Can Beauty Change The Face Of Homelessness?
More women are experiencing homelessness than ever, but the system isn't set up for their well-being. For many, the solution starts with beauty.
Shirley Raines isn’t your typical beauty influencer. The 51-year-old mother of six, who’s worked as a medical biller in Long Beach, California for two decades, only started her Instagram account two years ago. But in the past six months, she’s racked up more than 20,000 followers, a prestigious award from the iconic Bronner Bros beauty show, and devoted fans that send her packages weekly. Unlike most bloggers, Raines isn’t hawking hair gummies or reviewing new products. Instead, she takes to social media to spread the word about a side of beauty many people don’t see: what self-care looks like when you’re experiencing homelessness.
Raines is an unlikely advocate for the cause. She’s never been homeless and didn’t go to beauty school. She’s just a woman who started feeding the needy in her community and quickly realized what was lacking for the many women she met every weekend.
“The women would always compliment me on my hair and makeup,” Raines says. “I've always been told that the homeless need food, clothing, water, and resources, but no one ever said they need makeup and hair colour. I thought, ‘This is something that I can do!’" So she cashed in all her Sephora points, hit a few discount stores, and started handing out travel-sized products to the women who asked her about beauty.
“They want to look in the mirror and see something other than their circumstances,” Raines says. “They don't want to think about the fact that they lost their job and have to sleep in a tent. I think people forget that they're still women at their core.”
Fast forward to today and Raines and her team of volunteers are known as Beauty2TheStreetz, a group of Long Beach moms, IG followers who’ve gotten involved, individuals who’ve escaped homelessness themselves, and a charity-focused biker club called Fighters For The World, which provides security in L.A.’s Skid Row neighbourhood where the group sets up every Saturday morning.
Hundreds of people line up for the home-cooked meals that Raines plans, preps, and cooks herself on Friday night, but it’s the makeup and hair services that really help her connect with the women.
Using a bespoke collection of camping and salon equipment, Raines personally washes and colours hair and provides showers right on the street for people. It’s a pressing need for those with disabilities whose wheelchairs make hauling their belongings or navigating cracking sidewalks difficult, both of which often prevent them from getting to the limited bathrooms available at a handful of churches and shelters downtown. Her operation is both straightforward and scrappy. She brings numerous ‘solar shower’ bags filled with hot water from her home and uses a simple salon chair and shampoo bowl that drains into the gutter. She mixes hair colour in a red Solo cup and uses a basic hand mirror for the big reveal.
“There’s something about washing someone’s hair,” Raines says “You don't close your eyes in the streets; you're always aware of your surroundings. It means a lot that they can sit back in my chair, close their eyes, and just trust me. It's like the beauty salon; they open up when they're in the chair.”
On a recent Saturday, we met a woman named Alicia who patiently waited all morning for her turn. She’s been staying at a shelter nearby, trying to get back on her feet, and has always wanted to try blonde hair, a shade that reminds her of her sister. Raines makes it a point to give these women choices, to call them by their names, and to pamper them as much as she can — basic dignities she says you lose when you become homeless.
“It's been years since I’ve gotten my hair coloured,” Alicia says. She says she’s been eyeing hair colour at the drugstore, but the options were overwhelming and she can't really afford it. With her new hair, she feels more confident looking for housing. “I'll be looking the part,” she says. “It might not seem like much, but it is something. And especially when somebody is doing it for you, because people just don't do that type of stuff. It's special.” Alicia left with a new golden shade of hair, a huge smile, and a pocket full of fake lashes, the product she picked from Raines’ box of goodies. “I don’t really wear makeup, but I love lashes,” Alicia says.
Raines is known on Skid Row as “the makeup lady” and keeps boxes in her trunk stocked with eyeliner, face wipes, lip colour, and other new items that her IG fans ship to her or donate through a simple registry process linked in her bio. She also distributes pre-packed hygiene kits with essentials like toothbrushes, tampons, and soap.
It means a lot that they can sit back in my chair, close their eyes, and just trust me.
It takes at least $500 USD to feed Raines’ line each week — between 300 and 400 people normally show up — plus more funding to provide makeup and hair services. Beauty2TheStreetz relies heavily on donations from fans, which is why Raines makes giving anything — from a used tent to a new lipstick — as easy as she can. “People will even order food from Walmart that I can go pick up before Saturday,” she adds. Lately, donations have been decreasing, so she’s had to replace more elaborate preparations with cost-efficient meals like pasta. She personally funded it in the beginning, but now her social media fans supplement her work.
