I Was Living In My Car On Thanksgiving. Then I Met A Food Kitchen Volunteer Who Changed My Life.


Every year for the past several years, I’ve volunteered at food pantries in the Los Angeles area during the holiday season. When we all line up in the industrial kitchen armed with gloves, hairnets and ladles, the person in charge usually gives a speech about how we should treat the people we’re serving, most of whom are unhoused or close to it. “Many of them aren’t in a good state of mind,” we’re told. “We can’t imagine what it’s like to be in their position ― especially at this time of year.”

What they don’t know is that 18 years ago, I was in their position. I spent Thanksgiving in line at a food kitchen, 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 sort of adopted me. It was nice to feel wanted and important, even if it was only to a stray who was fighting as hard as I was just to stay alive.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, not just because I love to eat, but because I love the company and conversation, the spirited games of Pictionary, and watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and then football while eating another slice of pie. Up until my family and I became estranged, I looked forward to spending it with them every year.

I was 17 and still in high school when I left my childhood home in the suburbs of LA and ended up in Las Vegas. My folks and I strongly disagreed on the savviness of this idea. I thought I had it all figured out ― what could my parents possibly know about the facts of life? So I left and cut off all communication with them.

During the six years I lived in Vegas, I celebrated every holiday without my family, and Thanksgiving was always the hardest ― I typically spent it at a casino bar getting toasted. I’d reminisce about the way things had been ― Dad perfectly slicing the enormous turkey, Nana’s stuffing cupcakes and marshmallow yams, Mom’s green bean casserole and mashed potatoes, and all of us kids running around driving the adults nuts. I took it all for granted because it had always been there, and I missed it.

Until I became homeless, I never truly appreciated the luxury of not having to worry about where my next meal was coming from, let alone my next feast. I didn’t understand the incredible stress and anxiety caused by food insecurity, which an estimated 42 million Americans suffer from, with many households reporting they feel particularly insecure during the holidays.

My first five years in Vegas I was actually quite successful. I was an in-demand showgirl and model, with the highlight of my entertainment career being a stint as Cleopatra at Caesars Palace. But 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. I didn’t know how hard it would be to start over on my own with little money, no support, and a paralyzing case of what I didn’t recognize at the time as post-traumatic stress disorder from being physically and mentally abused for so long.

Though I had made many friends during my time working on the strip, I quickly learned that when things got tough, most people disappeared and the people I thought were friends were really just acquaintances who didn’t really care about me. That only left my family ― but after so many years of not speaking, I didn’t think I could contact them. Still, part of me longed for them and always had during my time in Vegas.

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There were many times I literally went to a pay phone and called my parents but hung up after listening to them say, “Hello?” a few times (or “Yell-ow!” in dad’s case). I just didn’t know what to say. Later, they told me they knew it was me because of the 702 area code, but didn’t know how to find me. I simply wasn’t ready to face them ― to admit how far I’d fallen.

“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.”

My sixth and final year in Las Vegas was the absolute bottom of the well. When the holidays rolled around again, I’d been living in my car on and off for several months (sometimes I’d been able to scrape together enough money from donations to rent a cheap motel room for a few days). At first I planned to “celebrate” by doing what I’d always done in Vegas on Thanksgiving: sitting at the bar drinking 7 and 7s. But bartenders wouldn’t let “stray” folks sit and take up a seat without ordering something, and I had no cash. It was unusually cold that night — I can still remember how cold it was in my car ― and I wasn’t sure what to do.

“Why didn’t you just go to a shelter?” people often ask me. What many folks who have never experienced housing or food insecurity don’t realize is that shelters and even food banks can be dangerous places for women. They are often robbed, abused and even raped in shelters, and several unhoused women I knew warned me about their own terrifying experiences in the system. So, during my time without housing, I avoided those places. But that Thanksgiving night I was feeling more desolate and desperate than I had ever felt before.

I spotted a local food kitchen and walked in not knowing what to expect. It was in a church, which felt safe and comforting, and it was well organized, well lit, and calm. A sign noted that there were separate rooms in the back for women and families if we didn’t feel comfortable sitting in the common area. I remember being surprised by the number of children I saw in line. Homelessness affects all kinds of people, and I had seen families on the streets before, but seeing kids always hit differently.

There were many volunteers, maybe upwards of 30 or 40, and after scanning the crowd, my eyes fixed on one woman in particular who smiled and greeted every single person who passed through. The vibrant red sweater she wore matched her warm and cheerful disposition. She mingled with the people sitting down to eat and asked how their meal was, what their names were, where they were from, and if they’d like another cookie (of course the answer was always yes). She treated everyone like real human beings, something the unhoused ― who are typically seen as a statistic, a nuisance, or a tragedy ― don’t experience very often. “Ship them all out to the desert and see what happens,” a local LA radio host likes to say. Alternately, a lot of people choose to ignore this segment of the population, like they don’t even exist.

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I took my turn in line and was given soup, a turkey sandwich, peas and carrots, and a cookie. I remember it well because it was the only proper meal I’d had in almost a year. I’d always loathed the pea-and-carrot combo, but that night it was like the best thing I’d ever tasted — everything on the tray was. My eyes stung with thankfulness to be in a warm, safe place with hot, fresh food I hadn’t had to scavenge.

