I Was Living In My Car On Thanksgiving. Then I Met A Food Kitchen Volunteer Who Changed My Life.
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The author is having a Thanksgiving dinner at her grandparents' house in 2021.
The author is having a Thanksgiving dinner at her grandparents' house in 2021.
For the past several years, I have volunteered at pantries in the Los Angeles area every year during the holiday season. When we all line up in the canteen kitchen, armed with gloves, hairnets and ladles, the person in charge usually makes a speech about how we should deal with the people we serve, most of whom are homeless or around. "Many of them are not in good shape," we are told. "We can't imagine what it's like to be in their position - especially at this time of year."
What they don't know is that I was in their position 18 years ago. I spent Thanksgiving waiting in line at a grocery store with nothing to my name but a busted Honda hatchback, a grocery bag full of clothes, and the friendship of a street cat who sort of adopted me. It was nice to feel wanted and important, even if it was just for a stray who was fighting as hard as I was just to stay alive.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, not just because I love to eat, but also because I enjoy the company and conversation, the lively games of Pictionary and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and then watch football while I eat another piece of cake. Until my family and I became estranged, I looked forward to spending it with them every year.
I was 17 and still in high school when I left my childhood home in the LA suburbs and ended up in Las Vegas. My people and I disagreed on the wisdom of this idea. I thought I figured it all out - what could my parents know about the facts of life? So I left them and cut off all communication with them.
During the six years I lived in Vegas, I celebrated every holiday away from my family, and Thanksgiving was always the hardest — I usually spent it at a casino bar for a toast. I remembered how things had been – Dad carving the giant turkey perfectly, Nana's stuffed cupcakes and marshmallow sweet potatoes, Mom's casserole with green beans and mashed potatoes, and us kids running around driving the adults crazy. I took it all for granted because it was always there, and I missed it.
Until I became homeless, I never really appreciated the luxury of not having to worry about where my next meal will come from, let alone my next feast. I failed to understand the incredible stress and anxiety caused by food insecurity affecting an estimated 42 million Americans, with many households reporting feeling particularly insecure during the holidays.
My first five years in Vegas were actually pretty successful. I was an in-demand showgirl and model, with the highlight of my entertainment career being a stint as Cleopatra at Caesars Palace. But I also made a lot of bad decisions back then, and I had stayed in an abusive relationship for far too long. I finally left my partner, sprinting up and down three flights of stairs in an apartment building while packing as much as I could into my hatchback, terrified that he might come home at any moment and catch me. I slept in my car in a hotel parking lot that night and that became my life. Little did I know how hard it would be to start fresh on my own with little money, no support, and a debilitating case of what I didn't recognize as PT at the time, due to physical and emotional abuse for so long.
Although I'd made many friends while working on the strip, I quickly learned that when the going got tough, most people left and the people I thought were friends were really just acquaintances who didn't really care about me. That left only my family - but after so many years of silence I didn't think I could contact them. Still, a part of me craved it and always had it during my time in Vegas.
It often happened that I literally walked up to a payphone and called my parents, but hung up after listening to them say "Hello?" a few times (or "Yel-ow!" in Dad's case). I just didn't know what to say. They later told me that because of the 702 area code, they knew it was me, but didn't know how to find me. I just wasn't ready to face them - to admit how far I'd fallen.
I also made a lot of bad decisions back then and had stayed in an abusive relationship for way too long. I finally left my partner, sprinting up and down three flights of stairs in an apartment building while packing as much as I could into my hatchback, terrified that he might come home at any moment and catch me. I slept in my car in a hotel parking lot that night and that became my life.
My sixth and final year in Las Vegas was rock bottom. As the holidays approached, I lived in my car on and off for several months (sometimes I'd scraped together enough money from donations to rent a cheap motel room for a few days). At first, I planned to "celebrate" by doing what I used to do on Thanksgiving in Vegas: sit at the bar and drink 7s and 7s. But bartenders wouldn't let "stray" people sit and have a seat without ordering anything, and I didn't have any cash. It was unusually cold that night - I remember how cold it was in my car - and I didn't know what to do.
"Why didn't you just go to an animal shelter?" People often ask me. What many people who have never experienced home or food insecurity don't realize is that shelters and even food banks can be dangerous places for women. They are often robbed, abused and even raped in shelters, and several homeless women I knew warned me of their own horrific experiences in the system. So in my time without a home I avoided these places. But that Thanksgiving night, I felt more desolate and desperate than ever.
I spotted a local kitchen and walked in not knowing what to expect. It was in a church that felt safe and comforting, and it was well organized, well lit, and quiet. A sign said there were separate rooms for women and families in the back if we weren't comfortable with the common area. I remember being surprised at how many children I saw in line. Homelessness affects all types of people and I had seen families on the streets before, but seeing children always hit me differently.
There were many volunteers, maybe over 30 or 40, and after scanning the crowd, my eyes particularly fixed on one woman who smiled and greeted every single passer-by. The bright red sweater she was wearing matched her warm and cheerful demeanor. She mingled with the people who sat down to eat and asked how their food was, what their names were, where they were from and if they had another one cookie (of course, the answer was always yes). She treated everyone like real people, something the homeless — who are usually viewed as a statistic, a nuisance or a tragedy — don't experience very often. "Send them all out into the desert and see what happens," says a local LA radio host. Alternatively, many people choose to ignore this segment of the population as if they don't exist.
