Putting Healing into Words


Beth Newcomb MPH ‘13


09 May 14

Twenty USC undergraduate students left the University Park Campus and saw a very different side of Los Angeles on March 27, traveling by bus to Downtown’s Skid Row to visit the Union Rescue Mission.
Above: WRIT 150 students speak with Santosh Sundaresan, Community Health Programs Section Chair at the Ostrow School of Dentistry, in the Union Rescue Mission dental clinic (photo by Caroline Lasersohn, freshman in cognitive science).

The Union Rescue Mission (URM) is the oldest rescue mission in Los Angeles, providing housing, meals, health care, and other services to the homeless in Skid Row. The USC Dental Clinic at Union Rescue Mission, staffed by Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC faculty and students, provides much-needed dental care to mission residents.

The students were members of the WRIT 150, “Writing and Critical Reasoning—Thematic Approaches” course led by lecturer JJ Strong. Strong’s sections of the course followed a health and healing theme, and the dental clinic was one stop on their tour of URM and its spectrum of offerings for the homeless.

“The course aims to provide students the tools necessary to enter and, where possible, advance the conversations that surround pressing social issues,” Strong said. “Writing is a powerful means of working towards a reliable understanding of these issues, and first-hand experiences like this provide students with a more layered and nuanced understanding of social issues that might otherwise remain abstract in the classroom. We hope to continue to integrate events like this in order to make our writing classes into meaningful experiences that immerse students in the community—both within and outside of our campus walls.”

Strong said visiting the dental clinic and talking with Ostrow Assistant Professor of Clinical Dentistry Santosh Sundaresan was an eye-opening experience.

“My students and I were intrigued by Dr. Santosh’s emphasis on dental care as a tool for self-esteem,” Strong said. “I think a lot of us expected a discussion on the many ways that dental health can affect other aspects of health, but the notion that a person needs a healthy smile in order to apply for a jobs was an enlightening glimpse into the steps towards recovery and the role that appearances play in that process. I’m grateful that, whatever their impressions were of the mission and Skid Row, the students were able to see first-hand both what can be done to address public health issues and the obstacles faced in the process.”

Rick Ley, a freshman in Computer Engineering, said he was surprised by the wide-ranging nature of the care URM provides its residents, including health care. He added that the visit and the course in general has helped him think about how he might give back once he begins his career.

“I was really impressed by how comprehensive the care that URM offers is,” Ley said. “This has been very helpful in providing perspective.”

Several WRIT 150 students offered their own perspectives on what they learned from the visit at the end of the semester in a final essay. In his, Ley said the visit sparked in him an internal discussion about the nature of healing.

“Hearing about this program made me realize that healing is a process, not an event. It is not a pill or surgery or DNA editing technique, it is a process requiring community and growth and time,” Ley wrote. “My visit to the Mission sparked questions about how I am supposed to contribute to the healing process of others and how I should trust others to contribute to my own healing and growth processes when the need arises.”

In Their Own Words: Read three students’ reflections on their visit to the Union Rescue Mission:


“Places of Hope” – Kristen East 

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.

“Reflection on the Union Rescue Mission” – Rick Ley

The further our bus took us from USC, the more frequent homelessness became. The rather clean streets around a campus that offers so much hope to its students and community rapidly grew dirtier, littered with trash and dotted with people living on the streets. On the block outside the Union Rescue Mission, there were several dozen people sitting on the curb with their few possessions gathered around them in plastic bags. Surely, I thought, the mission would be packed, overflowing to such a degree that they simply could not handle all these people still on the street. It wasn’t. The dining hall, rec rooms, and bedrooms were all closer to empty than full.

Self-esteem and its many manifestations rapidly emerged as trends in the operations of the mission. Our guide explained to us that the people outside are often too proud to actually make their way in the door. In many cases, the people chose the crowded streets over having to admit not only to an employee at the Mission, but to themselves, that they require the assistance the Mission offers. Conversely, quite a few people are willing and eager to accept the services of the Mission. The main obstacle these people face is too little pride—low self-esteem. The USC dentist we talked with explained that low self-esteem due to poor dental health is the primary reason why many people struggle with employment; they are ashamed of their teeth. Meanwhile, I was struck by how generous and humble all the workers were. Many of them, particularly the medical staff, including the dentist we saw, had opportunities for glamorous, high paying jobs. They had the option of working for their own gain and service, but each one was confident enough to humble his or herself to working with these people who need assistance.

This interplay of varying levels of self-esteem occasioned me to reflect on how my own self-esteem is influencing my personal journey. As a Computer Engineering major, there is a lot of pressure to get a high paying job in the tech industry. The job market is growing faster than universities are turning out students, and major corporations are recruiting young computer engineers more vigorously than ever. While I have entertained the ideas of careers in education or non-profit work, older techies proudly touting their prestigious internships and jobs make it difficult to consider that my passions may be elsewhere. Being at the Rescue Mission prompted me to think about whether I was as proud as the people refusing service, adamant to live up to expectations, or if I was confident and humble enough to be comfortable building the self-esteem of those who need such help. The variety of people there allowed for ruminations on where my current path is taking me.

