Jaci Stephen: 'I wanted to help the homeless – but a queue of celebrities beat me to it'

Way Out West

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Independence Day, Darwin Day, Veterans Day, Columbus Day, Halloween – there is no person or event too big or too small that the Americans will not commemorate. And tomorrow, it's the real biggie - Thanksgiving.

It was in this very month last year that I came to LA for only the second time in my life and decided that I wanted to live here. I was enjoying my 50th birthday treat to myself and staying at the five-star Beverly Wilshire at the bottom of Rodeo Drive, the outside of which features in the film Pretty Woman (the interior was filmed on a set, as I disappointingly discovered).

I also discovered that Thanksgiving is no time to be alone in the US. The few people I knew were entertaining family and, like Christmas, it seemed a time only for nearest and dearest.

So I decided to have my Thanksgiving dinner in the hotel, surrounded by families and couples too lazy to cook their own turkey. One problem: my dinner never arrived. I waited. And waited. But it never came. The hotel is my favourite in the world, but being the only person in America who didn't get to nibble a bit of turkey on Thanksgiving was rather galling.

They made up for it by giving me a complimentary meal on my return in March this year, but by that time I was heavily into my new healthy lifestyle.

This year, I've been invited to Santa Monica for my dinner, but don't want to have to worry about transport, so have had to pass up the offer. The group Brits in LA have a dinner for waifs and strays at the Hudson club and restaurant; and the Beverly has its usual spectacular menu (or so I understand, according to the people who have had the privilege of tasting it).

I was considering all my options, when it suddenly hit me: Thanksgiving isn't a big deal to me, but it must be to the many homeless in the city; and in the UK, there are so many organisations begging for volunteers to make Christmas just a little bit special for people less fortunate than themselves, it was probably the same for Thanksgiving in the States.

So I went online and, sure enough, discovered that Thanksgiving is a really dreadful time for the homeless. Of course, every single day is a bad one if you have no home, but there is something about festive occasions that reinforces the desperation with added poignancy.

So I decided to sign up to do volunteer work, serving food and beverages down on Skid Row.

It was a place I had heard about only in movies and on TV; in the musical Little Shop of Horrors, there is a song called Skid Row, which is a rather jolly little number that has me tapping my hands on the gym treadmill when I exercise to it. Yes, Skid Row was where I would spend Thanksgiving.

After all, the books I had been reading to further my emotional and spiritual "journey" as they are wont to call it here, kept emphasising the importance of being of service to others, and what better opportunity was I going to get than being precisely that, on one of the most special days of the year?

I went online and saw Ally McBeal/Brothers and Sisters star Calista Flockhart in an apron and brandishing a spoon at a dinner for the homeless last Thanksgiving; and the web was full of stories of other stars who did their bit for the downtrodden.

I was about to join them and started to make calls. But guess what? I couldn't get in! Be a volunteer at Thanksgiving? You have to be bloody joking, was the general riposte. Join the queue.

The queue to be a volunteer helping the homeless in LA turned out to be longer than the one of people in the queue for their dinner. In fact, I had even missed the boat for Christmas and was looking to next year's Thanksgiving if I stood a snowball's chance of doing my bit.

How far we have come since Mary, Joseph and Jesus couldn't find any room at the inn? I was trying to be an innkeeper and they still wouldn't let me in. How weird was that? Too many celebrities looking for a photo opportunity, I reckoned.

Is the volunteer list as long in the UK? I have no idea, but it warms the heart to know that there are so many people who will give up their time, rather than just open their wallets, to make their fellow beings' lives more comfortable. And it made me want to get on that list and do something for real. A homeless person isn't just for Thanksgiving.



To read Jaci Stephen's blog, LA Not So Confidential, in full go to LANotSoConfidential.blogspot.com

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