Jane the Virgin star Justin Baldoni uses #weloveskidrow, a hashtag which almost seems like an oxymoron. LA's Skid Row is not only forgotten about, but known as a scary place exiled from society, as Baldoni says its residents are often thought of as "animals" and "trash." But at a time when the country feels irreparably divided, lost, and scared, the love bursting from Saturday's Carnival of Love on Skid Row seems like it could move mountains. For the third year in a row, the actor uses his Wayfarer Foundation to treat residents of Skid Row with the human decency they deserve.
Over 1,700 volunteers come together to give thousands of homeless Americans food, showers, haircuts, psychiatric help, fun, and above all, a time to feel human and that they belong. I catch Baldoni along with Jane co-stars Gina Rodriguez and Azie Tesfai at the carnival, who are as emotional about what they are witnessing as I am.
As Baldoni explains, the event brings all people together, without divides. "People that might hate each other on Facebook are serving right now. You could have a Trump supporter and a Hillary supporter washing feet," he says. This sentiment is true. I don't see celebrities, volunteers, or homeless that day — I just see people.
Tesfai, who's been working around-the-clock, explains that is exactly what motivates her to make this happen on barely any sleep. "We’re all equal. This is such a perfect, visual representation of that," she says. "In the kids playing area, you don’t know which are homeless and which aren’t because they’re all together. There’s something so moving and beautiful about that."
Rodriguez says seeing "people’s capacity to love and to give unconditionally" is something that will stay with her far beyond the carnival. It's true. I see groups of people hugging, dancing, offering one another food, and I can't tell who is who. "I’ve never seen so much random hugging before in my life," says Tesfai. That's the point. "We’re the fruits of one tree, the leaves of one branch. We’re all one," Baldoni adds.
Baldoni sheds light on the wide misconception many have about the homeless. "Those who have hit society’s rock bottom... They’re not homeless, they're human beings [who] experience homelessness temporarily," the actor says. "A friend of mine said, ‘I’m homeless, I’m not hopeless.’" As Baldoni points out, when they ask for help, even some spare change on the street, they're often ignored. "What people don’t realize is that you don’t have to solve somebody’s problem. All you have to do is help them be seen," he says.
Taking everything in, Rodriguez points out that it takes guts from the homeless residents to even seek help. "I’m super proud of all those that are in need that have been unafraid to ask for help or ask for a helping hand. I know that takes a lot of courage," she says. "If we could all just make one step towards loving another, without [expecting] anything in return, I think we can have a more peaceful world."
And as Baldoni explains, the carnival can be as therapeutic to volunteers as it is to the residents. "The only reason they’re here is to show that they love... Healing isn’t only for people experiencing homelessness," he says. Tesfai gets emotional telling me the story of a little boy who denied the chance of getting two toys, saying, "I’ve never had two of anything before... I don’t need it, some other kid can have it. I have my one now." She also recounts watching a homeless man hug her friend, pulling away sobbing. "He said that in five years, he never had a human being touch him," she says.
To say witnessing such events makes me grateful and overwhelmed with love is an understatement. Rodriguez agrees, saying it makes her reflect on her life constantly. "Every day when I wake up and I breathe... It took me a lot to even get to the space [where] people know my name and I’m very appreciative to be there and do what I love every day," the actor says.
Although Baldoni selflessly devotes endless time and effort to the cause, he realizes things won't change overnight, and that's OK. "Right now the darkest area in the country is literally Skid Row — for four hours it’s the happiest place," he says. "Will this fix homelessness? Tomorrow, no. Will it allow thousands of people to feel they have a place in society? Give them the hope, strength, and courage to take a step in the right direction? Yes."
I realize giving a dollar, a hug, or even a smile to someone experiencing homelessness creates change. Because at the end of the day, people are one — political affiliation, age, gender, and economic status aside — and feeling that is a gift in itself.