The cyclic nature of the operations contributed to my internal dialogue. The mission has a very impressive and successful system for getting and keeping people off the streets. Poetically enough, as residents progress through the program, they live on higher and higher floors, both physically and symbolically moving further from the streets of downtown Los Angeles. What is particularly touching, though, is that many of the people who graduate the job-training program are inspired to then work at the Mission and contribute to the cycle. Hearing about this program made me realize that healing is a process, not an event. It is not a pill or surgery or DNA editing technique, it is a process requiring community and growth and time. My visit to the Mission sparked questions about how I am supposed to contribute to the healing process of others and how I should trust others to contribute to my own healing and growth processes when the need arises. Certainly I have much more thinking to do; I cannot hope for one visit to trigger a revelation on where I am meant to be, but the visit did provide a very concrete example of one of my possible paths that will ultimately inform my decision on how to continue my studies and career.

“The Ephemeral Life” – Savannah Vieth

Located a mere ten minutes away from the University of Southern California is the Union Rescue Mission. Most of those staying at the Union Rescue Mission started life at a severe disadvantage, have struggled with addiction, and have been in and out of jail. The Union Rescue Mission is a faith based homeless shelter located in Skid Row that provides emergency services, food, shelter, clothing, medical and dental care to those experiencing homelessness in the area. It also helps people in the long term by providing recovery programs, transitional housing, legal assistance, and job training. The Union Rescue Mission offers a Men’s life transformation program where men spend hundreds of hours learning, volunteering, getting counseling, taking bible study, and training for potential jobs. These men graduate from this program with tools and resources to become productive citizens. This visit made me realize how much mental health affects someone recovering from any difficult situation. If one is not mentally stable then it will be impossible for other aspects of their life to improve.

Coming to the Union Rescue Mission, I assumed that the dental care they provided was solely offered for health related reasons stemming from poor oral hygiene and/or drug use. However, I was surprised to find out that although the rescue mission does value the importance of physical health, they also greatly value the effects of aesthetics on one’s life. At first, one would think that one’s physical appearance would be of the least importance in helping someone overcome homelessness. However, a nice smile in many cases can be the deciding factor in getting hired. In addition, when one has their teeth fixed they gain confidence, which results in improved mental health. Many of these people have been on hard drugs for long periods of time and have lost their teeth along with their self-confidence. I couldn’t help but feel sad knowing that our society is so vain and judgmental that people who are more physically attractive have a better chance of getting hired and are treated favorably. However, what is indisputable is that the USC School of dentistry is responsible for changing the lives of many homeless people, improving their mental health, and making them feel like an important part of society.

The Union Rescue mission takes measure to improve the mental health of adults however, they are aware that many children entering the mission may also face mental health problems. The Mission provides many activities and services to improve the mental health of these kids. While taking a tour of the facility, one minor detail ended up having the most profound impact on me. I notice a small Hannah Montana sticker on one of the lockers inside the private living facilities for families staying at the Rescue Mission. This faded image of the Disney channel star was the only small pop of color against an otherwise sterile, plain, and grey room. To me this sticker represented childhood innocence in the midst of terrible circumstances. I began to think about my childhood bedroom filled with toys and stuffed animals. Children staying at the Union Rescue mission don’t have their own rooms let alone a place they can call home. This sticker allowed the child to add something of his or her own to this unfamiliar and temporary home. To me this represented their attempt to create stability and continuity in their otherwise chaotic and uncertain lives. Although being homeless as child is not a proper or healthy way to grow up, the Union Rescue Mission provides opportunities for kids to learn and play. They offer playrooms, childcare, tutoring and programs for kids living in the rescue center. They hold events and have a play ground on the roof of the center. The roof offers the residences a beautiful view of Los Angeles and a place to temporarily escape their troubles and forget where they are. By addressing the mental health and providing counseling to these children, the Mission is helping to improve their current circumstances and alter the course of their lives. One would hope that by getting help early on, many of these kinds will be able to have a brighter and more successful futures.

Although I have no idea what these people are going through or how they feel, I do know that the Union Rescue Mission is able to provide a temporary place of safety and love. One should not let their pride get in the way of them seeking help, but rather make use of the many benefits the Union Rescue Mission has to offer. The Rescue Mission’s approach to self improvement through improving one’s mental health is crucial to setting it apart from other centers and what makes it such a success. As we drove away in the school bus, I couldn’t help but think back to the sticker and hope its owner was able to receive long-lasting help from the center, both mentally and emotionally.

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