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The Unhoused Women of Skid Row

The Unhoused Women of Skid Row

The fight for survival, stories of assault, and the non-profit organizations trying to aid them in light of homelessness, the City of Los Angeles’ biggest crisis at hand.

Every Saturday, 32-year-old Cherish Benham makes her way through the streets of Skid Row to help volunteer at the corner of 700 E 5th St. and Towne Avenue in Los Angeles. Cautiously, she takes note of her surroundings and proceeds to make her way through a place she once called home until just a few years ago.

Benham, alongside her husband, first arrived on Skid Row in 2015, a place dubbed “the homeless capital of America.”

“I just couldn’t afford the rent,” said Benham. 

Benham, her husband, and two children stayed in the shelters on Skid Row for about two months until she found a stable place of her own. But in 2017, Benham became chronically homeless after losing custody of her two children to the Department of Children and Family Services of Los Angeles. 

She began sleeping in her car, then in a tent with her husband on Skid Row, an experience Benham described as “traumatic.”

“It was hard, just being a woman out here, even though I was with my husband in a tent,” said Benham. “Everyday trying to keep up with your hygiene, kind of trying to keep up with your appearance, and I was trying to find work at the time.”

According to the 2022 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count women accounted for about 33% of Skid Row’s population, with 1,435 sheltered and unsheltered women living on Skid Row. 

Life is difficult for everyone here amid drug usage, violence, mental illness, sexual assault, and the daily struggle for survival.  Women are particularly vulnerable to predators and abuse because often, they’re alone and viewed as easy targets. 

The Downtown Women’s Center 2019 assessment found that 53.2% of unhoused women have experienced domestic or interpersonal violence in their lifetime, and 27% of women had been victims of sexual assault in the last year. 

With a lack of shelter space and unmet needs, the women of Skid Row have come together to form networks to support one another to survive. 

The heart of Skid Row is about 0.4 square miles of the greater downtown area, generally east of the Downtown Historic Core and the high-rise district of Bunker Hill. It is defined as being contained by 3rd Street on the north, 7th street on the south, Main Street on the west, and Alameda Street on the east.

On any given day, the streets are lined with tents, sleeping bags, cardboard boxes, shopping carts, and suitcases filled to the brim with possessions of the unhoused. The sidewalks have disappeared, buried under loose clothing items, garbage, used hypodermic needles, and the unhoused residents. Clusters of makeshift shelters act like a row of houses similar to what you would find in your typical neighborhood. 

In 2018, amid the rising numbers of the unhoused on Skid Row, Mayor Eric Garcetti created the Mayor’s Office of City Homelessness Initiatives (MOCHI) as part of a “comprehensive” strategy to end homelessness in Los Angeles. Part of the strategy included the creation of the Skid Row Strategies Team. According to Garcetti’s website, the Skid Row Strategies Team is “fully dedicated to developing key strategies, transformative policy, and collaborative relationships to transition the Skid Row community to a safe healthy environment.” But despite the city’s plans and strategies, no actual change seems to occur.  

Amongst the political fluff, there remains a glimpse of hope. A handful of non-profit organizations have stepped up to actively work with the Skid Row community and its residents, to mend the lives of those who have been displaced and forgotten about.

THE HISTORY OF SKID ROW

Skid Row is a man’s world.

The term “Skid Row” can be traced back to the 1850s in Seattle, where “skid roads” were used by loggers to slide their cut timber to the ports for shipment. By the 1930s, the term was used to refer to rundown areas of cities, characterized by bars, brothels, and the presence of homeless and low-income populations.

It has been that way for more than a century, dating back to the 1870s when the railroads were first built in Los Angeles. The Skid Row area became industrialized with an emphasis on agricultural jobs, attracting short-term workers, especially during the planting and harvesting season. Between 1880 and 1930, many small hotels were built to accommodate the new workers. 

As a result of the Great Depression, the downtown area saw an influx of displaced workers and farmers making their way from the Midwest and South. Classified as “hobos” and “bums,” a prevalent population of young homeless single males began to form. 

During World War II, and at the brink of the Vietnam War, Los Angeles became a stopping point for men looking for war jobs and soldiers being shipped off to the Pacific. A formulation of bars, adult bookstores, and small theaters opened in and around the Skid Row area. 

In 1931, there were roughly 26,000 unhoused people in Los Angeles, and Skid Row attracted numerous returning drug-and-alcohol-addicted veterans. In response, the city established the Municipal Service Bureau for Homeless Men in Skid Row in 1928 and then for women in 1933. The bureau would refer people to other organizations, such as the Midnight Mission founded in 1914 in Skid Row, due to an absence of public shelters. 

Only after the Vietnam era up until the 1980s did the demographics of Skid Row shift from predominantly elderly alcohol-dependent white men to young, nonwhite men. 

In 2022, of the 4,402 unhoused people experiencing homelessness on Skid Row, 56% identified as Black and 24% as Latino, according to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). Out of the 4,402 unhoused people on Skid Row, 66% of that population is made up of men. 

