It was early dawn, the sun just beginning to lighten the day and bring people to the downtown streets. Where we had started in skid row, when it was still dark, there were always people on the streets. We had run about a mile or so out of skid row, through Little Tokyo and now to the city center. As we approached City Hall, we stopped and waited for the light to change so we could cross the street and run up the stairs. I stood next to F*, whom the rest of the group thanked during our morning huddle for planning this route.
F looks young and current, with a short beard, nice clothes and an easy smile. And he obviously ran on his own time, enough to scout out new routes for the group. So once we started talking, I asked him without really thinking much about the question, or what the answer might be, "Where do you live?"
"I've been living at Union Rescue Mission since December," F answered cheerfully, if with rehearsed directness.
I should have expected his response, because about half the people in our small running group* are living at URM, a large homeless shelter in L.A.'s skid row. I had just joined the group, intentionally made up of people who are working towards transitioning out of homelessness and people who have homes (and presumably living so-called normal, middle-class lives around Los Angeles). The point is to run together, and also to learn from each other.
It may seem like the people who are homeless are the ones with something to learn, but my surprise at F's answer made it clear that I have something to learn (if I didn't already know that going into this running group).
F graciously offered some more of his background before I had the chance to ask more questions, and in the course of our run together, he told me about living in the Bay Area and DC, and we shared our love for those cities and the difficulty of living on the opposite coast from where you grew up. He asked me about my job and seemed genuinely interested in what I did during the day. I asked about his timed mile at the last meeting and he told his time, which was somewhere under six minutes (in other words, fast). He taught me that homelessness can happen for all sorts of reasons and look all sorts of ways, including a young, good-looking guy who likes to run really fast around downtown LA in his free time.
*I joined a running group through Back On My Feet, in part to run, in part to learn, and in part to write stories, as much as is appropriate, about the people I meet. I hope I'll have more to share soon.