In the heart of downtown Los Angeles, on Skid Row, the homeless are being loved. Project 54 is a group of people dedicating their time, money, and gifts to serve and befriend people that society has written-off. They are emotionally and spiritually investing in people that feel invisible to society. Hearts are being changed in a situation that can feel hopeless.

Being Open to God’s Leading

I’ve been attending a class at church recently that covers a lot of fundamentals of the Christian faith. I’ve gotten to know some great guys, develop discipline, and strengthen the foundation of my faith. During the course of this class, two different topics have convicted me. One was a discussion about our gifts, and the second was serving others (Matthew 25:37-40).

When it comes to gifts, I’ve really been trying to focus on writing, and how I can use that to glorify God. I think this desire to write, and to say things that bring people closer to God’s truth, is a gift I’m supposed to be using. I’m not proud enough to believe I’m an especially good writer, but it’s simply me being open to my passions, and listening to what God is calling me to do.

I struggle with serving. It’s easy to want to serve others, but making that jump and actually doing something has always been a barrier I’ve had a hard time overcoming. I hide behind my selfishness, and I’m afraid to put myself in uncomfortable situations. To surrender control and let God use me has always been scary.

In my group I’ve gotten to know a guy who is a chef. He began to tell us about Project 54, an organization working with the homeless in downtown Los Angeles. A few months ago, I would have smiled, been proud of the work they were doing, and gone about my day. Serving the homeless? Other people are called to do that…not me. But something clicked. I need to write about this. I knew basically nothing about what they were doing, or if they even wanted my help, but it was as clear of a calling as I’ve ever felt. Like God was telling me, if you think writing is something you’re supposed to use to glorify me, then get off your butt and write about what they are doing.

Project 54. Let’s Go.

When I picked up a couple friends and drove down to Skid Row on a Saturday morning, I didn’t know what to expect. I was nervous, and scared. What situations would God put me in? What comfort zones would be stretched? I have no idea, but I’m game, and I’m going.

We pulled into the driveway of the warehouse where Project 54 would be serving brunch that morning. People had already set up tables to serve food, tables to eat at, a toiletry station, and a book table. We got a tour of the office space they rent and use for their Tuesday night bible study. When my chef friend arrived, we helped with food prep. I cut herbs and cracked eggs. Short ribs, sausages, and all sorts of delicious food was on the brunch menu. Head down, stay busy. This isn’t so bad!

Then someone made the announcement. Outreach time! Let’s go! This is the part I was dreading. I’m supposed to leave the confines of this safe warehouse driveway, and actually talk to homeless people? OK God…whatever you say.

We walked past the gates into an industrial area. Up and down the street were warehouses and businesses, surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire. People were working, moving trucks, and going about their daily lives. But outside those fences, lining the sidewalks, was another world. There were tents in every direction. Some by themselves, and some in large groups. We started walking down the street, inviting people to come eat with us. The volunteers who had done this before let us know that we don’t go past a certain street. I didn’t really want to know why. They also let us know that we stay in a group. Don’t go off on your own.

I don’t think I said a word the entire way around the block. Walking past the different tents and people on the street, the other guys were saying hi, and inviting people to come eat with us. Many of the homeless people were excited, and remembered the group from the last time they served food. Some said very little, or ignored us completely. After we made our rounds we came back to the warehouse, where other volunteers were already serving food. Now go sit with them. Love them.

I found an open seat where a guy from church was already chatting with a few people. There was a homeless man eating, and having the time of his life. He’d lost one of his arms from the elbow down, but he had the most joyful laugh. There was a photographer taking his picture, and the man kept cracking up. Why are you taking my picture?! Someone asked how he got his nickname, and he explained it was because he was good with the ladies. I sat there quietly, listening to everything going on. And then my buffer left. The volunteer that was at the table when I sat down got up, and I was on my own. Here goes nothing.

The Stories of the People I Met

I met a younger guy from Massachusetts. I’ll call him John. Lucky for me, he loved to talk. He told me about how he and a friend drove from the east coast to Los Angeles in 48 hours straight. On his arm was a tattoo from when he worked at a paving company. John told me how one Thanksgiving his boss invited him over for dinner, but when he didn’t want to pay for a taxi, he decided to “borrow” a company roller. When the police pulled him over, while he was driving an asphalt roller, they had a lot of questions for him. He recalled with much amusement that since this incident, he’s had a hard time getting a driver’s license.

John loved reminiscing about the past. He smiled as he told his stories, but there was also something distant about what he was telling me. I didn’t ask how long ago any of this had happened, but it almost felt like a past life, before things had gone sideways. Despite the situation he found himself in, he was as positive as ever. I’ll never forget that.

Margaret was a bit older. She was probably in her 50s, but “life” had added an extra ten. Where John was joyful and entertaining, Margaret was serious. Maybe she had been through more, or struggled for longer, but she looked worn out, and stretched thin. When she sat down with her food, she also placed on the table a can in a brown paper bag. Her friend addiction had tagged along.

Understanding Margaret was difficult. When she spoke, it was fast, and not very intelligible. Eventually I understood her plight. Her daughter lived here in Los Angeles, but her granddaughter lived with her dad in Colorado. Margaret wanted to take her daughter there to see her. I’m not asking for money, or a bus ticket, but whatever help you can give me. I’m not sure what help she did want, but the best I could come up with was, I’d be glad to pray for you. I expected her to scoff at that, like it was a stupid offer. Of course she just wanted money! Instead, she took me up on it. Now? I asked her. Yup, go ahead. I bowed my head in the middle of Skid Row, and I prayed for Margaret, her daughter, and her granddaughter. When I was done, she thanked me, and went on with her meal.

This is Only the Beginning

Spending time with the homeless put in perspective what a blessed life I lead. I routinely take for granted all that I have. It was a sobering experience for sure, but I knew that was going to happen. I knew I would come away with more concern for the poor, and I knew it would force me to reflect on my own blessings. What I didn’t expect is how excited I am.

It can be frustrating to feel like you don’t know your purpose, or what your passions are. Even if you do know what they are, if you don’t see a way to use them, it can be discouraging. For me, I’ve had both a passions and a purpose problem. What gifts do I have, and how does God want me to use them? To see as clear as day how my passion for writing can be used to serve the less fortunate feels really good.

Why did it take so long for this to click? I think a big part of it was not opening myself up to whatever opportunities God placed in front of me. My word to describe myself lately has been “willing.” When you say yes to things, it requires some denying of the self. You might have to rearrange your schedule, or postpone whatever it is you wanted to do. And when you’re doing things that aren’t selfishly motivated, it’s a lot easier to see God’s purpose. Our selfish desires are like blinders. It’s hard to see God’s purpose when all we’re looking at is ourselves.

I have a ton more to say about this awesome organization, and how they’ve changed my perception of homelessness. Until the next post, go check out Project 54, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Instagram. If you’re looking for an organization to support, where your donations can have a truly tangible effect, then I strongly encourage you to start supporting Project 54 monetarily.

The awesome photos are courtesy of Sposto Photography.

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Nathan Charlton
A husband and father of three, he is first and foremost a Christian, but will openly admit he doesn't have everything figured out. His passions include writing, spending time with his family, and any game by Blizzard.

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