SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2015       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Emily Benson

Borderlands of Race and Homelessness

            Growing up in Monterey, California, my Dad was very involved in many outreach/church/community programs that helped homeless people find jobs or help them get off the streets and on the right track to a better life. My dad would try to help them any way he could by giving them clothes, food, offering them to work for him, or simply giving them a chance to better their lives. As far back as I can remember, on the weekends we would always have one of  the homeless men he found off the streets over at our house doing work whether it be mowing the lawn, working on cars, etc. It did not matter to him who they were regardless of race or ethnicity.


            In the year 1999, I was the age of 8, I did not really think anything of having all these people over at our house working.  However, I do remember my mom complaining about them constantly being at our house and that it made her uneasy at times. She would often tell my dad that it could be considered not safe and puts us at risk if anything were to happen to us or them.  There was one man in particular named Luis, who would work at our house sometimes on the weekends.


            I have been homeless and living on the streets for almost 5 years now. I came from Mexico to California to search for work. I left with barely any money, and a suitcase filled with clothes. After being promised work, this setup fell through leaving me penniless, no home, and no choice but to resort to the streets. Day after day I would stand on the corners holding a sign asking for any help I could receive; work, water, a meal, etc. One day, a man named Dennis stopped at a stop light at the corner I was standing on holding my sign offering work. He rolled down his window, asked if I was good at yard work, and before I could even answer he told me to hop on in. This man offered me work every weekend and told me he would help me get on the right track again. I met this manís family, his wife, daughter, and son. At times I could tell this manís wife was not happy with me working at the house. I think she felt uneasy about me being there. Sometimes her daughter, who I heard her call Emily, would come outside and talk to me and ask if I wanted to play or join in on the games the other kids were playing. The one time I did, her mom yelled at her to stop and come inside.


            When my Dad brought home the different homeless workers to do yard work, one of their tasks was to always rake up the leaves, since it was Autumn.  My neighborhood friends and I would always want to help them with this or when they were done jump into the piles and play. I remember my mom telling me not to join in and to not bother them while they were working.


As, a child, I did not understand too much as to why my Mom felt that way, I just thought they were workers. With this confusion of different opinions and outlooks coming from both my parents, my Dad decided to attempt to show me about why he had such a passion for helping out the homeless.


            When I was about 10, my Dad took me to one of the outreach programs called Dorothyís Kitchen to help volunteer. I can remember the drive to the place. It took us through the rougher and rundown places of a nearby town called Salinas. I could see homeless people everywhere standing on corners and sleeping on sidewalks. It was where most of the homeless would hang out and sleep.  I remember when my Dad was taking me there, there was graffiti on almost every wall and building. A lot of if was done in bright colors. My Dad told me most was just vandalism from gangs or teens up to no good.


            Once we finally got to Dorothyís Kitchen, I was put right to work. At this place we helped prepare meals and then served lunch to the homeless community. I helped make and serve the cornbread that day to men, women, and children who were in line. The cornbread had the most vidid aroma because we had baked so many proportions of it to be served. We also put together care packages.  After helping prepare the meals and care packages for almost an hour, people of the streets started to line up and pour into the center. That day I met many people from all different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Some would tell us their stories about how they ended up on the streets or how they were dealing with tough times and just needed a chance to get back on track. Some talked about how they were discriminated against because they were homeless or were a different race. It was hard for them to get jobs because of these reasons.


            Growing up in California, I was very aware that homelessness and immigration from Mexico was very present. A lot of Hispanics would migrate from Mexico to come to Salinas and Monterey to work as farmers due to all the produce and field worker jobs. There were always people standing on the side of the road asking for work/money/etc. Housing in California has been very expensive making it hard for some who come to live here.  Salinas/Monterey is my hometown. As of 2013, California was ranked #4 with the homeless rate increasing. 


            At such a young age I didnít understand why or how the homeless ended up that way.  I just knew I lived a completely different life they did. It was an extremely eye opening experience. It really made me think about the small things we take for granted. At the first event of my mom feeling uneasy about having these workers my Dad would bring to our house, left me feeling confused and wondering why. I was just a kid and did not understand where she was coming from. With this event, I learned a lot about the different views my parents had. What was important to me was that I noticed that my dad never judged anyone based on race, ethnicity, social class, etc. He wanted to give everyone a chance because he believed they deserved one, regardless of their background, past, and current situations.


            By taking me to Dorothyís Kitchen my dad wanted me to understand and see past some of the views my mom had. He just wanted me to have a deeper understanding of why he volunteered in this community and had a passion for helping other individuals. Last year my Dad passed away. That is one of the main reasons why I chose to write about this certain event.  A lot of these values that he has shown me and I have picked up on have stuck with me today, in a world where it is so easy to quickly judge a person. I know it can be hard to not be judgmental towards people because it is easily a habit. My dad gave me and others the viewpoints to have the ability to change and to stop placing so many judgments on others.


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