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Surprised by skid row

Op-Ed

Down and out, but not without dignity and humanity..

December 25, 2012|By Jeff Dietrich
  • A homeless man is seen walking by a construction project in Los Angeles where 102 prefabricated housing units are being built.
A homeless man is seen walking by a construction project in Los Angeles where… (Kevork Djansezian/Getty…)

Inside the grubby brown paper lunch bag was a red leather Gucci wallet that contained a checkbook, credit cards, a $50 check to a church, a St. Joseph holy card and a $2,500 payroll check. "I thought someone might need this to make their mortgage payment," Ernie said as he handed me the bag with its unlikely contents. The irony is that Ernie is a homeless man who sleeps on the streets of skid row and he was worried about the checkbook owners, who had a house in fashionable La CaƱada.

"I don't have any money to call these people," Ernie told me. "Could you take care of it for me, Jeff?" Ernie is a morning regular at the Catholic Worker in downtown Los Angeles near the county welfare office. Every day, we serve coffee, eggs, oatmeal, fruit and day-old Starbucks pastries to a line of people that has grown from 40 to more than 100 in the last year.

"I found the wallet in a dumpster at the corner of Broadway and Alpine in Chinatown. I check all the dumpsters for aluminum cans and glass, even Starbucks paper cups," he said as he handed me a receipt from the recycling center for $6.25. "I can get a burrito with that."

I asked one of my co-workers to use her cellphone to call the wallet's owner. The grateful woman asked to speak to Ernie, who told her: "You're welcome, it's no problem. My grandmother taught me that it was wrong to steal."

Ernie later told me he had attended Immaculate Conception grammar school and Cathedral High School and had had a scholarship to USC, but the money ran out after two years. He had started working at 8 years old, shining shoes on Broadway with his brother. His last job was as a van pool driver for the city of Los Angeles.

But four years ago, he said, "I got laid off and I've been living on the streets since then. But I haven't gone loony. I try to stay clean, and I try to stay busy. I go to the library and I recycle. It's not like the '70s and the '80s when you could just go out and get a job. Now they don't even want to see you. You have to apply online and they just look at your job history. It's not easy. When you are over 50, there's not much out there, but I keep trying."

A few hours later, the wallet's owner came to the Catholic Worker house, full of gratitude. She told us she must have lost her wallet when eating lunch at her favorite coffee shop in Pasadena. A man had bumped against the back of her chair, she said, but she "didn't think anything of it at the time." It wasn't until she was home that she noticed the wallet missing from her purse.

She had immediately gone to the bank to close her account. When she described her loss to a bank teller, she mentioned the St. Joseph holy card. The teller told her not to worry, that St. Joseph would return her wallet to her.

"Well, I went ahead and closed the accounts and stopped payment on the checks because I certainly did not expect that to happen," the woman said.

As she was leaving our facility, she gave a staffer an envelope containing $50 and a St. Joseph holy card. "This is for Ernie," she said.

It is true that many people on skid row are drug addicts, many are mentally unstable and, yes, some are even petty criminals who would have known how to put the contents of that wallet to their own advantage. It is also true that many of them are just simply poor and unemployed, victims of a broken, fast-changing world economy that seems bent on rewarding the wealthy to the detriment of the poor and the common good.

But there are also many such as Ernie who have maintained their dignity, their humanity, their sanity and their moral character despite their arduous circumstances.

As the gap between the rich and the poor widens, so too does the gap between the reality of the poor and our conception of the poor. The further apart we grow, the greater is our tendency to stereotype and demonize the poor as lazy and as addicts and criminals, and to dismiss our mutual humanity and thus our inherent responsibility to the least of our brothers and sisters. Ernie narrowed the gap — if only for a moment — between the rich and the poor, between La Cañada and skid row.

In the beginning of the Bible, God asked Cain the whereabouts of the brother he had just murdered. Cain's response was, "Am I my brother's keeper?" This Christmas, as we celebrate our Savior born a homeless refugee in a makeshift stable, we might ask ourselves that same question.

Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. His most recent book is "Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity and the Poor on Los Angeles' Skid Row."

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