Rev. Andy Bales is the president and CEO at Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row in Los Angeles, California.
“I worked my whole life to end up on skid row and finally made it about 16 years ago. My life was changed. I should have naturally done this kind of work because of my dad. He experienced the devastation of homelessness from age four to 17. Off and on his parents would pack up and jump on a freight car and move from Des Moines, Iowa to California. When things didn’t work out well in California, they’d move back to Iowa and it was kind of back and forth.
Lots of struggles, lots of violence eventual breakup. Att 17, my dad helped his mom escape the streets by getting his own apartment and inviting her in from the streets. So this all should have come naturally to me, but it took a message that I shared with some seventh graders, way back when, about how we need to care for other human beings.
When we feed somebody, it’s like feeding God himself. When we turn our backs on somebody, it’s like turning your back on Jesus himself. I shared that message six times with a group of students because I didn’t think they were treating each other well. And I thought to myself, if a youngster who feels like a looser can’t find love in this classroom, where in this tough world are they going to find it?
So I delivered a message to the students that I thought would change them. They all heard the message once. I heard it six times. The next day I was working, part-time at a parking ramp and a man who was homeless, approached my booth. I’m the guy sitting there taking tickets and money in the booth and he knocked on the window. I looked up and here’s this bearded man, missing his teeth, long, dirty coat, a bag of soda pop cans slung over his shoulder. He asked me for my sandwich. And you’d think I would have immediately responded positively because of the message I had just shared. But I said, “I’m sorry, sir. I need my sandwich.” And his face drooped with disappointment. He disappeared into the darkness. And I realized that I had not practiced what I preached and I hoped and prayed for another chance.
A few weeks later I found him on the street and fed him dinner. And a few weeks after that, I was asked if I wanted to work at a downtown rescue mission. And when I visited the rescue mission, I saw it as a chance to practice what I preach. So that was 35 years ago, this October. And I really found my passion by failing. I used to look through people who were homeless and not feel any of their pain. I’d see them digging out of a dumpster and not even comprehend what they were feeling. But after that episode and having a change of heart, I’m haunted by the idea of a person being without a home.
Some people have described it as mentally ill, my passion for people who are poor. But I say, bring me more of that. If that’s the case, make me more passionate and mentally ill, because I believe it’s the appropriate amount of love and care for a fellow human being, to be overly compassionate and caring.
So we [Los Angeles] have, unlike any other city, we have 70,000 plus people without a roof of any kind over their head. That means they are on the streets. They might have a tent, they might have a tarp, but 70,000 people have nowhere permanent to lay their head. No other city comes close to that. New York has more people devastated by homelessness, but they put a roof over 96% of those devastated by homelessness. In Los Angeles, we only put a roof over 25% and leave 75% on the streets. We have more deaths by hypothermia than New York city or San Francisco combined
It’s unconscionable. I’m not sure of what allows us to continue on, to not live up to being the city of angels. There’s something really wrong that needs to be changed in our collective hearts. And yet our leaders and others still claim we’re doing a tremendous job on how we’re addressing homelessness. It should be very apparent to us how we’re failing, but I’m not sure what falsehood or lie we’re caught up with that we think this is okay. It’s mind boggling to me.
I started long enough ago that it was all white men with a drinking problem [on the street]. Then crack cocaine was introduced and people of color were caught up in this and they fell on the streets. Well, now I can say all the assortment of more addicting drugs have caused every ethnic group—even ethnic groups that usually have such a strong family value and family tradition that you would have thought maybe they were homeless proof, or family disintegration proof—there is no group anymore that is able to evade homelessness.
I heard the other day that the reason they added fentanyl to meth is that fentanyl causes more addiction. So the drug dealers actually added the fentanyl to make it almost impossible [to quit].
We have a one-year recovery program. We direct people to AA or NA or whatever recovery treatment they need. We have a process of trying to rebuild the family and community that’s missing. We have an expectation of sobriety. We have a medical clinic, a legal clinic, a dental clinic, a learning center, a mental health counseling clinic. Whatever it takes to promote somebody’s overall health, the holistic approach of life transformation to a better life. We don’t feel satisfied until somebody has a new life, a new job and a new home. When they come here, we have high expectations and high hopes of a complete life transformation.
It could be 60 days and they could get on their feet, or it could be a year. We have what we call a gateway program. It’s a step-up shelter where people who have an income of any kind—and everybody usually has some kind of income. The minimum would be $221 general relief income. And in our program, people can stay as long as it takes to get on their feet. And every day they pay $5 total. So for $150, somebody could live here, have three meals a day, have access to their bunk, 24/7, feel a sense of some ownership paying program fees. And we also encourage a $2 a day savings program. So every month they save $60 in personal savings so that if they stay the year, then they have $720. $720 in their pocket to move out and pay a security deposit and get an apartment. Or if it takes two years, that’s fine. Whatever it takes to save your money and get ready to move out. When we made that change over 900 people a year have moved into housing. People embraced it.
[Peace] always translates in my mind to Shalom. It’s more than lack of war, it’s everybody in the town having a sense of wellbeing and community and a loving environment. And you don’t just seek the peace of yourself, you seek the peace and wellbeing of your neighbor, so that everybody’s not only having your needs met, but your hopes met, your wellbeing, your physical care, your mental health care, avoidance of legal issues. An absence of violence and crime against you and hardship and oppression. I used to feel like taking on one neighborhood is wise, because if you can bring about peace in a neighborhood, then others can see what you’ve done, and they can replicate that all over the world. It’s probably too much to try to take on the whole world, but you can take on the neighborhood.
What gives me hope is that every day I get to work alongside walking miracles, people who were once out on the streets, addicted and devastated, who now have hope, have families, have children living in a home. They’ve, they’ve totally transformed their lives. And if it can happen for them, I believe it can happen for others, as long as we keep our doors open and keep offering that same life giving hope.
Put others before yourselves and you can be part of a miracle and you can see life change. We have people thanking me all the time from 30 years ago, who we helped change their life and the rewards are immense. There’s great return on the investment. Now there’s generations of people whose lives have been completely changed because of a small investment of love that has turned out to be life-changing.”
-When have you failed to practice what you preach?
-How do you work to better align your values with your day to day life?
-What are your passions for serving other people?
-Are there lies you have told yourself in the past? What helped you see a different truth?
-What are the barriers you see to effectively addressing the issue of homelessness?
-What is your understanding of the word Shalom?
-What gives you hope?
-When have you seen a small investment make a long-term impact?
-What are the housing resources in your community? How can you be come involved? Do they address short-term symptoms or long-term causes of homelessness?