I’ve volunteered at food pantries in the Los Angeles region over the course of a few years every year during the holiday season. The person in charge typically gives a speech about how we should treat the people we’re serving, the majority of whom are unhoused or very close to it, as we all line up in the industrial kitchen equipped with gloves, hairnets, and ladles. We are informed that “many of them aren’t in a good state of mind.” “Especially at this time of year, we can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be in their shoes.”
They are unaware that I was in their shoes 18 years ago. With nothing to my name but a broken-down Honda hatchback, a shopping bag of clothes, and the friendship of an alley cat who had kind of adopted me, I spent Thanksgiving waiting in line at a food kitchen. Even if it was only to a stray who was struggling as hard to survive as I was, it was nice to feel needed and important.
Thanksgiving has always been my favourite holiday. This isn’t just because I enjoy eating; it’s also because I enjoy the company of others, lively games of Pictionary, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, then enjoying more pie while watching football. I used to look forward to spending Christmas with my family every year, but that all changed when we became estranged.
When I moved from my childhood home in the LA suburbs and ended up in Las Vegas, I was 17 and still enrolled in high school. My parents and I had a sharp disagreement about how shrewd this idea was. What on earth could my parents possibly know about the realities of life, I thought I had it all figured out. I cut off all contact with them after I left.
Every holiday was difficult for me to celebrate while I was living in Las Vegas for six years without my family; I usually spent Thanksgiving at a casino bar getting toasty. I would think back to how things had once been, with Dad carving the enormous turkey to perfection, Nana making marshmallow yams and cupcakes for the stuffing, Mom making mashed potatoes and green bean casserole, and all of us kids running around causing chaos among the adults. Because it had always been there, I took it all for granted, and I missed it.
I never really understood the luxury of not having to worry about where I would get my next meal, let alone my next feast, until I became homeless. I had no idea how much stress and anxiety food insecurity causes; it is estimated that 42 million Americans experience it, and many households report that they feel particularly insecure around the holidays.
first five years of my life in Vegas Actually, I did quite well. I was a popular model and showgirl, and the pinnacle of my career in entertainment was playing Cleopatra at Caesars Palace. However, I was also making a lot of bad decisions at the time, and I had stayed in an abusive relationship for an excessive amount of time. In the end, I ran away from my partner, packing as much as I could into my hatchback and sprinting up and down three flights of stairs in the apartment building. I was terrified that he would return home at any moment and find me. That night in a hotel parking garage, I slept in my car, and from that point on, that was my existence. I had no idea how difficult it would be to start over on my own with little money, no support, and a crippling case of what I didn’t know was post-traumatic stress disorder at the time due to being physically and mentally abused for such a long time.
Despite the fact that I had made a lot of friends while working on the strip, I soon realised that when times were tough, the majority of them disappeared and the friends I had thought I had were really just acquaintances who didn’t care about me. That only left my family, but I didn’t think I could get in touch with them after spending so much time apart. Still, a part of me missed them and had done so ever since I moved to Vegas.
Many times, I actually went to a pay phone and called my parents, but I hung up after hearing them say “Hello?” (or, in my dad’s case, “Yell-ow!”) a few times. Simply put, I was at a loss for words. Later, they admitted to not knowing how to locate me but knowing it was me because of the 702 area code. I just wasn’t prepared to acknowledge my mistakes and face them.
“I was also making a lot of poor choices at that time, and I had stayed in an abusive relationship for far too long. I finally left my partner, sprinting up and down three flights of apartment building stairs while I packed as much as I could into my hatchback, terrified that he would come home any minute and catch me. I slept in my car that night in a hotel parking garage and then that became my life.”
The worst year of my six-year stay in Las Vegas was also my last. I had been intermittently living in my car when the holidays rolled around (occasionally, I had been able to scrape together enough money from donations to rent a cheap motel room for a few days). I had originally intended to “celebrate” by spending Thanksgiving in Vegas doing what I always did: sitting at the bar and drinking 7 and 7s. However, bartenders would not let “stray” customers sit and take a seat without placing an order, and I was short on cash. I still recall how chilly it was in my car that night because it was unusually cold, and I wasn’t sure what to do.
People frequently ask me “Why didn’t you just go to a shelter?” The fact that shelters and even food banks can be dangerous places for women is something that many people who have never experienced housing or food insecurity are unaware of. Many unhoused women I knew warned me about their own terrifying experiences in the system, as they are frequently robbed, abused, and even raped in shelters. I stayed away from those locations while I was homeless. But on that Thanksgiving Eve, I felt more hopeless and desperate than I ever had.
Uncertain of what to expect, I entered a nearby food kitchen after spotting it. It was in a church, which made me feel secure and at ease. It was also well-lit, calm, and organised. If we didn’t feel comfortable sitting in the common area, there were separate rooms in the back for families and women. I can still recall being shocked by the sheer number of kids I saw waiting in line. Everyone is affected by homelessness, and while I have previously witnessed families living on the streets, seeing children always makes me feel differently.
There were quite a few volunteers, perhaps as many as 30 or 40, but after scanning the crowd, I focused on one woman in particular who greeted everyone with a smile. She was wearing a bright red sweater that complemented her friendly and amiable demeanour. She mingled with the diners and inquired about their meals, names, places of origin, and whether they would like another cookie (of course the answer was always yes). She treated everyone with respect, which is uncommon for the homeless, who are frequently viewed as statistics, annoyances, or tragedies. Local LA radio host: “Ship them all out to the desert and see what happens.” Alternately, many people decide to ignore this group of people, treating them as if they don’t even exist.
