In Los Angeles, a community project seeks to make homeless women feel like themselves again.
by Portia Ladrido
Los Angeles looks like where dreams are made of, with it being the home of the biggest names in the entertainment industry. Even reality T.V. shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians have presented the city as a place of extravagance, a place where palm trees line the streets whilst topdown cars drive past them.
But while T.V. shows do try to mirror reality, these representations are only a minuscule part of what Los Angeles really is. The Department of Housing and Urban Development shows that there are 55,188 homeless people in Los Angeles County, making California have the highest rate of homelessness in any other state in America.
This is most apparent in an area in downtown Los Angeles called Skid Row, which is where one of the largest population of homeless people in the country live. People here sleep in tents, under trees, on cardboards, under tarps, or on newspapers turned as makeshift mats.
Shirley Raines, a Los Angeles local, has been living in the county for years when she joined an organisation that helped give food to the homeless people in Skid Row. When they were doing this initiative, the women would ask her about her hair colour and her makeup.
“It turns out, they wanted makeup and things that they haven’t had in a while,” she says. “I decided to go through my stuff at home and see what I had hanging around the house and gave it out them, and they were so grateful for it.”
Shirley saw how it made the women light up every time she brought them makeup, how the women felt like themselves again after swiping lipstick on their lips or patting pigments on their eyes. In early 2017, she then thought of asking from friends and colleagues if they had leftover makeup or makeup samples that they would want to give to the homeless women.
“I just knew what it felt like to have low self esteem. I didn’t have a great life. I knew what it was like to feel alone, unloved, and I also knew what it was like as a woman to feel inadequate.”
She would collect them then head to Skid Row, bring the women a beauty bag that they all looked forward to, and even colour their hair if wanted. She also changed her Instagram handle to Beauty2TheStreetz to all the more inform people of her project and possibly attract more makeup and hair colour donations.
When asked what the deeper rationale is behind this project, Shirley explains how she’s had a hard life herself, having been dependent on welfare benefits for a good portion of her life, she knows what a low self-esteem can do to a person’s life. Because of this, she knows how feeling beautiful on the outside can offer the possibility of transforming someone’s inner worth.
“I just knew what it felt like to have low self esteem. I didn’t have a great life. I knew what it was like to feel alone, unloved, and I also knew what it was like as a woman to feel inadequate,” she says.
Shirley shares how she grew up from verbally abusive background, where countless negative things were said to her growing up; things she believed to be true for many years. “I would look in the mirror and I never liked what I saw, but I did like being different,” she says.
But one thing she did like about herself was her being different; how she liked different hair colours, experimenting with makeup, and making bold choices at least with her looks. “Though I’ve never been homeless, I certainly know what it feels like to be a woman who doesn’t feel loved and when I see the women and the look in their eye, I’m like there’s no way I’m gonna let a woman ‘envy’ everything about me without me giving her exactly what I have.”
For over a year now, she’s formed friendships with the women, and eventually also provided portable camping shower bags for them. Shirley says that many people approach her on social media, telling her that they want to do the same in their communities, but she says it’s important to fully understand what the community wants before doing so.
She explains that if she goes to Long Beach, for instance, the women there might want a completely different set of things, so it’s crucial that if someone were to do this initiative, that they immerse themselves into the communities they want to help.
“In Skid Row, they want hair colour and makeup. They’re also concerned about their skin,” she shares. “People don’t understand it. Why is a homeless woman concerned about her skin? Because she’s still a woman! She just fell on hard times and doesn’t have a home, but she’s still concerned about getting wrinkles; she’s still concerned about what the streets are doing to her pores and her skin.”
Shirley helps all kinds of homeless women — from women with PhDs to transgender women — and whilst there hasn’t been a major difficulty she encountered recently, she previously had trouble with pimps of homeless prostitutes as they thought that she was trying to get them out of the streets or telling them to get off of prostitution.
“I was just gonna do their hair and I wasn’t trying to rescue anyone off the streets,” she shares. “That’s their own personal choice, you know. So the challenges were just dealing with some of the pimps, but they also learned to trust me and allowed me to help the girls.”
The beauty industry certainly has gotten a bad reputation for imposing unattainable standards to a lot of women across the globe, but instances like this can also be a reminder that cosmetics and makeup can also be tool for empowerment. Shirley says that a lot of women tend to forget who they were before they fell on the streets, and that the women often don’t like talking about their hardships, their lives, and why they don’t have a place to live in.
“But just like when you go to a beauty salon, something about sitting in a chair lets you open up,” she says, sharing how when she does their hair or makeup, the women then would talk about their children, their tribulations, their dreams.
In the future, Shirley hopes that she gets to travel from state to state and help more women in the streets.
“It’s always my goal that they look in the mirror and they can’t believe it’s them and I want them to have that feeling of ‘Oh my god, I look like this. I’m too good to be on the streets’,” she says.
“I want them to have that feeling of knowing that they deserve a better life than what they have.”
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.