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Kengi Fields is in a stylish Santa Monica apartment dicing tomatoes. The apartment isn’t his; the owners have vacated it so Fields and a volunteer, Stephanie Seimovich, can prepare a meal of hamburgers, potatoes au gratin, green-pepper sauce and salad that will be served to however many of Santa Monica’s homeless he can find on the streets.
Since starting a yearlong sojourn to experience homelessness firsthand, the focus of Fields’ life has shifted toward altruistic stunts such as this. His business, Justus Catering, is on autopilot, and his 32-person staff will attend to five weddings this weekend.
“Our first stop will be around the beach,” Fields tells me. “Where we’re going, we’ll be perfectly shielded.”
Fields means the spot will be hidden from the police. Doing this work outside the confines of a nonprofit can get you fined. Arriving at Santa Monica Beach, he goes into the park to round up homeless folks in need of a hot meal. Seimovich prepares the plates and utensils. I watch for cops.
Ask anybody on the street how they got there, and the answer is rarely a straight shot. The same holds true for Fields. He started his business as an undergraduate at USC, and has since catered weddings, Oscar parties and frat houses at his alma mater. No stranger to community service, he also formed the Oakwood Beautification Committee with his cousin Antoinette Reynolds in the early ’90s. Kengi takes credit for bringing steady police-officer protection and removing the CRASH gang unit from the largely black-Latino neighborhood in Venice. President Bush (the former, not quite as awful one) gave Fields a Thousand Points of Light award for his troubles.
Last year was a tough one for Fields. He lost his father and fought off kidney cancer (for the fourth time) and sickle cell anemia. During this time, he befriended several members of the online social network Tribe who happened to be homeless. Fields invited two of his new homeless friends to live with him and subsequently decided he should experience their plight himself. So on February 2, he hit the streets, maintaining contact with others through his Tribe page blog (http://people.tribe.net/chefkengi), on which Fields has chronicled his experience as a homeless person.
This evening, Fields is only able to find a few people in the park near the beach. One of them, Jim, is weeping uncontrollably. A homeless woman, Wendy Dale Wyatt, 31, tells us that Jim’s lost his oldest son and the funeral is in five days . . . in Denver. Fields and Seimovich give the man a plate of food, and Fields pledges to post a request for a plane ticket on his blog.
Wyatt has lived on the streets intermittently since she left home at 14, and says there’s little support, save for the social services that she characterizes as cold and bureaucratic. “We’re still humans. We still need affection. And when you have nobody, [it] just makes you [become] more and more withdrawn from society,” she tells me. “So what he comes out and does is perfect.”
Our next stop is the Ocean Park Community Center on Seventh Street, the largest and oldest outreach facility for the homeless in the area. A crowd of 100 is waiting for the bus to various shelters. Fields instructs everybody to get in line and slips back into his catering role — serving clients. A neophyte when it comes to the homeless situation, Fields is a combination of chutzpah and ego. It’s as if he’s saying to the OPCC, here’s how you do it.
The United Way, St. Vincent de Paul, OPCC — Fields thinks these services are actually bad for the homeless, worse than the cops who sweep the beaches, worse than the guy who “donated” a bag of shit to his cause. After spending a year on the streets, he’ll tell you about shelter food that is unregulated by the Department of Health and the useless seminars on how to fill out a job application. He believes the system thrives on the plight of the poor.
A couple weeks later, it’s Do Something weekend, during which Fields and his blog readers distribute donated goods on the beach. Sunday is a potluck dinner in the park near Bay Street. As I arrive, Seimovich’s dance troupe, Evaluna, is performing for about 20 of Fields’ homeless brethren — minus Jim, who scored a roundtrip plane ticket to Denver through Fields’ blog site. Wendy and her “old man” Brian are here, for now. In several weeks, Fields’ blog will have helped them secure an apartment and a job for Brian.
Fields learned just recently that his kidney cancer has resurfaced. But for now, he’s happy — overjoyed, really, to be of service here on the streets. “America needs to pay attention to people who actually work part-time jobs that sleep on beaches, that sleep in parking lots, that sleep in their cars,” Fields says, and though you’ve heard this speech before, something about Fields living what he’s preaching makes it sound new again. “That says something about us as a nation. If America is two paychecks away [from the streets], you better hope that I’m out here to help you.”