Angels of Skid Row: A Mom Turned the Tragedy of Her Son's Death Into a Lifeline for the Homeless
It's an early Saturday morning in May and a line of nearly a hundred people, many of them clenching grocery bags or shopping carts filled with their life's belongings, have gathered near a bustling intersection east of Downtown Los Angeles.
A motorcade of cars and rumbling Harley-Davidsons arrive a quarter after nine and bring with them a group of familiar faces who immediately begin setting up tables in front of the eager crowd.
The Harley riders — a crew of six from Fighters for the World M.C., wearing leather vests decorated with nicknames like "Mr. Clean," "Vegas" and "Professor" — quickly split up their duties. Some help the other 20 volunteers who are organizing the supplies and meals the group has brought with them, while the rest function as bouncers to manage the growing line of people. Those tasked with watching the line have their work cut out for them — by the time they pack up in a few hours, they will have served nearly 800 people.
Sporting her hot pink hair and rainbow eye shadow, Shirley Raines stands out as she emerges from a white SUV and pulls down her shimmering face mask to greet the crowd.
"Good morning, you guys!" the mother of six says into a megaphone. "Happy Saturday!"
Raines is no stranger to those who have come to this corner of Fifth Street and Towne Avenue. She's the founder of Beauty 2 The Streetz, a nonprofit that has been one of the primary means of support for many who live in Skid Row, an area roughly the size of 50 city blocks that has one of the largest homeless populations in the U.S.
"We've Been Living in Danger"
For three years, Raines and her team of volunteers have made weekly visits to Skid Row to distribute donated food, hygiene products and other necessities. But the group has also provided something unique — free beauty makeovers to the community's cisgender and transgender women. Many of these sessions can be seen on Instagram, where Beauty 2 The Streetz has over 136,000 followers.
At the start, Raines believed these hair and make-up transformations would change the way the public viewed homelessness. It didn't take long for her to realize she needed to work at an even deeper level.
"One of the things I wanted to do was change the face of homelessness, and I thought I was going to do that through hair and all these things," the 52-year-old, who works full-time for the nonprofit, tells PEOPLE. "But I soon understood we needed to change the narrative of what 'homeless' means. Just because they're without a home does not mean they're without love. They are homeless, but a lot of them are not jobless. A lot of them are not kidless, phoneless or familyless. There are many levels of poverty as there are many levels of wealth."
"And I know more unhappy housed people than I do homeless people," she adds. "They are very strong people."
But this strength was tested, for both residents and the nonprofit, when the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill. Raines immediately put makeovers on hold after Los Angeles authorized lockdown measures to combat the disease in mid-March. She then turned to her team in the hopes some would be comfortable returning to Skid Row. To her surprise, many were.
"We've been married to these streets," Raines says of their decision to continue. "I took a marriage vow to my community a long time ago, and I wasn't going to break them now."
Before the pandemic, Raines drove 20 miles to Downtown Los Angeles from her home in Long Beach four times a week (one day with volunteers and three days without). Now, she and the team only visit on Saturdays to protect themselves and the homeless from being exposed to COVID-19, which can cause coughing, difficulty breathing, fever and death.
On these mornings, the group meets at 8 a.m. at a nearby McDonald's, which has provided the nonprofit with hundreds of free food items to donate. The restaurant's parking lot also gives the volunteers extra room to bag the supplies, hand sanitizer and face masks that will be given to those waiting at Fifth and Towne. Team members wear face coverings and do their best to remain six feet apart during the process.
But simply providing Skid Row residents with protective equipment during the crisis hasn't been enough to convince many to take the pandemic seriously, Raines says. To the people who live here, the constant physical threats they face — like theft, rape and assault — take precedence over a virus they can't see.
"It's the last thing on their plate," Raines explains of how many in the community have viewed the disease, despite her efforts to educate them. "There are so many other predators, so many other things out there that can get them and has been getting them, so they're not worried about that one extra enemy. That's where we have a hard time. We tell them there’s danger, and they're like, 'Danger? We've been living in danger.'"
As of Tuesday morning, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health says the region — including Long Beach and Pasadena — has had more than 85,942 cases and 3,137 deaths from coronavirus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people age 65 and older, and those with pre-existing medical conditions, are at the highest risk of experiencing life-threatening symptoms from the disease. According to a recent report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, these factors make the homeless community uniquely vulnerable during the pandemic. More than 107,000 people over the age of 45 were living on the streets on a single night in 2019, and diabetes, heart disorders and immunocompromising diseases such as HIV and AIDS are prevalent in the population. Many of them can develop geriatric conditions 20 years before the general public does, a 2016 study in The Gerontologist revealed.