It was my turn and I got soup, a turkey sandwich, peas and carrots, and a biscuit. I remember it well because it was the only real meal I've had in almost a year. I'd always loathed the pea and carrot combo, but that night it was the best thing I'd ever eaten—everything was on the tray. My eyes burned with gratitude to be in a warm, safe place with hot, fresh food that I didn't have to loot.
"I'm Rhonda - what's your name?" I heard while eating. I looked up and saw that it was the Nice Red Sweater Lady. She slid into the chair across from me and gave me a big smile. Something about her demeanor reminded me of Mrs. Olson, one of my favorite middle school teachers.
"Kristen," I said softly. For a person who was once an artist and was the center of attention all the time - some would even say larger than life, much like Las Vegas itself - I was surprised at my own gentleness.
"Where do you come from?" She asked.
Rhonda asked me more questions about myself. I kept expecting her to ask how I got into this position, which I've found most people would have done, but she never did - she didn't seem to care. She was a close and caring and interested listener. It felt good to feel important again—like I mattered—if only for a minute.
"Do you have family here in town?" she asked.
"No... they're still in California."
"Are you talking to them?"
I shook my head. Does calling and hanging up count?
"Would you like to speak to them?"
I shrugged my shoulders. I do and I don't.
"I'm sure they'd love to hear from you over the holidays," she offered.
I thought of all the vulnerable people I knew who didn't have families, or didn't know how to reach them, or were cast out by them, or whose mental illness kept them from even knowing if they had families or Not. In a way, I felt like I owed it to these people to at least try to reunite with my family. I was fortunate and even privileged to have them and - despite my embarrassment, pride and stubbornness - I knew that if I contacted them they would answer the call. I'm 23 years old - do I really want my life to turn out like this? I wondered.
Rhonda could see my wheels turning. "We have a phone in the office that you can use," she said. My fear set in immediately. She touched my hand. "It doesn't have to be tonight - you can come back whenever you're ready."
I wasn't ready that night. But I never forgot Rhonda and her kindness and encouragement, and a few months later I was using that phone again.
"We have a phone in the office you could use," she said. My fear set in immediately. She touched my hand. "It doesn't have to be tonight - you can come back whenever you're ready." I wasn't ready that night. But I never forgot Rhonda and her kindness and encouragement, and a few months later I was using that phone again.
On April 1, 2005, my mother picked me up at a jack-in-the-box lot (I remember being appalled at how skinny I was and immediately leading me through the drive-through to get me two jumbo jacks to buy - it was one of the best meals of my life), and we drove back to my childhood neighborhood in California, a place I was dying to leave. I can't say I was particularly excited to be going back, but I was incredibly grateful to have a roof over my head again.
Still, getting back on your feet wasn't as easy as finding a permanent place to live. In fact, it was extremely challenging. After a year of dead-end odd jobs, I enrolled in a local community college, despite my family's skepticism that I would make it through four years of college. And I don't blame them for thinking that - I've been helpless for so long, even I wasn't sure I could get through this. And even though I was only 24 at the time, compared to my peers I felt like I was 60. It was difficult for me to settle in at first. And I never wanted anyone to know that I was once homeless.
If you can believe it, I've thought about moving back to Vegas many times, even after a few years in college. I would drive there every now and then in the middle of the night just to check it out - like testing myself. I think my family felt that too, because they kept me at a distance for quite a while for fear of feeling hurt and betrayed again if I went back to my old life. I was incredibly fortunate that they supported me in many ways, but it took me a very long time to regain their trust and respect, and rightly so.
When I graduated with honors from the University of California, Irvine in 2010 and received my master's degree in 2013, the look on my parents' faces told me how proud they were. When I applied and went into a Ph.D. program, not because I'm still trying to prove something to my family - but because I'm still trying to prove something to myself. Maybe I always feel like this.
I often think of Rhonda and her kindness and how I wish I could express my gratitude and tell her how different my life is today. There might even be a chance she reads this and we can have an Unsolved Mysteries-style reunion.
Now, 18 years later, as I minister to the people at my local food bank during the holiday season, I want to do whatever it takes to let them know they care and that they matter — that they're not just a statistic or a nuisance or tragedy. I want them to know that they deserve love and ideally a solution. And even if I can't change their lives, which I most likely can't — homelessness is a systemic problem, and we need leaders who are willing to work hard and compassionately to find ways forward — I can be kind to them like Rhonda did when I needed it most.
If I'm lucky enough to sit down for Thanksgiving dinner with my family this year, I'll think back to how what should have been the worst Thanksgiving of my life in 2004 turned into the one I'm most grateful for.
Kristen Brownell is a writer and professor living in Los Angeles with her beloved Tabby Archie. She is currently working on her memoir, Lost Vegas, about her journey from dropping out of high school and moving to Las Vegas, to working as a casino dishwasher, to becoming an acclaimed showgirl, and becoming homeless, to finally turning on to earn a Ph. D Lost Vegas will be released in early 2023. To learn more about Kristen's life and writing, visit www.kristenbrownell.com.
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