For Raines and her team, the state of Los Angeles’ homelessness problem is too severe to ignore, so they’re doing all they can to help. Over the past six years, the number of people experiencing homelessness in L.A. has increased by 75% to over 50,000 people, but it’s not an isolated epidemic. It’s estimated that 553,000 people across the U.S. were experiencing homelessness on any given night in 2018 — 39% of them were women and girls — which is an overall 4,300 person increase from 2017, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). But that’s just what the government can physically see; the numbers are widely believed to be underreported because those experiencing homelessness are difficult to accurately count, especially if they’re sleeping in tents, cars, or large-scale encampments.
About one third of people counted in 2018 were unsheltered — sleeping on the streets in abandoned buildings, encampments, or other places not considered suitable for human habitation — and that number is even higher for those under 25. Approximately half of all young people experiencing homelessness were unsheltered last year.
As the homelessness epidemic continues, but services remain limited, everyday citizens have stepped in with an unexpected source of relief: beauty. By providing hair colour and cuts, makeup, showers, and other self-care resources, those experiencing homelessness feel a restored sense of dignity vital for getting back on their feet. It’s a missing piece to the puzzle of finding employment and housing, and avoiding discrimination when shopping or spending time in public places.
The Invisible Homeless: Women
One of the fastest growing groups among people experiencing homelessness are women, says Suzanne Wenzel, PhD, professor at USC’s school of social work. Wenzel attributes this to the gender pay gap, but there’s another cause: trauma caused by domestic violence. “Some of the official reports show that as many as 90% of women who are currently homeless have experienced physical or sexual victimization sometime during their lifetime,” she says.
Michelle Parker*, 37, found herself homeless after fleeing from her live-in boyfriend. “I was afraid for my life,” she says. “My abuser was trying to kill me.” As a stay-at-home mom without a résumé or job skills, she ran out of options, and her four kids were forced to live with extended family while she applied for low-income housing through the city. Now she lives in a single room occupancy in Skid Row, a small bedroom with a communal kitchen and bathroom that dozens of residents share. “I never imagined that this would happen to me,” she says. Being separated from her kids is a painful reality that many women on the brink of homelessness experience and if extended family doesn't step in, like Parker's did, many are forced to put their children into the foster care system.
Trauma is something most women experiencing homelessness have in common, which makes getting back on their feet that much more difficult because sexual violence against women is also rampant on the streets. That was especially the case for Arien Williams, 29, who’s been homeless for five years. “Every homeless woman I've ever met has been raped,” she says. “I’ve been raped multiple times.”
Wenzel confirms this upsetting reality. “For a woman who is living on the street, it’s almost a rare occurrence for her not to be sexually assaulted,” Wenzel says. As more and more women experience homelessness, gender responsive services haven’t kept up with the demand. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) women comprise 31% of the total homeless population, but only 17% of shelter beds are designed for them. That’s just 586 beds for over 16,000 women, according to the organization’s 2018 data. On top of that, many women we spoke to say that they don’t feel safe in mixed-gender shelters, which represent many of these beds.
Williams says being homeless isn’t her choice: Abuse from her childhood and trauma from past relationships has made keeping a job difficult. She says she tried staying in a shelter but didn’t feel secure. Having to constantly worry about safety puts her basic needs on the back burner, which keeps her in the same frustrating cycle that prevents her from moving forward. She can’t stray too far from her tent, and packing up and hauling everything for blocks to a shelter isn’t worth the risk of getting robbed, so she feels stuck.
Every few months, Williams asks a friend to watch her tent and walks through Hollywood to the Seventh Day Adventist Church. It has a program where anyone can sign up for private, safe showers on certain days, but she only makes it there a few times a year. Mostly she just uses baby wipes to clean herself. This year has been especially hard with L.A.’s record rainfall, so she’s been forced to move to underpasses from her regular spot near the safety of a school. Monitoring and responding to the weather has turned into a full-time job.
Everything is just harder when you’re a woman, she says. “Being on your period while homeless is the worst,” she adds. “No matter how good your hygiene is while you're out here, it's not the same as when you're [in a] home.”
As people experiencing homelessness rapidly inhabit underpasses, river walks, and sidewalks all over Los Angeles, one might assume the city would be quick to respond, but that’s far from the reality. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti has spent the past few years attempting to push through a program he calls bridge housing, shelters in which those experiencing homelessness can keep their pets and possessions and stay with partners. He’s only successfully launched three of 40 planned shelters, due in part to marches and rallies from residents who object to his plan. The opposition movement, nicknamed NIMBY for ‘not in my backyard’, has garnered national attention and has spread to cities across the U.S.
