‘I’m not an angel, I’m broken’: One woman’s mission to dignify the homeless and herself

Carmen had been waiting since the early morning at the southeast corner of Fifth and Towne Avenues in the heart of Skid Row, the place she calls home even as she dips in and out of experiencing homelessness. It’s likely this spot is more “home” than any other because it is the one spot that provides some sense of stability and consistency in her life.

Joining hundreds of others, Carmen stood in line on Towne Avenue, awaiting the weekly visit from Long Beach resident Shirley Raines.

Upon arriving, Raines began unloading her massive white van, laying out hundreds of hamburgers, makeup and facial products, clothes, and ice cream across various tables. Surrounded by her protective crew of leather-sporting, Harley Davidson-owning men and her cohort of volunteers, Raines runs a tight ship—”You can’t let chaos into a place that’s already chaotic; everything will fall apart”—where directives are only given to those who work with her. Once the pile of boxes in her van had finally diminished, Raines grabbed a loudspeaker to begin telling the hundreds of people that they would be opening up shop soon—but not before she addressed Carmen directly over the loudspeaker.

“Hey there, Carmen,” Raines said. “How are you doin’, Queen? I have a surprise: We got wigs today and y’all can take three apiece. That’s right, ladies: You can take three wigs so you can feel yourself a little more until this pandemic is over and we can start doing your makeup again, OK? We’ll get there, we’ll get there.”

Carmen shared wide-eyed looks of elation with other women as they heard the news of today’s items, having returned to them a sense of dignity that was the norm every Saturday. Highlighting that sense of beauty needed within humans has been the mission of Beauty 2 The Streetz, the organization Raines run full-time for nearly three years and one that has amassed some 140,000-plus followers on Instagram. Hair washings, hair dying, makeup tutorials, makeup makeovers on top of essentials like food and clothing: these were all a part of Raines’ weekly trek to Skid Row.

“Recognizing that the lack of a home does not mean a lack of humanity,” Raines wrote as part of the mission of Beauty 2 The Streetz. “We aim to serve the homeless by providing necessities alongside the things that make us feel inherently human: a hot shower, a hearty meal, the hope-inducing feeling of looking in the mirror and loving what you see.”

Amid a pandemic, however, Raines and her crew—which consists of volunteers stretching across all parts of SoCal, from Orange County to the Valley—have had to pivot their operations on the fly, shifting their outlook on how to continue dignifying rather than vilifying those at the center of Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis.

“There are layers to it all,” Raines said. “You know, we used to have everything laid out and each person can choose what they would like to take. They are provided a sense of choice in a life that doesn’t have much of that. This virus has altered all that so we try to find new ways to allow them that sense of dignity.”

It is a weekly challenge to provide these details but that perseverance within Raines is not something that was always within her and, as she continually and painfully emphasizes, it comes from a place of deep loss.

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Shirley Raines walks and talks to the people lined up moments before serving the homeless at L.A Skid Row in Los Angeles Saturday, August 1, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

While the boundaries of Skid Row perpetually shift with the instability of those without shelter, it largely encompasses Third and Seventh Streets to the north and south, and Alameda Avenue and Main Street to the east and west. It is also the epicenter of Los Angeles’ homeless community, with about 5,000 people experiencing homelessness lining its corridors. In the heart of it is where Shirley Raines parks her Beauty 2 The Streets operation.

Typically, a Saturday for Raines would be filled with hair washing and makeup stations on top of tables topped with food, clothes and hygiene products. This weekly tradition has not only connected her with the homeless community but provided a significant sense of trust among its women, especially within the trans community in Skid Row, where Raines’ saying, “Not every Queen lives in a castle,” has become a motto of strength.

“They’re facing a triple threat: no shelter, no food, and now this virus,” Raines said. “I can’t do their hair and makeup anymore, and those things are important to them. It’s important for every human to put something on and see something other than the trouble you’re going through.”

With the inability to provide human contact, Raines had to shift operations. First came education and mask distribution within the first few weeks, educating the inhabitants of Skid Row of COVID-19’s existence, the scope of the problem and how the government was, or was not, responding. Then came the issue of how to safely distribute essentials, to curb the virus from possibly spreading. Allowing individuals to choose by hand what they wanted was no longer an option, leading Raines to do something much less personal.

The McDonald’s at the northeast corner of Alameda and Seventh streets has long been a partner in Raines’ efforts, providing hundreds of hamburgers ahead of delivery to Skid Row and their parking lot has now become a safe haven for the Beauty 2 The Streetz crew to assemble care bags that include toilet paper, water, hand sanitizer, soap, non-perishable foods and other necessities.

On this particular Saturday, August 1, she figured out how she would continue to provide a sense of choice: An ice cream table where one could choose between two scoops of vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry ice cream along with a variety of toppings, each ice cream tray assembled safely by one of her volunteers.

