“Kill yourself, dog shit,” the man muttered as he pedaled past me on his bicycle, the wheels creaking as he wobbled away up the street. It was 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning, cold and gloomy, especially for August. I was crossing the intersection at Santa Monica and La Brea in Hollywood, walking past little clusters of people waking up in the alleys behind Starbucks and Yogurtland. I was on my way to the Jeff Griffith Youth Center, a drop-in center for homeless LGBT youth, to start my two-day stint as a volunteer, with the hope of getting at least a vague idea of what life is like for them. “I guess this is it,” I thought.
The facade of the building was still covered on all sides by iron shutters; I could see security guards inside the doors, peering out. I walked up to the door, past a few clients waiting to be let in when the center opened. After the security guard shook his head at me, I knocked and pointed helplessly at the front desk, trying to indicate that I was a volunteer and not a client. Finally, at around 8:28, I was ushered in, just in time to learn the basics before the rush of clients checked in at 8:30 sharp, just as they do every morning.
The Griffith Center is technically a drop-in center, meaning that there are no beds for clients to sleep in. Instead, clients come during the day for the center’s services (including hot meals, showers, a clothing closet, internet access, socializing, GED classes, and health and job placement services). When the center closes at 5:30, they’re on their own, back to a housing center affiliated with the Griffith Center, to another homeless shelter, or back to the street, to sleep in metro stations and alleys, and nearby bath houses that rent out their private rooms for the night for a small fee–though often, a client told me, with sex as part of the bargain. Still, when the nights get cold, “there are worse places to wait for the morning to come.”
This morning, I was told, is a slow one, although it didn’t seem that way–about 15 people arrived within the first ten minutes. I was in charge of checking the clients into the computer system, making sure that none of the names were on the long list of “restricted” clients–those that have violated the Center’s zero-tolerance policy for homophobic language, for example, or those who have threatened others with a weapon. Most of the clients brought a bag of some sort, which they turned over to me to store, knowing their belongings will be safe, at least for the day, in the office. During my time at the Center, I heard numerous stories of belongings being stolen. When I asked one client, Alexa, whether the girl who stole her phone was a friend of hers, she told me, “I don’t believe in friends anymore–I believe in associates. I don’t think it’s possible to have friends in a place like this. ‘Cuz everybody’s looking out for one person, and that’s themselves.”
Most of the clients that morning were regulars, I learned later–they come day after day, careful to get there in time for breakfast and before laundry, closet, computer, and hygiene services are over for the day. There are rules, procedures, and specific hours for every service offered by the center; according to Simon Costello, head of Child and Family Services, “Lots of our clients have little to no experience with a routine, so this sort of consistency is key to model a productive everyday life.”
This post is an excerpt from a longer article that will run in the next issue of OutWrite. Be on the lookout for the full version this Fall!