“I’m Rhonda — what’s your name?” I heard as I was eating. I looked up and saw it was the Nice Red Sweater Lady. She slid into the chair across from me and flashed a big smile. Something about her demeanor reminded me of one of my favorite middle school teachers, Mrs. Olson.

“Kristen,” I said quietly. For a person who had once been a performer and the center of attention all the time — some might even say larger than life at times, much like Las Vegas itself — my own meekness surprised me.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

Rhonda asked me more questions about myself. I kept expecting her to ask how I’d ended up in this position, which experience told me is what most people would’ve done, but she never did ― she didn’t seem to care about that. She was a close and caring and interested listener. It felt good to feel important again ― like I mattered ― even if for just a minute.

“Do you have family here in town?” she asked.

“No… they’re still in California.”

“Do you talk to them?”

I shook my head. Does calling and hanging up count?

“Would you want to talk to them?”

I shrugged. I do and I don’t.

“I’m sure they’d love to hear from you during the holidays,” she offered.

I thought about all the unsheltered people I knew who didn’t have any family, or who didn’t know how to contact them, or who’d been disowned by them, or whose mental illness kept them from even knowing if they had family or not. In some ways I felt like I owed it to these people to at least try to reunite with my family. I was lucky and even privileged to have them and ― my embarrassment and pride and stubbornness notwithstanding ― I knew that if I contacted them, they would take the call. I’m 23 years old ― do I really want my life to turn out like this? I wondered.

Rhonda could see my wheels spinning. “We have a phone in the office you could use,” she said. My anxiety immediately kicked in. She touched my hand. “It doesn’t have to be tonight — you can come back whenever you’re ready.”

I wasn’t ready that night. But I never forgot Rhonda and her kindness and encouragement, and a few months later, I went back to use that phone.

“‘We have a phone in the office you could use,’ she said. My anxiety immediately kicked in. She touched my hand. ‘It doesn’t have to be tonight — you can come back whenever you’re ready.’ I wasn’t ready that night. But I never forgot Rhonda and her kindness and encouragement, and a few months later, I went back to use that phone.”

On April 1, 2005, my mom picked me up in a Jack-In-The-Box parking lot (I remember her being horrified by how thin I was and immediately taking me 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 neighborhood in California, a place I’d been so eager to leave. I can’t say I was necessarily excited to go back, but I was beyond grateful to have a roof over my head again.

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Still, getting back on my feet wasn’t as simple as having a permanent place to live. In fact, it was extremely challenging. After a year of working odd dead-end jobs, I enrolled in a local community college despite my family’s skepticism that I could make it through four years of university. And I don’t blame them for thinking that — I’d been adrift for so long, even I was uncertain if I could see this through. And though I was only 24 at the time, I felt like I was about 60 compared to my peers. I had a hard time fitting in at first. And I didn’t ever want anyone to know I’d once been homeless.

There were many times I thought about going back to Vegas, if you can believe it, even after I’d been in college for a couple years. I would drive there in the middle of the night every now and again just to see it ― as if I were testing myself. My family sensed this too, I think, because for quite a while they kept me at a distance, afraid of feeling hurt and betrayed again if I went back to my old life. I was incredibly fortunate in that they supported me in many ways, but it took a very long time to earn back their trust and respect, and rightfully so.

When I graduated with honors from the University of California, Irvine, in 2010 and then went on to earn a Master’s degree in 2013, the look on my parents’ faces told me how proud they were. When I applied and was accepted into a Ph.D. program, it wasn’t because I was still trying to prove something to my family — it’s because I’m still trying to prove something to myself. Maybe I’ll always feel that way.

I often think about Rhonda and her kindness, and how I wish I could express my gratitude and tell her how different my life is today. Maybe there’s even a chance she’s reading this and we can have an “Unsolved Mysteries”-style reunion.

Now, 18 years later, when I serve the people at my local food bank during the holiday season, I want to do whatever I can to let them know they’re cared about, and that they matter — that they’re not simply a statistic or a nuisance or a tragedy. I want them to know they are deserving of love, and ideally, a solution. And even if I can’t change their lives, and I most likely can’t ― homelessness is a systemic issue, and we need leaders who are willing to work hard and compassionately to find ways forward ― I can offer them kindness the way Rhonda did when I needed it most.

This year when I’m fortunate enough to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with my family, I’ll think back on how what should have been the worst Thanksgiving of my life back in 2004 ended up being the one I’m most thankful for.

Kristen Brownell is a writer and professor living in Los Angeles with her beloved tabby Archie. She’s currently working on a memoir, “Lost Vegas,” about her journey from dropping out of high school and moving to Las Vegas on a whim to working as a casino dishwasher to becoming an acclaimed showgirl to finding herself homeless to eventually turning things around and going on to earn a Ph.D. “Lost Vegas” will be released in early 2023. To learn more about Kristen’s life and writing, visit www.kristenbrownell.com.

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