“It’s literally the most complicated issue I think I’ve ever dealt with and ever will deal with in public policy, because it has so many different elements and each person is different,” Garcetti told us. “I will take the responsibility as the leader of this city, but we all have to do it together. Government won’t do it on its own.”
Los Angeles is on the front lines of the homelessness epidemic, but has failed in showing the rest of the country a path forward. Those experiencing homelessness need more than food and temporary shelters to get back on their feet, so people like Raines are stepping up with non-traditional services — and she’s not the only one.
Beauty & Beating Homelessness
Like Raines, hairstylist Jason Schneidman has seen the problem growing and now helps bridge the gap with free haircuts, plus shaves and beard grooming for men. He sets up shop in places like Skid Row and Venice Beach about once a month for a day of free cuts; often, other stylists will show up to help after he puts out a call on social media. Unlike Raines, Schneidman once experienced homelessness himself while battling a crack cocaine addiction. Now 15 years sober, he has a family and a successful career styling mostly male celebrities like James Corden, Jonah Hill, and Paul Rudd. For Schneidman, free grooming and haircuts are his way of giving back. “I know I’m impacting lives because I’ve been there myself,” he says. “When I was ready to get help, there was someone there for me. A lot of these people don’t have resources.”
But this kind of work takes funding, so Schneidman recently expanded his efforts to a product line and forthcoming Venice Beach salon that opens on June 1. Not only do a portion of the proceeds from his styling paste go to his work doing free grooming and cuts, but he’s also able to contribute scholarships to the Awakening Recovery rehab facility in L.A., a yearlong addiction program similar to the one he went through himself. He hopes to have the salon contribute in even bigger ways, but is still working out what that will look like.
Both Schneidman and Raines have both recently been approved for a 501c nonprofit status and hope to expand their efforts. “My dream is to get a Beauty2TheStreetz mobile shower with a makeup station with the bright bulbs around it,” Raines says. “I want them to be able to see themselves in bright lights.” This dream is sharply juxtaposed with the reality of her hours spent prepping and hauling everything — from water to towels — to get the job done.
A mobile shower would make things a whole lot easier for Raines, and allow her to serve far more people. Just look at Lava Mae, a mobile shower non-profit that’s been able to help dozens of homeless individuals in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Lava Mae’s operation is stocked with clean towels, hot water, and guests are allowed up to 20 minutes of privacy to shower. While it sounds like the bare minimum, it can change the trajectory of a person’s entire week.
“We can serve up to 45 people per day/per mobile unit, but unfortunately, the demand far outpaces our capacity,” says Lava Mae founder Doniece Sandoval. “If our budget were unlimited, we could do more. Our hope, however, is that we’re demonstrating to local governments that this service is vital to dignity, resilience, upward trajectory, and public health.”
Lava Mae recently partnered with cosmetics conglomerate Unilever to stock showers for free with a new line that benefits homeless individuals called The Right To Shower. On top of that, The Right To Shower is donating all proceeds from sales in 2019 specifically to mobile shower NGOs like Lava Mae.
“The brand was built upon the belief that access to cleanliness is a fundamental human right, as is the feeling of dignity and confidence that can come with a single shower,” says Laura Fruitman, co-founder and general manager of The Right To Shower. “In 2019, we’re donating 100% of the brand’s profits to support mobile shower organizations around the country that help provide safe, reliable access to showers and other basic hygiene needs.” The product lines includes body washes and bar soaps priced between $7 USD and $12 USD that can be purchased in stores like Whole Foods or on Amazon.
For those experiencing homelessness, and for the people fighting to ease its symptoms, beauty has been an unlikely meeting place, but it’s one that provides the comforts missing in the streets: a place to rediscover lost confidence and dignity while safely accessing basic needs. “Showers alone won’t solve homelessness, but they can be a first step toward unlocking hope, dignity, and opportunity for those living on the streets,” Sandoval says.
For Williams, self care has been an important part of her coping while navigating the streets until she gets housing. “I do my makeup and take care of myself so that I don't look homeless,” she says. “So that I can go about the planet and eat my food and do all of these things without having to deal with discrimination.”
It’s a mission that Raines will continue to share through her social media for as long as she gets support from followers to fund her operation. “Someone is homeless not because they did something wrong — it's because life got the better of them,” Raines reminds us. “We give them food, but it's about the spirit, too. The spirit dies, then the body is gone. It's important to nourish the spirit so they don't feel forgotten.”
*Names have been changed.