Lessons From a Santa Monica Food Line 

Through HOPE, the humanist impulse hits home

Wednesday, Jul 30 2008

It’s 4 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon in Santa Monica, and a 30-something woman named Hillary has just finished volunteering with HOPE (Helping Other People Eat), an organization that provides hot meals for the homeless twice a week. Today, she is bringing home HOPE’s dirty dishtowels, which she will wash later this evening.

“Go light on the starch,” a fellow volunteer teases.

Hillary proudly waves the bag of dishtowels over her head and replies, “Oh, you’ll see, I’m gonna iron them.”

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Hillary, who prefers that her last name remain private, discovered HOPE during the recent collapse of her marriage. The documentary filmmaker and mother of two was having trouble leaving the house, so she started forcing herself to take morning walks in Palisades Park. She would drive from her home in Brentwood, put on her headphones and walk six miles while listening to Dave Matthews.

“I’m a Dave-head,” the redhead says with an infectious smile. “Dave Matthews is my higher power.”

Soon, she started to recognize the faces of the homeless who gathered in the park, and sometimes, as she’d walk past a few park regulars who were listening to music and dancing, something cool would happen. “I’m walking with a big smile ’cause I’m listening to Dave Matthews and I’m happy,” she explains. “And, I get this big smile back, and we have this kind of dance, and it’s a beautiful thing. There is no conversation, I am in my own little world, and they are in their own little world, but we are bouncing off each other.”

One day, while walking, she noticed people serving the homeless lunch and decided she wanted to help. She took off her headphones and asked one of the volunteers for a business card. By the time she eventually called, the city of Santa Monica had succeeded in its yearlong quest to get HOPE’s food line out of the tourist-populated seaside park; meals are instead being served at the Ocean Park Community Center’s Annenberg Access Center.

The facility, which was built last year, is modern and clean. It offers services designed to get people off the streets: job and housing referrals, shelter, showers, lockers, mail service, a community closet of clothes, case management and help for those with debilitating mental illness. The food HOPE serves there is paid for through donations and is usually prepared by the volunteers, supplemented by regular drop-offs from many popular local establishments, and a weekly hot vegetarian dish prepared by Mother’s Kitchen, a homeless-outreach program run by the devotees of Amma, the Indian hugging saint.

When she’s not volunteering, Hillary, who actually has a long community-service history — she helped with food drives for One Voice when she attended Crossroads high school, and through a One Voice pilot program called Adopt-a-Family, became involved for several years in helping a brother and sister whose mother was in prison — admits that during the rest of the week, she lives a comfortable life. Her parents were well-off, sent her to good schools and bought her a nice home. They were also die-hard Democrats and philanthropists who taught her, “Be of service wherever you can be of service. And, when you get older, whenever you can, get on the board.” It’s not surprising, then, that Hillary has worked with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and UCLA Medical Center, and ran an afterschool program in Compton with Head Start.

But many of her fellow volunteers haven’t been so privileged. One of her good friends, George, a Desert Storm vet who is six years’ sober and resides in a nearby transitional sober-living facility, has a job caring for an invalid and is looking forward to getting a cell phone this week. Hillary considers him an inspiration. A few years back, she explains, he lost his daughter after she was hit by a drunk driver. He managed to stay sober through that experience and now raises his grandson while still finding the time to volunteer.

A half-dozen regular HOPE volunteers don’t even have homes of their own. “Time is the only thing they have to give,” says Elliott Seo, who supervises the HOPE food line. “Most of the homeless who do volunteer eventually make it off the streets.”

“The community that comes through the food line is such an incredible cross section of people,” Hillary says. “We have homeless people and people who are not homeless; we have people who come from the office in suits. We have families with little children. What happens in this kind of economy is that the welfare checks come at the beginning of the month, so at the beginning of the month, we are serving maybe 80 to 90 people, and at the end of the month, we might have 200.”

Hillary has also learned that you can’t always tell by a person’s appearance who is homeless and who isn’t. Just last week, she made a mistake on the food line. “We had a lot of extra bread,” she explains. “Someone had donated dozens and dozens of loaves. And I said to [one of the food recipients], ‘Come back when you’re done eating. We have a lot of bread today. Maybe you could take some home.’ He said, ‘Home? What do you mean, home?’ I was mortified and ashamed.”

Nibbling on a cherry scone at a bakery near the community center, Hillary says, “My priority is to greet each person with a smile and say, ‘How are you doing today?’ Sometimes, I hear back, ‘How are you today?’ For a hungry person standing there, waiting for food, to ask me how I am doing today? That’s indescribable. I don’t have words for that. It’s humanity.

“Look, I got very lucky. I was blessed. I was adopted into a very loving and supportive family. I am agnostic, but, my father once told me, ‘You may not have a big, omnipresent god figure, but you have humanity. You’re a humanist, that is your religion.’

“The point is, we are all humans,” she adds, looking down at her scone. “You, me, that man there.” Hillary points to a gentleman sitting at a nearby table, drinking a latte, eating a pastry and reading the paper. “We are all in this together.”

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