USC University of Southern California

Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC

Reflection on the Union Rescue Mission

By Rick Ley, freshman in computer engineering

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.