“Sometimes it’s easy to walk by because we know we can’t change someone’s whole life in a single afternoon. But what we fail to realize it that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place.” – Mike Yankoski
Just over a year ago an email appeared in my inbox, inviting me to come and volunteer on Skid Row. They were putting on a carnival for the homeless community who call those streets of downtown Los Angeles their home.
Not going to lie, I was a bit turned off by this email. A carnival for those living on Skid Row? This sounds self gratifying, not something that actually benefits this community who needs real help.
But I was also curious. Why a carnival? So I sent an email.
The response I received changed my mind entirely.
There would be plenty of things – clothing, shoes, toys, hygiene products, food, and other resources – to help this community. But their mission is bigger than simply meeting the basic needs of this often ignored community.
Skid Row Carnival of Love has one goal – to remind the inhabitants of Skid Row that people see them. That there are people that care about them. That they are deserving of love.
The Carnival is a place where we, as humans, come together to share a meal, share our stories, dance, and spend time together as people. The place we call home does not define or differentiate us.
The people who call Skid Row home do so for many reasons. Some are enduring a season of bad luck and hardship in their lives. Some are battling some kind of substance abuse. Others are suffering from mental illness and have nowhere else to turn.
But no matter what their circumstances, everyone deserves to be treated with decency and love.
And the Carnival of Love is a place to remind them (and us) of that.
The first year I met a man named Arturo, who was blind. We spent the day together, wandering the carnival – eating, he got his hair cut, we found some bedding and clothes. He spent the day holding on to my shoulder as I guided him from place to place.
At first, I found it a bit odd. I’m here to serve Arturo, but instead, he was forced to walk behind and follow me. The dynamics felt a bit off.
However, things ended up working out just as they were supposed to. With Arturo always behind me, all I could do was listen. Arturo shared many stories throughout the day. Stories about his brother, how he gets around the city, the friends he has on the streets that always look out for him.
Arturo taught me a lesson that day. He loves to visit parks because they smell of fresh greenery and are filled with children’s laughter. Because his world is based on sounds and smells, he notices and appreciates the simple pleasure we take for granted. His favorite things in life are not actually tangible – they are moments and experiences. They are the things that last.
This year was a very different experience, which is always a good thing. My partner this time around was the very charismatic Carl, who was really looking forward to exploring everything the carnival had to offer.
When I first paired with Carl, it was clear his wife (Vanessa) was not pleased. She followed us, more concerned with watching the two us than with shopping for herself.
As much as it was disappointing we weren’t starting on friendly terms, it was kind of refreshing. Relationship insecurity is clearly universal and gave me a way to relate to her. I happily accepted this challenge and made it my goal to befriend her before the day was over.
This year, not only were we feeding people, Cheeky built a restaurant where guests could come in, sit down, and enjoy a hot meal served by other volunteers, as if they were at a restaurant. They were able to create a space where everyone was treated with dignity.
Since I was paired with a couple this year, it was a bit of a different dynamic. With the new restaurant setting, they sat and ate together, while we (me + the other guide) stood off to the side, enabling them to have a date.
The rest of the afternoon was spent enjoying the carnival.
We stocked up on toys for Carl’s kids, picked out cool shades from Diff Eyeware. We applied for library cards and got fresh hair cuts from thanks to Paul Mitchell Schools. We picked up some dog food and a new collar for Vanessa’s dog. Vanessa even picked out a new necklace compliments of The Giving Keys.
Carl’s personal favorite of the day were all the massage options. He took advantage and received both a foot massage and a head/ neck/ shoulder massage.
I even managed to get Vanessa to laugh with me. And she was able to get me to dance with her.
This year, the Carnival expanded to offer legal, medical, and healthcare services, DMV registration, and employment opportunities.
While waiting in line for each service, we were able to meet other Skid Row residents as well. I made friends with a deaf resident as I helped teach his guide some basic signs to help them communicate.
While Carl was getting his foot massage, there was another man sitting next to him also getting a massage. He mentioned he often looses feeling in his feet and hoped the massage would help with this issue. The intuitive masseuse realized this was symptomatic of diabetes and quickly connected him with one of the health services providers to teach him about the disease.
From beginning to end, the day was filled with love and learning.
The friends I make at the carnival may never remember me. But I’ll always remember them. I have their names written on the front door of my house.
They have taught me that no matter what life throws in my path, I’ll be okay. It might be difficult and life altering, but it will all be okay.
Because at the end of the day, we are all humans, trying to figure out this life together. And we all need each other if we’re going to make it through alive.
So the next time you meet someone living on the streets, see them. Smile. Say hello.
Remember – they are just like you. Life has presented them with challenges that are different than yours. But they are not invisible.
Don’t let the invisible stay invisible. Show them kindness. Remind them of their humanity. Give them love.