I know. It took that moment of actually looking at, and listening to John to realized what separates us from the homeless. It’s the way they "appear"- how they look, how they smell. If they were clean, people would view them differently. Maybe give them a chance. Can you imagine going around all day long with people averting their eyes away from you? What about people always telling you to leave, and yelling at you to get a job, being sick on the streets, or getting locked out of trash cans that you rely on for food and supplies? No one will even connect with you as another human being except for other homeless people. I never really forgot about John, and I often entertained the possibility of opening a homeless shelter. It's not that the dream died, but there never seemed to be the resources, or the time to dedicate to it.. And so it slept, until a series of events unfolded over the last year.
It started with me watching CNN's Heroes. So rad, I love every single one of them. One of the honorees was a guy who converted a RV to a couple of shower stalls, and just drove around letting people get cleaned up. It was called "Shower to the People”. So incredibly cool, and totally possible. Except that I didn’t have $30,000 to buy a trailer, and so I didn't put too much thought into it. Not until I was absentmindedly scrolling through social media, and I noticed a post by my dad. In his post he asked, “What is God calling you to do?” It was funny because I have pretty much kept this dream to myself. I told my girls, my mom, and a few assorted people over the years, but I didn't usually share it because I never truly believed it would happen. On a whim, I decided to post to him with exactly what I had in mind, without any expectations, just to put it out there. What I definitely did not expect was the response: “Well, let’s make it happen." Through a combination of experience, inspiration, and genuinely good people, my dream woke up and the SoapBox suddenly became very real.
My hope and goal for this project is to give homeless people who want to get clean a place to shower. I want to give these people some dignity, and the compassion they deserve. I want to offer this without stipulation or conditions. I know there are lots of reasons for homelessness. Some folks are mentally ill, or addicted to drugs. But the majority are sick, poor, and don't bother anyone. The fastest growing segment of the homeless population is actually families with children.
This project has given me an opportunity for self discovery, and for a new understanding of human nature. At first, I didn't share my project with many people. I knew the stigma against the homeless was going to be tough to surpass, and I was almost embarrassed to tell people what I was working on. What I realized early on, however, was that I had no idea how to do this alone. I didn't know how to start a charity. I couldn't tow a trailer. I needed someone to organize volunteers. I needed safe locations. I realized I couldn't do this alone. So I reluctantly started promoting my project, and here we are. A little dream, 20 years in the making: the SoapBox.