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Shirley Raines photographed on Saturday, August 1, 2020.  Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

“They call me an angel, but I’m no angel; I’m broken. The homeless? They’re just like me: broken. The broken recognize the broken.”

On September 6, 1990, just five days shy of his third birthday, Raines lost her firstborn son.

“The 30 years having lived after his death have been tumultuous,” Raines said. “It was just a lot of pain. Even though I have five more kids, I was still just so broken. I couldn’t get my life together, like the death of my child was going to be the death of me. I went on Prozac, came down with a panic and anxiety disorder… And for a long time, I would just find myself in the depths of all that.”

The deepest part would be the annual passing of September, a three-decades-long reminder of both birth and death for Raines with little hope of mending. Unable to find a larger sense of purpose, her twin sister finally had the meeting with Raines she said she needed all along; a harsh but loving message that all her children, including the son she lost, would never want her to continue unfulfilled.

“I was in so much pain and I couldn’t find a purpose for that level of pain,” Raines said. “And through the journey of trying to find something to do with my life, I was asked to feed the homeless with Pauly’s Project. And I was like, ‘OK,’ but when I hit them streets and met these people, it hit me. ‘Oh my God, they’re all broken, just like me.’ I felt completely at home and had a purpose for my pain. I gravitated toward them and as I became closer through these other organizations, they noticed my makeup.”

Raines soon became known as “The Makeup Lady,” as women gazed at her both enamored and somewhat jealous. Taking note, Raines cashed in the 4,000 points she had racked up at Sephora on mascara, stopped at The Dollar Store for some eyelashes, got some big hoop earrings from a beauty supplier and some hair dye.

And while people gladly accepted almost everything, Raines noticed the hair dye was still unused. Initially concerned it might be an issue of color, she discovered it was far more dire: it was due to a lack of water.

“It all hit me, you know? I can bring water, I can bring women clothes,” Raines said. “As I was doing makeup for the trans communities on the backstreets of L.A., they would tell me, ‘They only give us men’s clothes,’ and that, that actually offended me. You should be able to wear what you want to wear. They said they wanted women’s clothes because they’re women. So I brought wigs, I brought heels, I brought eyelashes, I brought makeup.

“Seeing the joy in giving these folks a little bit of dignity made me think that maybe this is something I should be doing full time. I had a purpose now and it wasn’t that my five living children didn’t provide me purpose but I needed a purpose for the pain.”

She knew, however, she couldn’t do it alone all the time.

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Shirley Raines walks with Lock of the Fighters For The World motorcycle club, as they talk to those lined up moments before serving the homeless at L.A’s Skid Row. Saturday, August 1, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

The maternal extension of Raines’ reach within the homeless community was something that could never replace her son but it soon had an impact that even she didn’t comprehend.

Through a fundraiser by a dispensary, Raines came into contact with Dina Cisneros, a lawyer who fell in love with Raines’ spirit and work to such an extent that, for Raines’ 50th birthday, Cisneros formally handled the legal paperwork and filing to make Beauty 2 the Streetz an official nonprofit.

With that recognition came Fighters for the World, a motorcycle club whose mission is to help nonprofits fulfill their own missions.

“We’ve been here for two years, man,” said Lock, Sergeant at Arms for the club. “We came down here one time and it was an instantaneous decision that we knew they couldn’t do this alone. We had to keep coming. If it meant not partying on Friday, then so be it, because you have to be 100% alert. Can’t be hungover trying to protect good people. And Skid Row? Ain’t nobody care what goes on down there.”

Lock and his crew do not mince words when it comes to the reality of protecting Raines and her operation. As they stood at the corner of Fifth and Towne Avenues for over five hours, not a single police car nor patrol had passed by.

“It’s not affecting the upper class, they don’t see it,” said Fighter Mr. Clean. “You know, when people ask, ‘You’re protecting Shirley, right?’ and I say, ‘Damn right,’ I don’t necessarily mean that as a slight to the police. However, they handle their money, you know, I am pretty confident it doesn’t trickle down here. We’re here because we want to make sure she fulfills her mission.”

Though severe or dangerous altercations are a rarity, there are multiple times when you will witness Raines grab her loudspeaker, yell for Lock and witness Lock or one of his crew members begin a mini-but-intense lecture on civility, many times about respect for women.

“You don’t treat or speak to women like that, you hear?” Lock directed toward one man who, after attempting to grab supplies instead of patiently waiting like the hundreds of others, began to deride Raines for calling him out.

When asked about the situation, Raines waves it away; it happened, got dealt with, you move on.

“It happens,” Raines said. “They’re broken so they’re not always the way we expect all humans to be. And that’s OK. But we can’t have more chaos within chaos. They need stability like we all need stability, even if that means some tough love. But tough love is love nonetheless.”

To donate to Beauty 2 The Streetz, click here.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 19 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
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