Service in the City of Angels

By Hannah Petcovic, Vincentian Service Corps West, 2013-2014

I started my service commitment with the Catholic Volunteer Network five years ago and still think about Skid Row almost every day. I think about driving through downtown Los Angeles to park near a posh apartment complex. I think about my morning walk through the toy district; an area that contradictory overlaps with one of the largest populations of individuals experiencing homelessness in the U.S. Shop owners displayed colorful rubber keychains while those on the sidewalk sidestepped human waste and rat carcasses. Skid Row is raw, but as I learned throughout the year, it is also place of profound human and spiritual connection.

I completed my volunteer term with Vincentian Service Corps West, (VSC), a program I discovered while browsing through the CVN website in my dorm room. As I approached graduation, I felt moved to serve the homeless. When I saw individuals experiencing homelessness in my personal life, I considered what stories they had to tell and what potential was waiting to be expressed. VSC volunteers provided direct service and lived in community, two components I had prioritized in my search. I emailed the Program Director and anxiously waited for more information.

Coincidentally, I encountered a documentary about Skid Row shortly after my message was sent. Listening to interviews and seeing the community, my desire to pursue a year of service was validated. The luck of finding VSC and the film on the same night was no doubt an indication of God’s presence. Reflecting now, I see that this moment foreshadowed the many ways God’s work would unfold in the coming year.

Consider Mr. S, an elderly gentleman who had been living in shelters for decades when he came to our center. My placement site, The Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Cardinal Manning Center (CMC), was a facility for adult men experiencing homelessness. Clients established goals at the beginning of their stay, for example, re-connecting with family, saving money, and of course, obtaining housing. CMC also offered community services such as a computer lab and meals.

Mr. S was one of my first clients. He came to me with a stack of papers and was so anxious he didn’t even sit down. He had recently been informed that his social security benefits would be discontinued unless he could provide a copy of his permanent residence card. He confided that he had lost the identification years ago and knew replacement would not be an easy process.

I was brand new to social services with very little knowledge about immigration processes in the U.S. However, S trusted me. Despite differences in age, race, gender, and other superficial features, we put in the time and foot work to establish a mailing address, email address, acquire funds and a phone, apply, and ultimately, receive the card. The differences I feared would separate us dissipated through a working relationship based on good intentions and perseverance.

I lived in Los Angeles for two years and then moved back home to Ohio. Another two years later, I returned to the city to see friends, and of course, visit the shelter. I was full of emotion anticipating the clients I would and would not see; those who acquired housing and those whose lives had unfolded in other ways.

There were only two individuals I recognized that day, and sure enough, Mr. S was one of them. As if no time had passed, he approached me with another handful of paperwork. When we last spoke, he had acquired housing, but the rent required most of his monthly income. He showed me a letter and explained that it was a senior housing opportunity wanting to schedule an interview.

It’s not uncommon for applicants to be placed on waiting lists for years for this type of opportunity. Senior living programs often feature private units and subsidized rent. For my former client, he had waited about two years. I should know, as we completed this application together when I was his case manager.

Coincidentally, Mr. S came to the shelter during the few hours I was visiting, having received this letter during the week that I was in Los Angeles. Just like the circumstances that led to my year of service, God’s presence was clear. Although it was my conviction to serve the homeless, those I encountered were ultimately the ones to attend to and uplift my spiritual well-being.

Hannah Petcovic is a graduate of Hiram College. After her year of service with Vincentian Service Corps West, she completed an accelerated nursing program at Kent State University. She is currently a Registered Nurse at Cleveland Clinic Akron General. 

This story was selected as the winner of Catholic Volunteer Network’s Annual Story Contest in 2018. 

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