by Kaliso Mwanza
Three years ago, I was introduced to Charles Hill by a homeless woman named Janet Waldstein. At the time, I was homeless and she said “You have to meet this guy.” Jan and I were at a health clinic near Venice Beach and Mr. Hill was picking her up. His greeting was a bit odd, “Do you want to work?” I hesitated, wondering if this was a trick question. He repeated himself, “Do you want to work?” I said, “Yes!” “Jump in the car,” he said. “What kind of work can you do?” he asked. Before I could answer, Jan began rambling on and on about her day. His concern for her was genuine, so Charles listened intently to Ms. Waldstein, but as soon she finished, he was back to me, “So?” I told him I was a radio broadcaster in Zambia. I’ll never forget the look he gave me, it was as if I had stolen something. “What can you do NOW?” If I had known he had a Partnership Program, which connected homeless people to work opportunities, I would have probably answered differently, but looking back, I realize he wanted to gauge my willingness to work prior to exposing me to the concept. For the next several days, I wondered to myself about the answer to his question.
Recently, I sat down with Mr. Hill, right outside of the Staples Center, in downtown Los Angeles. It was another picture perfect day in Southern California and if you didn’t see the concrete sidewalk Charles was laying back on, you would think it was the sand at Venice Beach. Clearly, this man was at peace and seemed to not have a worry in the world. Instead of discussing what I did, I was going to show him. I wanted to interview him.
KM: Why do YOU feel the need to address homelessness?
CH: Because I’m born and raised in Los Angeles, so I’ll assume (pointing to himself) some of the responsibility for creating what we have here: the capitol of homelessness in America. And quite frankly, no one (as he looked up into the sky) else is doing a good job of addressing it.
KM: No one?
CH: I haven’t met anyone yet who is . . . in four years.
KM: How does that make you feel?
CH: If you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. So, I don’t think I should answer that question.
KM: Honesty is the best policy.
CH: (He paused and looked at me as if he didn’t want to hurt MY feelings) It makes me feel like I live in a city full of ignorance. That’s not a good feeling, especially when it’s the place (city) you love and cherish.
KM: Is it ignorance or apathy?
CH: It’s apathy, but people are oblivious to so many things that surrounds homelessness. They don’t know where their handouts wind up. They don’t know where their tax dollars go, which by the way are supposed to be addressing the issue. They don’t know what is happening inside of shelters or at the medical facilities where homeless people are supposed to be receiving treatment for health issues, not gold cards for drugs and fraudulent diagnoses for services. The public would be shocked if they found out how much money was being made off of homelessness. But worst of all, people are unaware that homeless persons are more than capable of being productive citizens. Yet, we pass by homeless people every day in this city and look at them like they’re zoo animals; some of us completely ignore homeless people. It hurts me deeply that it’s come to this.
KM: How do you change that?
CH: Introduce homeless people to people with homes and introduce people with homes to homeless people. (He said with a very focused look on his face)
KM: And then?
CH: The rest will happen naturally. Homeless people aren’t these hopeless souls. Vulnerable, yes, but not hopeless. They’ve become disconnected from productive roles in society and it only takes one person and one opportunity to change that. Unfortunately, there are over 100,000 homeless people in L.A. County, so it requires over 100,000 people with homes to reverse the cycle.
KM: What about the government programs?
CH: Do YOU think they are working?
KM: No, but I want YOUR opinion.
CH: If they were working, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. The reality is, government programs are enabling homelessness and making the issue much worse than it already is.
KM: How is that?
CH: By taking tax payers’ hard-earned money, hiring people who make a living off of homelessness, and building structures to warehouse homelessness.
KM: I’m following you, but can you be more specific?
CH: Look, thousands of people in L.A. are allegedly addressing homelessness. Many are being paid for it. Most of us have problems of our own, so we’re not monitoring what’s REALLY happening. Case workers treating people in a condescending manner that continually discourages homeless people from progressing. Shelter protocols that focus on homeless persons’ weaknesses, instead of their strengths. Even when I walk in most of them, I leave feeling less confident. Imagine how you would feel if you were sleeping in a shelter.
