Last Saturday morning, a woman I had never met drove over to my house and gave me $300 in cash. To be fair, I had spoken with her on the phone earlier in the day when she used her credit card to pay the fees for over a week at a county campground.
Her altruism was on behalf of a homeless US Marine and his family who showed up at the South Bay Food Pantry earlier in the day. The Marine, David, with his two year old son in tow, found our pantry through 211 emergency services. One of our pantry volunteers gave David a standard bag of food we create for unsheltered guests.
Saturday was a busy day. Our pantry has seen a 25% increase in clients over the last two weeks. Last Saturday when David showed up, we served 127 heads of household, representing about 570 people, in 90 minutes. I did not have a chance to get to know David until he came back later to give me his phone number. He had offered to volunteer.
David looks ﬁt, has close cropped hair, and kept calling me ma’am. I asked him if he was in the military. He is a retired Marine. I noticed his limp and the shadow of a back brace under his shirt. He had been injured in Afghanistan.
David was choked up, near tears with gratitude for a single bag of food and a package of diapers. He and his family had been sleeping in their car in a Walmart parking lot.
By the time I got home and had a chance to reﬂect on the day, it was mid-afternoon. I realized I had underserved David and his family. I could not go to bed Saturday night knowing an injured veteran was sleeping in his car in a Walmart parking lot with a 2 year old in diapers. So, I decided to try to ﬁnd David and his family emergency accommodations before sundown.
I called several social service agencies. No one was open late on a Saturday afternoon.
After an internet search, I found an inexpensive hotel in San Ysidro. Then, I called South Bay congregant Rev. Andrea Travers to ask her if she would cover a night in a hotel. She could not say yes quickly enough. Then, it occurred to me I could try to crowd source additional funds through a private Facebook group called Together We Will San Diego (TWW SD), a group of over 8,000 liberal-minded folks who gelled after the 2016 presidential election.
Pantry volunteer Sara Ferguson saw my post right away and emailed me that she had made a donation to the pantry through the church website.
I phoned David, told him I had a hotel room in San Ysidro, and asked him to meet me there.
I waited in the hotel parking lot quite awhile. It turns out he was collecting cans to sell so he could put gas in his car. And, when he arrived with his whole family, it turned out he and his wife, Laurie, have 4 children — ages 2, 6, 11, and 13. So, I upgraded to a room with two beds.
Andrea, Sara, and I pooled our funds, and I paid for a room for two nights, pushing the housing emergency from Saturday night to Monday’s 11 AM check out time.
They had an ice chest, but no money for ice. So I bought ice, milk for the baby, a few other items, raided the food pantry, and brought them more food for dinner and breakfast. I did not know that David and Laurie had been giving all the food they could source to their children and had not eaten themselves for 3 days. I did not know their situation had spiraled into starvation already. When I learned about this Sunday afternoon, I ﬁnally understood why a Marine would visibly choke up in front of a stranger.
David, who had worked as a chef and also receives monthly retirement income, found himself without a home, food, gas, or money after being robbed at the point of an M-16 riﬂe, he reports, by Tijuana police the night of July 3. He had taken his family across the border to ﬁnd affordable housing after losing his job and residence in Texas. David says the police took all his cash and had him empty his bank account at an ATM where he incurred over $600 in deficit spending and fees. He said he drove right back to this side of the border when the police let him go.
The family spent the holiday weekend in a parking lot. They own camping supplies, and received a week of camping, food, and gas assistance from the Navy and Marine Society Relief Fund. The Veterans Administration told them the wait for housing was 3 - 4 months. The American Red Cross turned them away because they had been out of the country. COVID-19 is not kind. David applied for CalFresh, but the benefits had not come through yet.
The outpouring of financial support for David and his family from Andrea, Sara, and the people on TWW SD — including other congregants — was immediately effective.
I drove over to the beautiful county park where David camped earlier in the month, called two strangers who had messaged their phone numbers, handed my cell phone to the county employee who handled reservations, and they put the camping fees on their credit cards. We have paid for accommodations for all except two nights (no camp sites available) through August 1. Other people from TWW SD drove over to my house in Chula Vista to donate brand new towels and hygiene products. It turns out the San Ysidro hotel does not provide soap, shampoo, or conditioner and only gives clients one towel per room.
David and his family will set up their own apartment in Tijuana August 1 when his retirement check is deposited. They will need some support with food and a few other things for awhile until he can ﬁnd work in the COVID-19 economy. I have given him the names, phone numbers, and addresses of several local agencies that should be able to help him.
Here is what I am left with: lots of families live at the Knights Inn in San Ysidro. I saw lots of children living in this hotel across the street from two gas stations and a freeway on-ramp.
The rooms have no table, not a single chair, no mini-refrigerator, no microwave, and costs $80 a night, or $2,400 a month.
The families cannot buy and store groceries. They cannot prepare healthy food. And if by some chance they own a laptop, there is still no table, desk, or chair for their children to use when on-line school opens in August.
These families live in a poverty trap. If they are minimum wage workers, they cannot keep a roof over their heads, feed themselves, travel to work, and pay for health care today and save enough money for a month’s rent and a deposit for tomorrow.
The great social anthropologist Margaret Mead once observed, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
I had the great privilege of seeing her observation in action this past weekend. If you recognize yourself in Margaret Mead’s observation, I invite you to join us in whatever role in which you feel comfortable at the South Bay Food Pantry and Diaper Program.
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