According to the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, Skid Row’s unsheltered homeless population hovers around 2,500 depending on the season and time of the month. Another 2,000 to 2,500 people live in shelters, mission beds or transitional housing rooms. This is all but a short drive from Staples Center, where two of the NBA's most valuable franchises play.
"They're Going to Understand"
Her smile is hidden behind a mask, but Raines' large brown eyes beam with excitement whenever she jokes with volunteers or one of the Skid Row regulars. As the line continues to move on this 70-degree morning, Raines spots 52-year-old Kristian Michelle Parif. She quickly tries to set her up with one of the younger motorcyclists who's busy passing out items.
"You like that, Michelle?" Raines playfully asks as she waves her hands in front of the blushing biker, Casey, who's volunteering as part of the motorcycle club, Chosen Few.
"He's very handsome!" replies Parif, who visits Fifth and Towne every Saturday with her pair of shaggy poodles. A smile appears across her freckled face. "Young, too!"
Parif has lived in one of the thousands of tents that line Skid Row's sidewalks since losing her job and undergoing back surgery. But she says a challenging situation has been made worse by the way other residents, city workers and police officers treat her.
"They like to pick on the weak ones," she explains. That's why at this stage of her life, Beauty 2 The Streetz has been a saving grace.
"She's the bomb," Parif describes Raines. "She's a sweetheart. She's done a lot to lift my self-esteem and give me the strength to go on."
"I love her with all my heart and soul," she says, adding that Raines' support was instrumental after the death of her infant granddaughter earlier this year. "I don't know what I would do without her."
In June, a report released by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority estimated over 41,200 people are living on the streets — or in shelters or vehicles — in the city, a 14 percent increase over 2019. The number of homeless swells to over 66,000 when measuring the entire county. Despite representing only 8 percent of the area's population, black residents make up 34 percent of the county's homeless, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Mayor Eric Garcetti called the report a "reminder that the crisis is worsening, even as we continue to house more people at an unprecedented rate," according to NPR. He also asked for "more funding and policy that makes housing a right for everyone, especially for black and brown homeless Angelenos who have been neglected for too long."
Stagnant wages, increasing rent costs and domestic and sexual abuse are among the root causes of homelessness in the city, as listed by the mayor's office. Cuts to mental health care, conflicts over criminal justice reform and limited resources for veterans are also factors. On June 18, Garcetti announced the city and county reached an agreement to provide "critical services" and 6,700 new shelter beds for the homeless. "We will bring thousands more Angelenos indoors, deliver the services they need right now and further limit the spread of COVID-19," he said in a statement.
Garcetti, who did not immediately return PEOPLE's request for comment, also intends to build "thousands" of permanent housing units and increase spending on homelessness to $600 million this year. Raines isn't impressed by those numbers.
"We're a nonprofit that's been out here for three years, and through raising donations on social media, we've been able to do more than the city with their massive budget and funding," she says. "They keep talking about more and more, but they're not using what they have productively. They're not. It's not happening."
Raines expects to see an uptick in homelessness by 2021 due to how profoundly coronavirus has affected the economy. In just 13 weeks, more than 45 million people have applied for unemployment aid, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor.
"I think coronavirus is going to force a lot of people to take a different look at homelessness, and, unfortunately, they're going to understand what it is firsthand," says Raines. "You have to give it two to three months for eviction. Then one month of sleeping on a friend's couch. Then another month trying to stay with a family member. People are going to understand, 'Okay, this is why people become homeless.' "
"I Don't Want to Die"
Union Rescue Mission, a faith-based homeless shelter in the area, lost 56-year-old staff member Gerald Shiroma to coronavirus on April 8. Within weeks of his diagnosis, 100 workers and guests at the shelter became infected. Andrew Bales, the organization's president and CEO, says the facility had not seen a positive case of COVID-19 (the name of the illness caused by coronavirus) in nearly three weeks as of mid-June.
"[We're] COVID-free and doing our absolute best to stay that way as we welcome returning guests and new guests, though we will be at about 50 percent capacity as we adjust to this new social-distance-requirement world," he explains. "We are going to do our best to expedite the creation of satellite facilities throughout Los Angeles County, regionalize services, and decentralize Skid Row as soon as we can."