WOMEN AND SERVICES ON SKID ROW

Benham said Skid Row is especially dangerous for women. She recalled having seen some women get beaten and witnessed a woman get stabbed, and once witnessed a man get shot and die right before her. 

“As a woman, I still don’t walk around when I’m by myself, and if I do I have protection on me,” said Benham. “Mace, or something, just to protect me.”

After witnessing and experiencing a multitude of traumatic events, Benham explains that she was fortunate to not experience any abuse. However, she’s still dealing “with all the stuff that happened.” 

One of the resources she credits for helping her is the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), an organization founded in 1978 in Skid Row that focuses exclusively on “serving and empowering women experiencing homelessness and formerly homeless women,” according to the DWC’s website. 

Heidy Guerrero, a communication and development coordinator at DWC, explained the resources and opportunities offered. The organization offers basic needs such as meals, hygiene stations, and mental health services. Their most notable resource is permanent supportive housing. Offering 119 units across two residences, making the organization one of the largest housing providers for women in the country.  The Downtown Women’s Center also has a community-based housing program that welcomes women who have children, and a rapid rehousing program that finds immediate housing for women fleeing domestic violence. 

Benham took part in MADE by DWC, an on-site job opportunity for women that launched in 2011. The program consists of three businesses: Home & Gift Collection, Resale Boutique, and Cafe & Gift Boutique. All three allow women to gain skills in production, inventory, and retail.

“I was able to actually pull myself up with help,” said Benham. “There are resources down here for women if they really want them.” 

Today, Benham volunteers every Tuesday and Saturday on Skid Row with Beauty 2 The Streetz, a non-profit organization founded by Shirley Raines.

Founded in 2015, Beauty 2 The Streetz has become a staple for the Skid Row community. Raines provides hot meals, drinks, hygiene kits, beauty products, and hair and makeup services to thousands of people. Raines is a 54-year-old California native known for her motherly demeanor, colorful buzzed haircut, and bright cut-crease eyeshadow. In a 2022 op-ed posted to the Los Angeles Times, she wrote that her reasoning for providing homeless individuals with beauty services is that human touch can be “emotional CPR.” 

“A turning point in my own understanding of the needs of the unhoused came when I saw the complete emotional transformation people had when I did their makeup and washed their hair with my makeshift sidewalk salon setup,” writes Raines. “Beauty routines serve as self-care, and the physical touch my team and I provide homeless individuals offers a loving and sincere moment of human connection this stigmatized community is often without.”

Shirley Raines, founder of Beauty 2 The Streetz, a Los Angeles-based non-profit serving the Skid Row community.

With accumulating 3.9 million followers on Tik Tok, Raines’ followers are responsible for funding the work and services she provides every Saturday, which has now grown into a full-scale operation. 

Each Saturday, Raines and her team of volunteers set up and transform the corner of 5th St. and Towne Avenue into a one-stop shop that meets the basic needs of around 400 to 600 unhoused people of Skid Row. 

Raines’ volunteer team includes about 25 people. Each volunteer is assigned a station for the Saturday service, either organizing the hygiene kits and supplies, scooping ice cream, or braiding and cutting hair.

One of Raines’ volunteers, CeCe, braiding hair on the corner of 5th St. and Towne Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles.

Alongside Raines is a crew of Harley riders from Fighters for the World M.C., who serve as Raines’ security. They help contain the growing line of people and dismantle possible issues that may arise. The Fighter’s motto is, “We fight for those who can’t,” and can be identified by their black leather vests with orange trimming. Each of which is decorated with earned patches of their nicknames like “Professor,” “Mr. Clean,” “Lock,” and “Vegas.”

HomieMade Catering, a group composed of Chef Joaquin Castillo, his girlfriend, Lexi Ramirez, David Mondragon, Leonard Lasky, and Jeff Torres provides nutritious meals for the Skid Row community. The catering team arrives at Skid Row around 4 a.m. each Saturday to prepare the food. When crowds show up at 9 a.m., they’re ready to hand out food that is hot and fresh. 

The meals provided are made possible through donations and cost about eight dollars a plate to feed around 500 people, totaling $4,000 every Saturday. Raines explained in an Instagram video that Saturday’s food costs about $16,000 a month, with a yearly cost of $192,000. 

Saturday morning on Skid Row you can find tables of much-needed items set up, grills cooking for the hungry, music playing, and volunteers and the unhoused laughing, dancing, and caring for one another. Ms. Shirley seems to restore humanity and dignity to every resident of Skid Row that’s lucky enough to cross her path. 

Not far from Beauty 2 The Streetz is the oldest continuously operating human service organization in the Los Angeles region, the Midnight Mission. 

It resides at the corner of San Pedro and East 6th Street and is a non-profit organization with numerous homeless programs, including an overnight emergency shelter with 90 beds that serves single women on Skid Row. 

Founded in 1914, they have been “offering a path to self-sufficiency to men, women, and children experiencing homelessness,” according to the Midnight Mission’s website.

Before 2018 the Midnight Mission only served homeless men. They have since started serving women seeking overnight housing. 

