A volunteer experience in LA’s Skid Row

November 2, 2022

From left: Karen Haldeman, Sgt. Jenelle Meier, Secretary V Kristine Carino and Senior Investigator Jody Little From the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Bureau of Investigation

A volunteer experience in LA’s Skid Row

By Karen Haldeman

When my best friend, Cara Mitchell said that she was going to Los Angeles for an Adobe Max convention for her position as Office of College Relations administrative assistant at West Shore Community College, I was so excited for her. Then when she suggested I go along for the ride, I was elated. I told her the first thing I want to do is volunteer at a homeless shelter. She loved that idea. I started my research and found one, Union Rescue Mission (URM) in the heart of Skid Row. I submitted my background check information and then signed up to work in the kitchen preparing and serving lunch. URM is an outreach service that has been sharing the compassion of Christ for the past 130 years. They do more than offer meals and shelter they are committed to serving the whole person  in mind, body and spirit with humility and respect. They offer emergency services, clinics and a learning center for men, women and families.

The day came, Wednesday, October 19 and I took a taxi from the hotel to the shelter. I researched Skid Row and knew that I would be in the middle of the 50-city block area, but when I arrived and paid the cab driver and looked around, I asked him to take me back to the hotel. I said that I felt uncomfortable and scared being there alone. There was a sea of unhoused individuals on the sidewalks, alleys and street. The cab driver said that he would make sure I got in the building and that it was daylight and that I could do this. He said that if it was dark out, he would not have accepted the run to take me to that location. 

With his encouragement I got out of the cab and walked into the building. I went through security and was told where the kitchen was. I walked in and introduced myself and I was introduced to a few very nice gentlemen that gave me directions. I started by getting heavy bags from the refrigerator filled with day old Starbucks treats, cake pops, chocolate croissants, breads, bagels, muffins and putting them on large trays. My supervisor, Casey, would walk by and ask if I was smiling and reminded me that it was a requirement. I couldn’t help but smile when he came around. He had the most positive vibe and was a light to all! Everyone there was so wonderful and helpful. Many of them were part of the program offered at URM. 

At this point I was the only outside volunteer. There were four lunch groups that came through, two with just men, one with families and one with only women. Each group prayed before they received lunch. Just before the first lunch group, three women came in to volunteer with me. The menu was corn dogs, french fries, cabbage salad, fruit and desserts. When we got a break, I had the chance to sit with the three other volunteers. They were from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. We had great conversation. I spoke about my job at the City of Ludington as the planning & assessing clerk and they told me about theirs.  We chatted between lunch groups and really bonded over the experience and shared stories about our lives outside of work. 

After all the groups were fed and we had food left we filled trays and went out to the street. We were brought out with a regular shelter volunteer and a security guard. We distributed another 50 meals. We were able to interact with the people on the street and for the most part they were very kind and thankful even in the conditions they were “living” in. After cleaning up the lunch room, we were able to leave. I was going to call an Uber, but the ladies from the DA’s office would not allow that and brought me back to my hotel themselves. They were so encouraging and told me how brave I was to do this on my own and even said that they were going to look at similar experiences when they traveled.

It was the most humbling and rewarding experience. I felt every emotion I could feel in five hours, grateful, humbled, sad, angered and blessed to name a few. URM quickly became near and dear to my heart and I will continue to support their mission. The main lesson I learned is that one doesn’t need to go to Skid Row to volunteer, we can spread love and kindness and be present for others everyday where ever we are. I do plan on volunteering, even when I travel as it is one of the most eye-opening things I’ve ever done. We have unhoused individuals here in our own community and it’s something that most of us will never experience and really can’t understand. But I encourage you to look at these individuals with the respect and dignity they deserve. 

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