The woman they knew only as Goddaughter seemed to have been erased overnight.
Twenty-eight years old and homeless, Goddaughter was tiny, just over 100 pounds and less than 5 and a half feet tall, but she was hard to miss in MacArthur Park. Her encampment had been growing for months, and she had a habit of leaving piles of belongings around the park.
LOCKED OUT: HOMELESSNESS IN LONG BEACH
Investigations like this rely on your support. Here’s how you can help.
Help us bring context and take you inside the complexities of the issues and stories no other newsroom in our city can cover. Donate to the tax-exempt Locked Out: Homelessness in Long Beach fund to make our coverage stronger.
It took a while for Pam Chotiswatdi to realize the piles were decorations, often color-coordinated to celebrate an upcoming holiday or sprinkled with confetti and glitter that Goddaughter got from the nearby dollar store.
“She was so special because she was so big—her presence,” Chotiswatdi said.
Chotiswatdi is one of the co-founders of Project Dignity, a coalition of nonprofits, community groups and homeless service providers that offer food, clothes, showers, laundry service, medical aid and other help to homeless people living in MacArthur Park.
For about a year, Project Dignity took care of Goddaughter, who seemed mentally ill. She spoke mostly in riddles or geographic coordinates that sounded like she was explaining some kind of military drill, Chotiswatdi said. Unable to tell them her legal name, Goddaughter got her nickname when, inexplicably, she started calling another longtime resident of the park Godfather.
Goddaughter had made the park her home, according to Project Dignity’s Mary Simmons, who lives just up the street. But suddenly, one day in mid-March, her encampment was wiped clean.
“She disappeared,” Simmons said. “There was no trace of her.”
Word in the park was Goddaugher had been taken away. Simmons suspected someone had tired of her tangle of belongings tucked behind the cultural center that hosts after-school programs. Worse, Simmons worried, maybe Goddaughter had become violent. In recent days, her behavior had been deteriorating. She was yelling at people more often, especially if they tried to move her things.
Without Goddaughter’s name, there seemed to be little chance of finding out what happened, but, Simmons said, after a year spent taking care of her, “you get to know that person and just want to make sure she’s OK.”
After a couple of weeks, Simmons managed to confirm with a local police officer that Goddaughter had been arrested, but the officer wasn’t able to provide her name.
With few other options, and worried they were the only ones in the world looking for her, Project Dignity put out a missing person’s poster for Goddaughter.
“She is part of the local ‘family’ and is missed by many,” they said in an emailed plea. “We are asking the public’s help in identifying ‘Goddaughter’ in the hopes that we can ensure she is provided with the care she deserves as a human being.”
The cry for help worked. When Project Dignity member Ishqa Hillman sent Goddaughter’s information to the Long Beach Post, we were able to match the date and location of her disappearance with a log of arrests made by the Long Beach Police Department. There, in the log, was the name of a woman matching Goddaughter’s description. (The Long Beach Post is withholding the name to protect Goddaughter’s privacy.)
Hillman now knew Goddaughter was indeed in jail. What’s more, Goddaughter’s legal name led her to a long-dormant Facebook page.
Hillman said she immediately recognized Goddaughter’s eyes. “I knew as soon as I saw her page and her profile picture that was her.”
Digging through posts from 2019, Hillman got a picture of Goddaughter before she was on the street. She saw an artist who posted her poetry and paintings interspersed with intense heartache and depression.
“I’ve tried to kill myself so many times, feeling so alone and hurt and abandoned,” Goddaughter says in one video before she’s overwhelmed by sobs. “And I have to keep fighting every single day not to want to do it.”
A few months later, she writes about a miscarriage. The stress of being kicked out of her home, being “pistol whipped” and “starved,” she says, caused her to lose her baby.
The posts end in 2019 with a glimmer of hope: “Broken by making the wrong choice,” she wrote. “Now finding strength in staying steadfast in who I am.”
But things apparently continued to deteriorate. Within a year, court records show, police in Long Beach began arresting Goddaughter for a series of low-level crimes like staying in a park after dark, vandalism and battery. In 2021, an assault conviction netted her a short prison sentence and landed her on probation, where she soon was penalized for failing to check in with her supervising officer.
When crews cleared out Goddaughter’s encampment last month, police say they found drug paraphernalia, and because she, again, hadn’t been checking in with her probation officer, there was a warrant out for her. Currently, she’s being held without bail until a judge can decide what penalty she’ll face.
The situation has frustrated Project Dignity, who said they’d longed to get Goddaughter off the streets and into treatment but knew there was nothing to offer.
“There’s no care for her anywhere so they arrest her,” Chotiswatdi said.
Chotiswatdi and her co-founders are pushing the city of Long Beach to create more supportive housing, particularly rehab and assisted living for people with mental illness. City officials know of the urgent need. The mayor and city manager have outlined it as a priority in the city’s emergency plan to address homelessness, but, many of the goals are months if not years away. In the meantime, Long Beach’s emergency shelters are full, and mental-health beds remain chronically overwhelmed.
Goddaughter’s story is far from unique. At last count, about 38% of the 3,296 homeless people in Long Beach reported they’d been a victim of violence, and 40% said they suffered from a serious mental illness. Los Angeles County jail, where half of the inmates have mental health issues, has become an ill-equipped stand-in for treatment, the county’s director of correctional health services told the Board of Supervisors in September.
Project Dignity plans to continue supporting Goddaughter. Hillman and Chotiswatdi are trying to visit her in jail, where she’s scheduled to undergo a mental health evaluation before the criminal case against her moves forward. If they don’t lose touch again, they hope to keep helping after she’s released.
“Poor girl has needed help for years and never got it and instead got so caught up,” said Hillman, who felt compelled to learn everything she could about Goddaughter because, as she puts it, “that could have been me.”
Hillman used to be homeless. As a child growing up in the Bay Area, Hillman says she was “abused in every way by the time I was 5.”
She left home at 12 and found refuge in other homeless people, who taught her how to survive.
Unlike Goddaughter, she’s been able to find her way back into society and now runs a successful cannabis marketing business.
“I am her with a different ending,” Hillman said. “I want her to have a different ending. I want her to have a different ending and finally be heard and cared for as she always deserved as a human and soul with purpose.”
A mother’s quest to save her homeless son from mental illness is met with a system in crisis