Due to limited space, women seeking shelter are assessed by case managers. They decide if they qualify for priority shelter, how long they can stay, and what other resources they might be eligible for. 

The founding of the Midnight Mission occurred at the time Skid Row formed and has experienced all of its changes throughout the decade. The non-profit has full confidence in its services and impact because it understands the situation so well. 

Andrew Linares, a volunteer manager for the Midnight Mission, is living proof of the Mission’s success and the embodiment of a “full-circle” story.

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“When I came to the Midnight Mission, I didn’t expect to have the life I have today,” said Linares. “Where I’m able to buy my own car, have a relationship with my mother and my family, and build a foundation with friends and loved ones.”

Before starting his work at the Mission in 2018, Linares was living on the streets of Skid Row by himself, battling a drug and alcohol addiction. “I needed to use drugs to forget about my current situation,” said Linares. 

In 2015, Linares entered the 12-step program offered by the Midnight Mission and completed it in 2017.  

“It’s just mind-blowing to me, that I get to see now a whole completely different person,” said Linares. “But I get to see the same person that I was behind these doors over here, when someone comes in, and to watch them grow, and become a whole completely different person by the time they get out of here.”

The 12-step program, or the “Healthy Living Program,” is a one-year-long program formed in 1974. The program consists of working one-on-one with an advocate to assess the individual’s needs, in which they learn how to obtain sobriety one day at a time. 

The 12-step program is one of many services offered by the Mission, along with one-on one-advocacy, job placement, work therapy, education assessment and, most importantly, being held accountable for one’s recovery. 

Linares explains that job placement and work therapy offers an unhoused individual the skills to create a resume, dress for a job interview, and manage money.

“So when they leave here, they don’t have anything to worry about. They can have a fresh start right, a clean slate,” said Linares. “You’re leaving here, squared away, ready to go.”

Additionally, the Midnight Mission offers basic emergency services, such as three meals per day, 24/7 public restrooms and showers, mail services, hygiene items, clothing, and a safe place to sleep for those who aren’t ready to enter the program full-time. 

At around 7 p.m. every night, the front gates of the Mission are opened to the community. 

“People can come and put their stuff down and relax for one night,” said Linares. “It’s not necessarily coming into a program, because there may be some people out there who aren’t ready just yet to come into organizations like ours, but we can at least open our front gate and allow them to sleep somewhere safe, where there’s going to be 24-hour security for them.”

The Midnight Mission is also responsible for the Home Light Family Living Program, located in the South Bay, the southwestern region of Los Angeles. Another year-long program caters to single parents running away from domestic violence. 

The Downtown Women’s Center 2019 assessment found that 36% of women experienced domestic violence in the last 12 months. In LAHSA’s 2022 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, around 38% including both unhoused men and women of Skid Row, have experienced domestic violence or interpersonal violence. 

The location of the Home Light Family Living Program is undisclosed to the public to ensure the safety of its participants. Linares shared that the program offers daycare supervision, tutoring courses for children and parents, and offers therapy specifically designed to reunite families. 

A common stigma of the unhoused residents of Skid Row, or overall, is that there’s one problem causing them to remain homeless:drugs, alcohol, or laziness. 

According to LAHSA’s 2022 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, around 1,375 of the unhoused men and women who live on Skid Row have a substance use disorder. 

“There’s no one problem that creates homelessness,” said Linares. “A lot of people don’t end up on the streets because of drugs and alcohol. Eventually, as you spend more time on the streets, you need something to be able to relieve yourself from the day-to-day problems, the frustration, and the danger that you go through.”

When asked about the common misconceptions or opinions people might have regarding Skid Row, Linares explained that if you look closely, you will see a community. 

“It may look like a zombie film right, where there’s people walking around not really present, or you may feel like your life is in danger,” said Linares. “But if you look between all the bad things, you’ll see a community that is out to look for one another.”

Small random acts of kindness that make for a welcoming community, not just on Skid Row but beyond, explained Linares. 

“If we focus on just one person, and we put our time and compassion into that one person and help them get better, eventually that person is going to start doing a ripple effect,” said Linares. “I’m an example of that. It’s that ripple effect that can go across the pond and help everyone.”

THE  UNKNOWN FUTURE OF SKID ROW

The women of Skid Row fight daily battles to survive and cope with the harsh realities the streets unwillingly offer them. It’s apparent that despite the number of adequate social services and non-profit organizations, the neighborhood of Skid Row’s population seems to outweigh the available resources. 

With no authoritative direction and a lack of governmental assistance, non-profit organizations, along with the men and women of Skid Row, have taken it upon themselves to aid the chronic battle of homelessness in the City of Los Angeles. The future of those living on the streets of Skid Row is hopeful, and the morale is positive. Until a drastic change is made, the women of Skid Row will continue to band together in the hopes of survival.  

“It’s not just the help down here,” concluded Benham. “If we had help, external help, a lot more resources, there wouldn’t be a need for Skid Row.”

Photos: Erika Zaro

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