Skid Row returns to business as usual after Thanksgiving rush of volunteers, celebrities

Los Angeles Skid Row shelter

Courtesy of the Midnight Mission

Thanksgiving and Christmas on Skid Row brings a crush of volunteers and festivities. But after the cameras leave, residents are left to return to their difficult daily lives.

A week after celebrities and throngs of volunteers served Thanksgiving meals to the homeless on L.A.'s Skid Row, these Downtown streets are back to normal. Gone is the flurry of cameras and reporters, actors and politicos, and in their place are streets cluttered with people, trash and tents.

Robert Gagnon is homeless and has been sleeping in the Midnight Mission’s courtyard for the last few months. He said the Thanksgiving scene was "chaotic" so he chose not to join the party. But someone did bring him a plate of food.

He said the holidays bring a surge of people to Skid Row.

"But we don’t get that many volunteers in the other times. You know, occasional church groups or stuff like that come down..." Gagnon said.

The Midnight Mission was one of many shelters to dish out meals for the holiday. They shut down a portion of 6th Street to set up a stage for live music and served about 2,700 meals. While the neighboring L.A. Mission attracted Neil Patrick Harris to its festivities, the Midnight Mission had Dick Van Dyke and Ed Begley Jr.

And while celebrity appearances may create a promising photo op, the Midnight Mission's Public Affairs Director Mai Lee said famous faces can help the homeless cause.

“Well you know, celebrities bring that visibility so we do try to recruit celebrities to come down," said Lee. "Because it’s what really brings attention to the organization – the sorely needed attention.”

Skid Row shelters see a spike in volunteers around the holidays. Lee said that at the Midnight Mission they have about 1,000 volunteers a month; for a holiday special event, they have up to 400 volunteers a day.

And the volunteer slots at these high-profile events during Christmas and Thanksgiving are coveted. The list fills up quickly, sometimes months in advance. But Lee said her mission is fortunate — they have a steady stream of volunteers throughout the year because they make it really easy to do so.

Provide some basic information about yourself, sign up for an activity — such as meal service —and work as little as two or three hours a week. 

"We have to be available for the community. And so we're not going to make you jump through hoops to volunteer," Lee said. "Too many times it's too difficult to volunteer. Now, I will say during the holidays its going to be a little bit harder for me to get you a slot."

She said that during the holidays, volunteers are instrumental in helping with the mass food prep and service. Other homeless agencies in the area have varying volunteer application processes. Some require people to attend an orientation or training session, or make a certain time commitment.

At the Downtown Women's Center (DWC) there are a few positions that require minimal volunteer time. But many roles necessitate a regular commitment, such as once or twice a week for at least a few months. This is because the center relies on these people for integral functions, like classes.

"They are the ones teaching the workshops, they are the ones facilitating shopping days with them, they are the ones mentoring them... so if they don’t show up, then we don’t have that class or we don’t have that service for the day,” DWC's Steven Alvarez told KPCC's blogdowntown last year. 

Homeless advocates say the neighborhood could use the surge in holiday help year- round.

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