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. It’s a place she called home until just a few years ago after arriving with her husband in 2015.
“I just couldn’t afford rent,” Benham says.
She began sleeping in her car, then moved with her husband to a tent pitched amid many others, an experience Benham describes now as “traumatic.”
Benham, her husband, and two children stayed in shelters near Skid Row for about two months until she found a stable place of her own. In 2017, however, Benham and her husband became chronically homeless.
“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 percent of Skid Row’s population, meaning there are about 1,435 sheltered and unsheltered women living on Skid Row. Life is difficult for everyone amid the area’s drug usage, violence, mental illness, and sexual assault, but women are particularly vulnerable to predators and abuse.
A 2019 assessment by the Downtown Women’s Center found that more than half of unhoused women have experienced domestic or interpersonal violence in their lifetime, while more than one-quarter of them had been victims of sexual assault in the last year.
Skid Row comprises about half a square mile of downtown LA, generally east of the Downtown Historic Core and the high-rise district of Bunker Hill. Broadly, it’s borders are 3rd Street to the north, 7th street to the south, Main Street to the west, and Alameda Street to the east.
On any given day, the streets are lined with tents, sleeping bags, cardboard boxes, shopping carts, and suitcases all filled with possessions of the unhoused. Many stretches of sidewalk have all but disappeared, buried under makeshift shelters, garbage, and possessions.
In 2018, then–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.
Still, a handful of non-profit organizations have stepped up to actively work with the Skid Row community and its residents, and women living on Skid Row have formed networks to support one another in their struggles to survive and, one day, thrive.
THE HISTORY OF SKID ROW
Skid Row is a man’s world.
The term “Skid Row” can be traced back to 1850s 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 during the planting and harvesting season. Between 1880 and 1930, many small hotels were built to accommodate the migrants.
Thanks to the shock 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 semi-permanent 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 jobs and soldiers being shipped off to the battlefield. At the same time, bars, adult bookstores, and small theaters opened in and around Skid Row.
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; five years later, a similar women’s organization was founded. The bureau would refer people to other organizations, such as the Midnight Mission founded in 1914, due to an absence of public shelters.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the demographics of Skid Row shifted from predominantly elderly alcohol-dependent white men to young, nonwhite men.
In 2022, of the 4,402 people experiencing homelessness on Skid Row, 56 percent identified as Black and 24 percent identified as Latino, according to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).
WOMEN AND SERVICES ON SKID ROW
Benham said Skid Row is especially dangerous for women. She recalled seeing women get beaten and one woman get stabbed. She says she once witnessed a man get shot and die right in front of her.
“As a woman, I still don’t walk around when I’m by myself, and if I do I have protection on me,” Benham says. “Mace or something, just to protect me.”
Benham says 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 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 provides meals, hygiene stations, and mental health services, though their most notable resource is permanent supportive housing: 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 encompasses 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,” says 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 is today a beloved fixture in the area. Raines provides hot meals, drinks, hygiene kits, beauty products, and hair and makeup services to thousands of people. The 54-year-old California native is known for her motherly demeanor, dyed and buzzed hair, and bright cut-crease eyeshadow. In a 2022 op-ed in 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,” Raines wrote. “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. (Photo by Erika Zaro)
Raines’s supporters — she has 3.9 million followers on TikTok alone — are responsible for funding the work and services she provides every Saturday, which has steadily grown into a complex operation. Each Saturday, Raines and her team of about 25 volunteers set up and transform the corner of 5th St. and Towne Avenue into a one-stop shop that meets the basic needs of about 500 unhoused people.
Each volunteer is assigned a station for the Saturday service — organizing hygiene kits and supplies, scooping ice cream, or braiding and cutting hair.
A volunteer braids hair on the corner of 5th St. and Towne Avenue. (Photo by Erika Zaro)
Alongside Raines are several members of Fighters for the World M.C., a group of Harley-Davidson riders who serve as Raines’s security. They help organize the growing line of people and deal with any issues that arise. The group’s motto is, “We fight for those who can’t,” which is emblazoned on their black leather vests with orange trim. Each vest is decorated with earned patches and nicknames like “Professor,” “Mr. Clean,” “Lock,” and “Vegas.”
HomieMade Catering, a group composed of Chef Joaquin Castillo; his girlfriend, Lexi Ramirezl David Mondragon; Leonard Lasky; and Jeff Torres provides nutritious meals for the Skid Row community. The catering team arrives at 4 a.m. each Saturday to prepare the food. Hungry crowds show up at 9 a.m.
The meals provided are made possible through donations and cost about $8 a plate; every Saturday about 500 people are fed. Raines explained in an Instagram video that the yearly total adds up to $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. Over and over again, Raines, or Ms. Shirley as she’s called by most, restores humanity and dignity to those she helps.
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 — before 2018, the mission served only men.
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.
Andrew Linares, a volunteer manager for the Midnight Mission, is proof of the mission’s benefit.
“When I came to the Midnight Mission, I didn’t expect to have the life I have today,” Linares says. “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 work at the Mission in 2018, Linares was living on Skid Row by himself, battling a drug and alcohol addiction. “I needed to use drugs to forget about my situation,” he says.
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,” he says. “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 Healthy Living Program is a one-year-long program created in 1974. It 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, and education assessment. 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,” he says. “You’re leaving here, squared away, ready to go.”
Additionally, the Midnight Mission offers basic emergency services, 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,” Linares says. “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. That year-long program caters to single parents fleeing domestic violence.
The location of the Home Light Family Living Program is undisclosed to the public to ensure the safety of its participants. Linares said that the program offers daycare supervision, tutoring courses for children and parents, and therapy specifically designed to reunite families.
“[Skid Row] may look like a zombie film, where there’s people walking around not really present, or you may feel like your life is in danger,” Linares says. “But if you look between all the bad things, you’ll see a community that is out to look for one another.”