Where Will I Sleep?

Will I have a roof over my head?

Anyone forced into homelessness has asked themselves those questions, and anyone who has asked themselves those questions has never forgotten how it made them feel.

My name is Kim Valentine.  At the age of 14, I was asking myself those questions. That is why I founded Operation Helping Hands, a non-profit organization that provides essential hygiene and necessity items to homeless individuals throughout Southern California with the participation of local youth.

Homelessness comes in all forms. Sometimes yes, it is the result of poor life choices. Yet often times, individuals are forced into homelessness due to circumstances beyond their control. Some like myself chose the unstable life of homelessness over a predictably dangerous and abusive situation. Thus, one day I was the 9th grade student body president and straight-A student, and the next, I was living on the street.

Kim Valentine
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At first, I thought I could manage homelessness indefinitely. I hid some clothes under a friend’s bed and would shower at her house after her parents left for work. After class I wandered the streets looking for shelter for the night. Sometimes I would sleep in unlocked apartment laundry rooms. When I couldn’t find a place with a roof, I would sleep on the lawn of a friend’s apartment complex so I wouldn’t feel so alone. When all else failed, I would sleep at the beach.

As time passed, school became too much of a burden, as it was increasingly difficult to hide my situation. Finding food and shelter was my main priority, and so I quit school. Besides, I felt so unimaginably embarrassed.

As a homeless person it is nearly impossible to maintain basic standards of hygiene. Friends will help you for a while, but they move on with their lives. There is no place to store your necessities. Showers are limited to the cold-water spigots at the beach. Dirt and grime are rooted so deeply into your skin, that a simple cold shower without soap cannot scrub it clean. Washing your hair without shampoo just leaves a ratted, smelly mess.

Eventually, police picked me up, and I moved to multiple foster and group homes until I was emancipated at 16 years old. I was on my own again, but old enough to work. My waitressing income paid for dive motel rooms. I eventually joined the U.S Marines, which turned my life around. I returned to school and received my law degree from Western State University. I went on to become an attorney representing vulnerable individuals, advocating on their behalf. It is funny how life comes full circle.

Despite my own circumstances improving, I always remained keenly aware of the local homeless. While my main mission at Operation Helping Hands is to help the homeless as someone who understands their needs and struggles, I began this project in 2011 with another objective in mind as well. My motivation also stemmed from my hope to educate and empower my own three children. As my children grew older I recognized that they believed everyone led the same, comfortable lives that they did. I wanted them to appreciate the privileges and opportunities granted to them, and to instill within them a sense of social responsibility and understanding for those less fortunate.

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Operation Helping Hands began as a small effort in my garage. One day, my children, some of their friends, and I filled up 50 brown bags of hygiene products and blankets. We then went to a heavily populated homeless area to personally deliver the bags. My youngest son passed out the first bag to a woman who thanked him profusely, exclaiming that it was her only Christmas gift. My son, clearly touched and astounded by this proclamation, looked up at me and asked, “So we are going to go find more people right?” I knew this was the beginning of something truly special.

However, it was clear that our 50 brown bags were grossly inadequate. I knew from personal experience that these items would be quickly lost or discarded if the homeless did not have a way to transport them. I decided to purchase backpacks to fill up instead. I added t-shirts, sweatshirts, socks, flip flops, beanies, ponchos, and gloves, depending on the season.

The positive impact of this project on my own children and their friends motivated me to reach out to local high schools to involve other teenagers as well. Now, approximately 200 teenagers volunteer to assemble the packs for each event, or individually hand them out on delivery day. We currently package and deliver about 2,500 backpacks a year. Somehow, it never feels like enough.

I no longer ask myself where I will sleep at night. But I know that so many people still do. So I continually ask myself a new question; one that I feel truly blessed to ask. How can I lend a helping hand today?