Bales commends the city for Project Roomkey, a joint effort between the State, County and LAHSA to secure hotel and motel rooms for the homeless amid the outbreak. But he says there's more to be desired.
"Nothing we are doing now or have proposed will sufficiently address this situation," he admits.
Paul Avila says the city's response to the pandemic has yet to produce a noticeable effect from what he's seen on the streets.
"I'm out here in the trenches, and I don't see much help at all, and that's with major funding measures getting passed," says the 43-year-old, who provides radios and other goods to the homeless through Pauly's Project, a nonprofit he began in honor of his son, who is blind and has autism. "Whether it was five years ago or yesterday, I see a lot of the same encampments with the same people not getting the help they deserve. It's going to take a community to save humanity, and that's why I tell people that we don't have time to wait for the city to act. We have to get out there as human beings, as a community."
As in the case of Union Rescue, these community efforts put brave volunteers at direct risk of contracting or spreading coronavirus. These dangers haven't been lost on Raines.
"I don't want to die. I want to self-isolate and I don't want anything to happen to me," she admits. "But what kind of person would I be to sing this song of love, family and unity for three years only to walk away when this pandemic hits?"
Coronavirus, Raines says, has only exacerbated her years-long battle with anxiety and PTSD, stemming from traumas she endured early in her adult life. These same experiences are what led her to Skid Row and have enabled Raines to connect with the homeless on a level most cannot — even if it's through a shared understanding of pain.
"So many people have benefited from my pain and that makes my pain worthwhile," Raines says. "I hate to have a wasted experience, a wasted pain. No one can learn from a closed book and I needed to open my life up. I needed to help others."
"Why I Do What I Do"
Thirty years later, Raines doesn't blame her beloved grandmother for what happened.
Raines was just 22-years old when she, her son from a previous relationship and her then-husband were living in a hotel room after moving back to Long Beach from San Diego. The place was cramped, and 2-year-old Demetrius Stephens, Jr., didn't have room to play.
"We didn't have it together at the time," Raines recalls, "and he was just stuck in the room."
She says her grandmother, Sally Logan, offered to watch Demetrius at her home so he could spend time outside. Logan had always been Raines' point person, the one who could make her feel like she could do anything and be anyone. Because Raines did not have a healthy relationship with her mother, the bond with her "Nana" was indispensable.
"She was the influence of my whole life," Raines says. "My grandmother was the person in my life that made me feel like I had any value. I experienced a lot of verbal abuse in my life, and I never found myself worthy of anything, never thought I could do anything, and had low self-esteem for as far back as I can remember. I never thought I had anything to offer this world, but my grandmother was the one to plant those seeds to make me believe that I did."
As she recalls, Raines left Demetrius at her grandmother's and let him spend the night, something she hadn't done before. When she picked him up the next day, she immediately noticed something was off — Demetrius was drowsy and couldn't walk on his own. Unbeknownst to Logan and Raines, the toddler had gotten into a relative's prescription medication.
"We rushed to the hospital," says Raines. "I tried to keep him awake on the drive. He kept wanting to go to sleep. I tried to make him walk into the hospital, but he just kept telling me how tired he was."
"Then, something in me just said, pick him up and let him sleep because this isn't going to work. You're torturing him by trying to keep him awake," she remembers. "I just said, 'I love you very much. Mommy is going to always love you,' and he said he loved me, too. I walked him into the hospital, and I don't remember a lot after that."
Demetrius died of an accidental overdose on Sept. 6, 1990, five days before his third birthday, Raines tells PEOPLE.
"My grandmother was the only reason I thought I could do anything in this world. She was the only one that ever made me feel like I had something to offer, and because of her..." Raines says before collecting herself. "Because of this accident at her house, my son was gone. The one woman who gave me a sense of who I could be was the cause of my pain."
On the day Demetrius died, Raines made a promise she intended to keep: she was going to end her life. But she was 6 months pregnant and chose to wait.
"I made the decision to kill myself when I left the hospital. So I wasn't planning to get attached to anyone, I wasn't planning on doing anything. I was just going to kill myself," says Raines. "But there is a level of depression that comes deeper than killing yourself. You get so depressed you forget to kill yourself, and that's literally what happened. I fell into such a depression, I forgot that I was supposed to kill myself. I became a walking zombie. I was moving, but I don't remember a lot of my footsteps."
The first glimmer of hope came when Raines visited a local church whose members convinced her it was time to see her grandmother. When Logan later saw Raines appear at her doorstep, she burst into tears.
