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On a Mission

Undergraduates learn about empathy while taking a trip to a section of Los Angeles where the homeless find hope at the Union Rescue Mission.

Undergraduates taking a course in USC Dornsife's The Writing Program take a tour of the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles and speak with Santosh Sundaresan, community health programs section chair at the USC Dental Clinic set up at the mission. Photo by Caroline Lasersohn.
Undergraduates taking a course in USC Dornsife's The Writing Program take a tour of the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles and speak with Santosh Sundaresan, community health programs section chair at the USC Dental Clinic set up at the mission. Photo by Caroline Lasersohn.

Led by instructor JJ Strong, undergraduates taking, “Writing and Critical Reasoning — Thematic Approaches” at USC Dornsife’s The Writing Program took a recent tour of the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. With health and healing as the course theme, students wrote about their experiences, including these two essays.

By Kristen East

The bright sunlight dulled the sharpness of Skid Row. Still I was happy to step off the sidewalk into the comforting, air-conditioned waiting room of the Union Rescue Mission.

Wallpapered with missing persons posters, a window separated our group from the front desk. White plastic chairs lined a wall. A man pushing a mop made his way up and down a hallway. Our class huddled together awaiting further instruction.

Although I felt safe, I had a clear feeling of not belonging, of being an interloper. This feeling was not new to me; I felt the same when volunteering at Nativity House, a shelter in Tacoma, Washington, near my hometown of Gig Harbor.

As we moved through the rescue mission, my mind wandered to the homeless shelter in Tacoma, where I volunteered throughout middle and high school with my church’s youth group. Monthly, we journeyed across a bridge to serve a pancake breakfast to homeless people. I also spent time sifting through trash bags and boxes of donated clothes and sorting and shelving suitable items. The rescue mission shared Nativity House’s concrete walls and simple plastic furniture. The smell, mysterious and unidentifiable, was somehow the same. Separated by thousands of miles, the shelters shared a similar businesslike atmosphere that somehow said family.

But four Nativity Houses could probably fit inside the Union Rescue Mission with room to spare. I should have been prepared for the multitude of services provided by the rescue mission; I knew we would visit the USC Dental Clinic and a medical clinic at the rescue mission.

Yet, the many programs still surprised me. The magnitude of the rescue mission struck me. The size reflects the needs of the large homeless population it serves. Tacoma’s population of 202,000 is a far cry from L.A.’s nearly 4 million inhabitants.

One reason I chose USC Dornsife was to widen my worldview beyond my small hometown and experience life in the big city. For the most part, experiencing Los Angeles has been about navigating public transportation, exploring the diverse ethnic enclaves and occasional trips to the Staples Center.

Visiting the Union Rescue Mission helped me to expand my experiences in a different arena, reminding me that along with glamour and glitz, big cities have dark undercurrents — and places of hope like the rescue mission and the USC Dental Clinic to counter them.

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Kristen East. Photo by Tom East.

Kristen East is a sophomore majoring in history. She is also premed with plans to become a physician.


A Pop of Color

By Savannah Vieth

Located 10 minutes from the USC University Park campus is the Union Rescue Mission. Most people staying at the rescue mission started life at a severe disadvantage, have struggled with addiction and have been in and out of jail.

The mission provides emergency services, food, shelter, clothing, medical and dental care to those experiencing homelessness in the area. It also helps people in the long-term by providing recovery programs, transitional housing, legal assistance and job training. These people obtain the tools and resources to become productive citizens. This visit made me realize how much mental health affects someone recovering from any difficult situation. If one is not mentally stable, then it will be impossible for other aspects of their life to improve.

Coming to the rescue mission, I assumed that the USC Dental Clinic solely offered help for health-related reasons stemming from poor oral hygiene and/or drug use. So I was surprised to learn that the rescue mission also greatly values the effects of aesthetics. At first, one may think physical appearance would be the least important thing in helping someone overcome homelessness. However, a nice smile can sometimes be the deciding factor in getting hired. In addition, when one has their teeth fixed they gain confidence, which results in improved mental health. Many of these people have been on hard drugs for long periods and have lost their teeth along with their self-confidence. The Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC is responsible for changing the lives of many homeless people, improving their mental health by improving their smiles, and making them feel like an important part of society.

In addition to adults, children also face mental health problems. The mission provides many activities and services to improve the mental health of these kids.  While touring the facility, one detail had a profound impact on me: a small Hannah Montana sticker on a locker inside the private living facility. This faded image of the Disney star was the only pop of color against an otherwise sterile, plain, grey room. To me, this sticker represented childhood innocence in the midst of terrible circumstances. I began to think about my childhood bedroom filled with toys and stuffed animals. Children staying at the mission don’t have their own rooms let alone a place they can call home. This sticker allowed the child to add something of his or her own to their temporary home. To me this represented an attempt to create stability and continuity in an otherwise chaotic and uncertain life.

As we drove away in the school bus, I thought back to the sticker and hoped its owner was able to receive long-lasting help from the center, mentally and emotionally.

Admittedly, I can’t say how these residents really feel inside. But I do know that the Union Rescue Mission provides a temporary place of safety and love.

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Savannah Vieth. Photo by Lolly Anderson.

Savannah Vieth is a freshman with an undeclared major. She is considering majoring in communications and graphic design.