KM: I don’t have to imagine. You’re right. We did get treated in a manner that made us feel less capable. So, how do you deal with that?
CH: Lovingly. If you want people to see the good in you, first, you must show that you see the good in them. Then, you must educate them, but not by lecture or books, but by example. Even the people of faith need to adjust their approach. For example, Christians might feel Jesus is the answer. But if you TRULY believe that, SHOW someone how that is true, instead of taking advantage of the fact that they are vulnerable and on the streets.
KM: What do you think the people of L.A. need to be educated about?
CH: The causes of homelessness and the capabilities of homeless people.
KM: Which are?
CH: Well, it seems the masses believe mental illness and substance abuse are the causes. But a deeper look would reveal that people become disconnected via trauma and conflict and THEN, become homeless. That trauma is often from abuse at home. We treat homelessness in L.A. with food, shelter, and self-help programs. But the reality is, a homeless person needs to regain confidence, develop a will to work, reconnect with loved ones, and have an opportunity to earn a living.
KM: Wow . . . brilliant.
CH: I learned it from homeless people.
KM: Why are you not giving speeches?
CH: Your insinuation is very kind. I share the perspectives from homeless people on a regular basis. But, in order for the public to gain a clear understanding, they will have to take the time to listen directly to the source. And I don’t mean when people are in a desperate situation on the streets; I mean when they are in a comfortable setting, engaged in serious dialogue.
KM: What motivates you to do this?
CH: The results of our outreach. In a little over three years, I’ve met thousands of homeless people. They are beautiful. They are inspiring. They just need a partner. I’m willing to be their partner, until 100,000 people step up to the plate.
KM: And what exactly happens after YOU meet homeless people?
CH: It depends.
KM: On what?
CH: Whether they want to remain homeless or not.
KM: You’re making me pull teeth-
CH: If they want to remain homeless, I explain to them why I don’t want them to be homeless. If they want to get off the streets . . . well, we talk for about 15 minutes . . . and usually, they are off the streets within two weeks.
KM: I think you skipped something!
CH: If I could explain, I would, BELIEVE ME. I deeply wish more people were doing one on one outreach in Los Angeles. All I can share is how it FEELS. It feels like I’m temporarily loaning my heart and trusting that I will get it back. I hold no punches. So, I’m honest about my disdain for panhandling and people unwilling to work. If I expect a homeless person to be honest with me, I must be honest with them. But SOMEONE needs to listen to their perspectives, as well, and I think I do a good job of that. We have to refrain from inflicting our own agendas into the minds of vulnerable people. We’re dealing with peoples’ lives here. There’s really no place for public handouts, political theories, and force feeding of religious ways. We must listen, learn, inspire, and let grow. A homeless person can find their way home; they just need to know someone cares.
KM: True, but you can’t do it by yourself, Charles. Even YOU said 100,000 need to step up to the plate. Any idea how THAT is going to happen?
CH: Say Hello 2012.
KM: Come again.
CH: Say Hello 2012. Our campaign to get 100,000 people in L.A. to say “hello” to a homeless person this year! (He said like a kid in a candy store) You, of all people, know how it feels to get ignored and dismissed on the streets. Imagine, instead of people rushing by homeless people . . . or handing out food and money . . . they actually stopped and said “hello.” How would THAT have made you feel when you were homeless?
KM: More like a human-being, for sure. I probably would have been more interested in communicating with the general public, so . . .yes, I would have gotten out of my homeless condition a lot quicker if people were actually speaking to me on the streets. When people don’t speak, it reinforces the loneliness and the fact that we’re out there on our own. I love the concept.
CH: Thank you!
KM: Where are you going?
CH: To talk to homeless people!
And with that, he was gone. “But I have more questions!” I yelled. “Meet me at Syrup (a cozy downtown coffee, tea, and dessert shop) next week,” he replied, now more than a block away. If I never met Charles Hill, I would not believe that homelessness could end. But for some strange reason, I think this young man is not going to stop until it does. He seems driven for the right reasons, extremely intelligent, and most importantly honest. But the fact that he knows 100,000 people need to be involved is a strong indicator he’s well aware of what he’s up against.
Stay tuned for Part 2.