Have you ever seen a tent city?
I thought I had.
In Chicago, I had seen tents on the side of the road daily driving on Lower Wacker Drive. Just huddles of them here and there. But staring out the window of my group’s white van in LA on my Renew trip, I saw rows and rows of tents and tarps planted along the concrete sidewalk. It was then that I quickly realized that in fact I had not. Not until now. I climbed out of the van and looked around at the tent wasteland that surrounded us. It was covered by nearly five times the number of tents on Lower Wacker Drive and stretched across dozens and dozens of blocks. We began walking down the middle of the street. In the streets of LA some might think it’s dangerous to walk in the middle of the road, but what they don’t know is that in the Skid Row neighborhood those streets are used more for walking then they are for driving.
As we passed our first tent, two dogs wildly ran out from where they were hiding, yelping and barking as their leashes pulled against the unsteady wire fence. Further down the block we saw people sitting outside their tents enjoying the nice weather and mingling with their neighbors. That’s when I realized these tents weren’t just on a block, they were the block—they were a community.
These tents weren’t just on a block, they were the block—they were a community.
Ever since I was little, I was taught to keep my head down. Whenever I walked past a homeless person on the sidewalk—ignore. Whenever I saw someone begging at the highway intersection—don’t make eye contact. These are the reactions that I believed were normal. These are the reactions that without my knowing, morphed the image that I had of the homeless into outcasts, that neither I nor anyone else, had nothing in common with. In my mind I had dehumanized them.
Walking down the streets of Skid Row that day, talking to them face to face, I realized that I had forgotten that they were human. They were people. People whose living situations were different from mine, yet for the past 18 years of my life I had continued to fall back into letting that one characteristic define them as a whole. We both enjoyed the same food, hotdogs and Doritos, which we handed out. We both wore hats with our favorite sports teams on them. I even listened to some of the same music that they played out in the park by the basketball courts. We had more in common than I had thought. Yet despite my past judgements of them, they didn’t do the same to me, instead I was met with smiles and openness. I watched relationships being built among people of very different backgrounds over hotdogs and simple conversations. That’s when I realized our different backgrounds didn’t matter for us to connect. I folded this piece of insight into my mind and pitched its tent in the back of my brain so that when I returned to Chicago, the next time I strode past the tent city down Lower Wacker Drive, I might do something different. I might stop. Stop and start a conversation with someone new.