When it was my turn in line, I received a soup, turkey sandwich, peas and carrots, and cookie. It was the first proper meal I had in almost a year, so I clearly recall it. Even though I’d never liked peas and carrots together, everything on the tray that night was the best I’d ever tasted. My eyes burned with gratitude that I was in a warm, secure location with hot, fresh food that I hadn’t had to forage.
“My name is Rhonda; what’s yours?” As I was eating, I heard. The Nice Red Sweater Lady was there when I looked up. She grinned broadly as she slid into the chair next to mine. She reminded me of Mrs. Olson, one of my favourite middle school teachers, in some way.
I quietly said, “Kristen.” My own meekness surprised me because I used to be a performer who was constantly the centre of attention, at times even larger than life, like Las Vegas itself.
She inquired, “Where are you from?”
Rhonda continued to enquire about me. My experience told me that she would have inquired about how I had come to be in this situation, but she never did and she didn’t seem to care. She was an attentive, caring, and close listener. It was gratifying to feel significant once more, even if only for a brief period of time.
Do you have relatives in this city, she inquired.
They’re still in California, I’m afraid.
Do you converse with them?
I gave a headshake. Does a call that ends in a hang up count?
Would you like to speak with them?
I sighed. Both yes and no.
She said, “I’m sure they’d love to hear from you over the holidays.”
I considered all the unsheltered people I knew who had no family, didn’t know how to get in touch with them, had been abandoned by them, or were suffering from mental illnesses that prevented them from even knowing if they had family. I felt obligated to at least make an effort to reunite with my family in some ways because of these people. Despite my embarrassment, pride, and stubbornness, I knew that having them was a blessing and that they would answer the phone if I called. Do I really want this to be how my life turns out at 23 years old? I questioned.
Rhonda observed my thoughts racing. You can use the phone in the office, she said. My anxiety started to rise right away. I felt her hand on mine. You are welcome to return whenever you are ready; it is not necessary to do so tonight.
I wasn’t prepared that evening. However, I never forgot Rhonda’s generosity and support, and a few months later, I returned to using that phone.
She said, “We have a phone in the office you could use. My anxiety started to rise right away. I felt her hand on mine. You are welcome to return whenever you’re ready; it is not necessary to do so tonight. I wasn’t prepared that evening. However, I never forgot Rhonda’s generosity and support, and a few months later, I returned to using that phone.
On April 1, 2005, my mother picked me up in the parking lot of a Jack-In-The-Box (I remember her being horrified at how thin I was and taking me right through the drive-thru to buy me two Jumbo Jacks — it was one of the best meals of my life), and we drove back to my childhood neighbourhood in California, a place I’d been so eager to leave. Although I can’t say I was particularly happy to return, I was extremely grateful to have a roof over my head once more.
But having a permanent home didn’t make it any easier for me to get back on my feet. In actuality, it was very difficult. Despite my family’s doubts that I could complete four years of college, I enrolled in a local community college after a year of working odd dead-end jobs. And I can understand why they might have believed that; after being lost for so long, not even I was sure I could see this through. I also felt old compared to my peers, even though I was only 24 at the time. I initially struggled to fit in. Additionally, I never wanted anyone to know that I had ever been homeless.
If you can believe it, even after I had been in college for a few years, I frequently considered returning to Vegas. Every now and then, I would make the drive there in the dead of night just to see it, as if to put myself to the test. I believe my family sensed this as well because they kept me at a distance for a while out of concern that they would once again feel betrayed and hurt if I returned to my former life. Fortunately, they helped me in many ways, but it took a very long time—and for good reason—to regain their respect and trust.
My parents’ expressions told me how proud they were when I received an honours diploma from the University of California, Irvine in 2010 and later went on to receive a Master’s degree in 2013. It wasn’t because I was still trying to prove something to my family when I applied to and was accepted into a Ph.D. programme; rather, it was because I still wanted to prove something to myself. Maybe that’s how I’ll feel forever.
I often reflect on Rhonda and the kindness she showed, and I often wish I could thank her and let her know how different my life is now. We might even be able to have a reunion a la “Unsolved Mysteries” if she happens to be reading this.
18 years later, when I assist those in need at my local food bank during the holiday season, I want to do everything in my power to make them feel valued and cared for—that they are more than just statistics, inconveniences, or tragedies. I want them to understand that they are worthy of love and, ideally, an answer. And even if I can’t change their lives, which I most likely can’t because homelessness is a widespread problem, I can still show them kindness in the same way that Rhonda did for me when I most needed it.
When I have the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with my family this year, I’ll reflect on how what should have been the worst Thanksgiving of my life in 2004 instead turned out to be the one I’m most grateful for.
With her cherished tabby Archie by her side, writer and professor Kristen Brownell resides in Los Angeles. She is currently writing a memoir titled “Lost Vegas” about her journey from leaving high school and moving to Las Vegas on a whim, working as a casino dishwasher, becoming a well-known showgirl, becoming homeless, and eventually turning things around and earning a Ph.D. Early in 2023, “Lost Vegas” will be made available. Visit www.kristenbrownell.com to find out more about Kristen’s writing career and personal life.
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