USC University of Southern California

Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC

Places of Hope

By Kristen East, sophomore in history

The bright sunlight dulled the sharpness of Skid Row, yet I was still happy to step off the sidewalk and into the comforting, cool, hushed waiting room of the Union Rescue Mission. As my eyes adjusted to the more sparsely lit interior, I began to make out my surroundings.  A glass window, sprinkled with missing persons posters, separated us from the front desk. Plastic chairs lined the opposing wall. A man moved up and down the adjacent hallway, mopping the worn tile. Our class migrated as a pack into the hallway, where we milled around as we awaited further instructions, standing closer together than we might have in other circumstances. I felt safe here, yet I also had a clear feeling of not belonging, of being an outsider. This feeling was not new to me; it was the same way I had felt at when volunteering at Nativity House, a shelter in a nearby city back home.

In fact, as we moved through the rescue mission, I often found myself comparing it to Nativity House in Tacoma, a day shelter for homeless individuals where I had volunteered throughout middle school and high school with my church’s youth group. Once a month, we would journey across the bridge from our small town into the nearby city and serve a pancake breakfast to Nativity House’s clientele. In addition to helping to cook and serve breakfast, I had also spent a lot of time in the clothing room, sifting through trash bags and boxes of donated clothes and sorting and shelving suitable items. The Union Rescue Mission shared Nativity House’s concrete walls and simple plastic furniture, as well as an aroma that was unique, permeating and yet somehow also mysterious and unidentifiable. Additionally, Nativity House and Union Rescue Mission shared religious roots and both had a room set aside for reflective prayer. Somehow, the two shelters, separated by thousands of miles, shared a similar atmosphere.

As the tour progressed, the differences between Nativity House and Union Rescue Mission became clearer. For one, Union Rescue Mission dwarfed Nativity House, and every other homeless shelter I have seen. Nativity House was a conservative two-story building with a dining room and a kitchen downstairs, and a clothing room, smoking room, chapel and arts center upstairs. Union Rescue Mission, on the other hand, towered a full five stories high, and seemed to be at least twice as wide and twice as deep. In short, four Nativity Houses could probably fit inside the Union Rescue Mission, and there would still be room to spare. I should have been prepared for the multitude of services provided by the Union Rescue Mission; I knew beforehand that we were going to visit a dental clinic inside the rescue mission, and that a medical clinic was there as well. Yet, the rescue mission’s many programs still surprised me. I remember our tour guide apologetically explaining why they currently only had an intensive rehabilitation program for men, and not for women. The way she was presenting the center made it seem as though she expected us to be disappointed that equal services were not provided for both genders. I, however, was too impressed by the yearlong rejuvenation program they offered for men to become indignant over a lack of equality. The magnitude of Union Rescue Mission probably stuck out more to me because of my previous experiences of shelters. Even though Nativity House is located in Tacoma, the third largest city in Washington State, Tacoma’s population of 202,000 is a far cry from L.A’s 3.85 million inhabitants. Union Rescue Mission’s size reflects the needs of the large homeless population it serves.

One of the reasons I chose to attend the University of Southern California was to widen my worldview beyond my small hometown and experience life in the big city. For the most part, experiencing Los Angeles has involved learning how to navigate public transportation, exploring the diverse ethnic enclaves, and occasional trips to the Staples Center. Visiting the Union Rescue Mission helped me to expand my experiences in a different arena, reminding me that, along with glamour and glitz, big cities have dark undercurrents, and places of hope like the rescue mission to counter them.