Maria Garcia grew up in Manila and has traveled to many places in the world. The growing plight of the homeless in this country has moved her to reflect on her own experiences and what she can do to help. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
By Maria L. Garcia
I thought I understood homelessness because in my country of origin, the Philippines, where I grew up in the city of Metro Manila, the poor have always been a part of the city scene.
Little did I know that the highest homeless population in the world, according to the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, is the Philippines, due to poverty and natural disasters.
Coming to America where my mindset was the land of milk and honey, I was shocked to see raggedly-clothed people pushing carts with heaps of plastic bags, perhaps filled with belongings or garments of sorts. They have been compared, along with those seen on the sidewalk of a freeway ramp or in the Mission District in downtown Los Angeles, to a mini tent city.
When I was still in my thirties, I had taken on a penchant for backpacking trips in Europe with my husband (who is my best friend). I had the privilege of a mother-in-law who took care of our three children at home. Without making any prior reservations, we, of course, risked being in some sort of homelessness, if you will.
On one such summer trip in 1997, my husband and I got to Krakow, Poland, by train. While he kept watch of our carryalls, I walked from one hotel to the other within the periphery of the train station seeking a room.
By then it was already close to midnight. Not finding a room for us in any of the inns, we decided that two vacant benches by the railroad platform were the best bet for us getting some much needed sleep. There was a third bench, but there was something on it. Exhausted as we were, we each took a bench and used our backpacks as our pillows.
By about 2 a.m., when it was getting really cold, this lump of blankets on the third bench beside us stood up, and we saw he was a homeless man. At that moment, with no shelter, we felt we were no different from him.
But we started to walk a few meters and sighted the silhouette of a backpacker walking towards some stairs. We followed him and lo and behold, in the underground, other backpackers were slumped snugly on the floor in their sleeping bags. We joined them.
By the light of the morning and the sound of voices awakening us, a shaggy old man dressed in some simple clothes, approached us and asked if we needed a room to stay. He had a room available for $15 a day at his pension house.
We were so terribly deprived of any sleep that we hardly had any energy to even doubt the man’s word. We grabbed the opportunity and followed him.
His so-called pension house was run down and had no occupants except us, and we were shown into a room with five beds. Still, fatigue got the better of us and in the cold, we both snuggled on one bed, only to be awakened hours later by the scampering of mice on our covers. In retrospect this was an experience of quasi-homelessness that one could not easily forget.
Other than that experience in Krakow, I really did not have to think about what it meant to be homeless until I was recently teased about being homeless myself. In February of this year, my husband and I came home from a vacation and found our house to be malodorous, making me almost gag.
Yes, we were informed via email by our daughter that our house had been flooded due to a busted pipe. But seeing our house in person was a real shocker. We immediately called the insurance company and checked in at a hotel that very night.
I recalled the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” It is a historical drama about the left-behind victims of genocide seeking not only temporary shelter, but a permanent place to live. I felt empathy for those people, and I realized that hotel living, as in our case, was no way to be categorized as being homeless. We also had family and friends who offered to have us stay with them until our house was repaired.
I have become more aware of the homeless population, and I felt a strong reaction when I heard a friend say that most homeless people are homeless by choice. I so defied that statement that I just had to do my homework.
I found out that the reasons for homelessness are illness, mental disorder, depression, addiction, unemployment and the list goes on. An unfortunate series or circumstances and events can lead to homelessness.
How it pained me to hear on the news that a homeless person was shot on Venice Beach. My heart goes out with the thought of there being a victim, of being maltreated like an unimportant member of society. So the placard said “Life for the Homeless Matters.”
California is listed as having one of the highest homeless population in the 11 named states. I cannot stay blind, much less insensitive, to those who have the courage to go on with life despite the challenge of homelessness. I feel that I can do my part whether it means volunteering in a center or joining groups to build houses in Tijuana. I have only just begun.