"I knew it was a tragic accident," Raines recalls of their reunion a year after Demetrius' death. "But she and I never talked about it. We never said the words, and I don't know what exactly happened that night because I never questioned her. I just know it was an accident and my son isn't here. I forgave her, and six months after that, she passed away from cancer."
Logan's death pushed Raines deeper down a spiral of sorrow, and she continually refused to use anti-depressants. Pills only served as a reminder of what happened to her son, and she would only find temporary comfort after adopting holistic medicine and therapy.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Each time Raines took meaningful steps toward improving her mental health, unexpected tragedy would erase her progress. She says her father — a former LAPD officer — tripped over a cord and died of a seizure just days after having successful brain surgery, and Demetrius' father — with whom Raines later had a second child during a brief affair — was diagnosed with colon cancer that spread through his body. In his final days, she took care of him and buried him at the same church they laid their son to rest.
Raines says the emotional weight of decades of anguish and anxiety finally culminated in a nervous breakdown at age 49, which led her to a church member who invited her on a trip to feed the homeless. The experience was metamorphic for her.
"When I walked out there, I don't know what happened, but it felt like a piece of my heart had just been put back in place. I thought to myself, 'My God, they're broken just like me,'" Raines recalls. "I felt so at home. I felt so at peace with them. I became addicted to it, and it became my therapy."
Finally, Raines had a purpose for the grief she held inside for so long, and the idea for Beauty 2 The Streetz was born.
"Losing my son was the worst experience that could ever happen, but it is the reason behind my nonprofit and is the sole core of why I do what I do," says Raines, who has five living children.
"I don't look in the mirror and see a woman who buried a child anymore. I look in a mirror and see a woman with bright-colored hair, face piercings, beetle-hoop earrings and loud makeup," she continues. "But I'm helping other women disguise their pain, too. And that has been one of the greatest gifts life has ever given me outside of my children — a purpose for my pain."
Raines still grapples with depression, but the medication she is now taking has helped. She also has a warm and loving relationship with her children — something she didn't think possible when she struggled for years to express her feelings for them.
"I couldn't say 'I love you' to my kids, I just couldn't say the words out loud," Raines recalls. "I don't think I wanted to love anything and have it taken from me. I think in a lot of ways, I was punishing myself. I think I had survivor's guilt for not killing myself when my son died like I said I was going to do. I had guilt for not joining him."
"Today, my kids and I talk 10 times a day, and we're always saying, 'I love you, I love you, I love you,'" she says. "Now, the words never stop flowing."
The Angels of Skid Row
Motorcycles roar through Fifth and Towne as the rest of the Beauty 2 The Streetz team pack tables and empty boxes into their cars. The line that had stretched down the block just hours ago has dissipated, but dozens of Skid Row's residents remain on the corner. For now, this is home.
Raines returns to her SUV, and a small group of volunteers joins her as she drives down a maze of side streets to make a special delivery.
Behind a warehouse on a lonely street lives Q, a transgender woman whose makeshift home is held up by broken pallets, crates and metal piping. She immediately perks up when she sees Raines and the volunteers, who have come with supplies and three red roses.
"My heart is just in tears right now, I love them so much," Q says from behind her lavender-colored face mask. "They know exactly what I need and they make sure I have it. They are all my angels."
Halfway down the block, Raines sees a man and his young son eating pizza beside a pile of clothes and a wall filled with graffiti. Raines walks over and asks the boy, who looks to be around 5 years old, if he wants some candy.
"We're going to get you a little sucker!" Raines calls to the boy, who casts an excited smile as he hides behind his father's leg. "Hey, Cute King! Come get your candy, baby!"
Casey, the biker from Chosen Few, then walks over to the boy with a handful of sweets. At that instant, the pandemic and so much else seems to melt away, if only for a moment. It's indeed a happy Saturday.
The boy and his father have just become part of what Raines calls her "bonus family," her name for the hundreds who have sought her help on Skid Row. It's this family, the one she adopted three years ago, that led Raines to embrace life's beauty once again.
"All of my pain has brought me to a place where I can be a mother to other people's children, and not just to my own. I'm not a savior, I'm a mother, and the love I want to give my son, he's not here to receive. So I take all the love for the people I've had to bury and give it to the homeless," Raines says as she fights back tears.
"Dealing with the death of my son has taught me many things. But I think what the homeless have given me is a sense of gratitude," she adds, before taking a moment to reflect. "And you know what else? They've taught me it's not where you are that makes you happy. It's who you are that makes you happy."
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