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The fight against homelessness appears to be a bit of a cause célèbre among Hollywood players this summer, what with reports that Kanye West is prototyping Star Wars-inspired housing for the unhoused and news that Jaden Smith has launched a vegan food truck giving out free meals around Los Angeles.
One star who’s been long involved with helping out people experiencing homelessness is Jane the Virgin’s Justin Baldoni, who plays hotel owner Rafael Solano on the CW series (which is set to conclude its fifth and final season July 31). Five years ago, the actor and director started the Skid Row Carnival of Love, an all-day affair that helps nearly 5,000 homeless people every January in downtown L.A.
The event pairs volunteers one-on-one with homeless men and women, most of whom live on or near Skid Row, to walk through and experience the Carnival together for the day. And yes, there are carnival games, a kid area with a bouncy house and a creative area with painting and craft activities. But there are also stations to get donated clothing, toiletries, books, sleeping bags and toys; a dog grooming spot; and a spa area offering foot washing, massages, mani/pedis, showers and haircuts.
“Paul Mitchell comes out with 50 to 60 people — there’s a line around the block for haircuts all day,” says Baldoni. Representatives from nonprofit organizations are on site as well, helping connect people to services and potential housing. Doctors and nurses are there too, offering blood pressure tests, HIV testing and first aid. Plus workers from the DMV are there helping people get identification cards. “That’s one of the critical steps for getting off the street — getting an ID card,” says the actor, whose feature directorial debut, Five Feet Apart, was released earlier this year.
“And then there’s this amazing meal. We make food for 6,000 people. All my friends from various film catering services come together and we have a big bbq. At the end of the day, it culminates in a dance party with some of L.A.’s best DJs,” says Baldoni, chairman and founder of the Wayfarer Foundation, which puts on the carnival.
Beyond all of the material help that’s provided, according to Baldoni, the carnival serves as a way to create “a day of human connection. It’s this unbelievable day. You see people genuinely connecting with each other.” As the number of people experiencing homelessness mounts in L.A. — an estimated 59,000 people in Los Angeles County are without housing, an increase of 12 percent in one year — one of the pieces of the puzzle that can help is more compassion. “I don’t see the problem of homelessness being looked at from a human perspective, from a love perspective,” he says.
The actor tells The Hollywood Reporter he’s now in the process of expanding the Skid Row Carnival of Love beyond its current one day a year. In 2020, Baldoni plans to bring it to additional cities around the country — “We want to give people the tools to bring this to their own communities,” he says — and also put on smaller events around L.A. He says he’s been motivated to grow the concept because hundreds more volunteers express interest each year in helping out at the carnival than can be accommodated, and individuals even travel from out of state to lend a hand.
Baldoni is also starting a pilot program called the Wayfarer 1:1 Program that will link up people experiencing homelessness and volunteers throughout the course of a year. “We’re launching it with 100 volunteers who will be paired up with 100 people experiencing homelessness or extreme poverty around Los Angeles. Those two people are paired up for a minimum of one year of friendship. We give every volunteer a $500 Visa card that can only be spent on the friendship, whether it’s a movie or a dinner or diapers for a mother or even a security deposit on an apartment. And we’re setting up a system so that the foundation can connect them to all the resources that one could need,” he says.
Baldoni cites the story of a woman the foundation has connected with who works at Starbucks while living in a homeless shelter. “She just can’t save enough to get that deposit to move out of the shelter,” says the actor, who was inspired to create the program because “we’ve had a lot of individuals share their stories of how they have unofficially adopted families and really walked with families throughout the course of the year and provided emotional and financial support.”
Baldoni started his outreach work informally when he was still a struggling actor — and didn’t like celebrating his birthday. “It always felt weird just knowing so many people don’t have families and don’t get celebrated,” he says. So, on his birthday, he and a couple friends would “write little affirmations and get clothes and sandwiches together and go downtown and connect with people experiencing homelessness. It would be something I’d look forward to every year. And each year it doubled in size. We’d have 50, 70 people going. One year I had a crazy idea, what if we threw a carnival on Skid Row?”
“We have an entire city of people sleeping on the street, one of the worst man-made disasters in our country. We have too many people who are isolated and being left behind by society,” Baldoni says. “But what’s been so amazing is finding that there are so many people in our cities who sincerely want to connect and give back.”
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