Coronavirus Is Leaving The Homeless Stranded — But One Woman Is Stepping In To Help

Photographed by Iris Xu.
Shirley Raines, founder of Beauty2TheStreetz
Early Saturday morning, Shirley Raines, a crew of volunteers she organised on Instagram, and the biker club Fighters For The World met outside a McDonald’s on the outskirts of Skid Row, the epicentre of Los Angeles’ growing homeless population. Using money donated through social media, Raines purchased 600 hamburgers to-go and placed them in bags with fresh oranges, bottles of water, face masks sewn by a local designer, and as many tubes of hand sanitiser she could find.

Wearing gloves and masks, and with social distancing measures top of mind, Raines and her team, a non-profit organisation known as Beauty2TheStreetz, caravanned into Skid Row to hand off the supplies from their cars to ensure the six-feet minimum. Raines, who has been serving food and providing vital personal-care products to the homeless community every Saturday for three years, had learned an important lesson the week prior that informed their approach.
When her normally orderly line of 500-800 people experiencing homelessness flooded her car desperate for food and supplies, both of which Raine says are in short supply in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, she knew her organisation had to rethink everything — from how they get supplies to how they distribute them. “The homeless are not scared of COVID-19,” Raines says. She's referring to the backlash she received after a video of her distributing supplies through her car window went viral and brought a wave of criticism for drawing a crowd. “They’re scared of going hungry or being assaulted or raped now that resources and shelter beds are dwindling. People on Twitter just don't understand that social distancing is a luxury that the homeless don't have."
On her second attempt, the Fighters For The World (who wore bandanas around their faces for a minimal amount of protection) worked to keep people six feet apart in line as volunteers quickly distributed the bags, including 200 travel-size sanitisers donated by Bite Toothpaste Bits. Procuring bottled water this week was a small victory for Raines' team after the warehouse stores she typically shops from — like Costco and Smart & Final — cut her off from mass purchasing weeks ago, citing corporate-set maximums on things like water and toilet paper to prevent hoarding. Now, it's a group effort from her Instagram followers: five cases from one woman, two from another, and so forth, all of which make up hundreds of bottles.

Youth homelessness alone increased by 24% last year in L.A. county.

After packing up and leaving Skid Row, Raines and her team began preparing for next week. “We’re taking it day by day,” she says, but notes that despite recent hurdles and fewer donations than ever, she isn’t quitting. “What kind of an organisation would we be if we’re only out there when it’s easy and carefree?”
Few people would describe serving Los Angeles’ homeless population as “easy” or “carefree,” but in the COVID-19 era, Raines' job of providing food and personal-care products to hundreds of Skid Row residents is more challenging than ever. “COVID-19 has deeply affected us,” Raines says of her homegrown non-profit organisation, which provides the homeless with hot meals, hygiene kits, and free beauty services, like haircuts, colour, and makeup, in hopes of returning a sense of dignity to those living on Skid Row.

When a mandate first went out for all Angelenos to stay home to flatten the curve, Beauty2TheStreetz skipped its weekly service for the first time on Saturday, March 14, and also paused its weekday partnership with The ReFresh Spot, a traveling shower and laundry service. “My team and I originally felt we should step back to let the City of Los Angeles help, but then we started getting messages from the homeless that they were hungry, cold, and ignored,” she says.

What kind of an organisation would we be if we’re only out there when it’s easy and carefree?

Shirley raines
Raines drove to Skid Row, where nearly 5,000 people live — 2,000 of whom are unsheltered — to witness the situation for herself. “I drove around and saw one hand-washing station,” Raines says, “and it had soap but no water.” She says that this past weekend, March 28, she noticed that the city was installing more — a bright spot for the neighbourhood.
But as coronavirus spreads, it will only continue to put pressure on an already fractured system. California has one of the largest populations of people experiencing homelessness in the developed world; over 150,000 people were counted in 2019. But despite multimillion-dollar bond measures and numerous dedicated government offices, it's actually getting worse. LAHSA counted more than 58,000 people experiencing homelessness in L.A. County alone in 2019 — a 12% increase from 2018 — with a whopping 75% who are unsheltered. According to LAHSA, the city is rolling out 6,000 new shelter beds, but the L.A. Times reported Friday that only 366 new beds had been added thus far and they were at 100% capacity, which worries advocates like Raines. To help, she put a call out on social media for sleeping bags and tents on top of basics like water and soap.
Photographed by Iris Xu.
Shirley Raines is calling for donations of sleeping bags and tents to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in homeless communities.
Raines notes that getting supplies in the past two weeks has been a nightmare. Luckily, there might be some reprieve in sight from the beauty industry: L.A.-based nail-care brand Orly just announced that it converted its factory to make 10,000 hand sanitisers for the homeless, and Thrive Causemetics donated $25 million (approximately £20 million) worth of products to various organisations helping at-risk women. Still, Raines says donations to Beauty2TheStreetz are dwindling, which is a stark contrast to the past year, when they were flooded with donations and actually had to turn away volunteers.
Raines says that sanitiser, gloves, masks, and dry, warm clothes are in short supply, leading many to wonder what will happen when COVID-19 tears through Skid Row and inevitably overwhelms hospitals. It’s estimated that at least 2,600 people experiencing homelessness in L.A. will need hospitalization for COVID-19, with more than a third requiring intensive care — but as of March 20, L.A.’s ICU beds were already nearing capacity.
Raines doesn't pretend to have the solution, but she's stepping up to fill an essential need in the coming weeks. "When this community gets infected, it will be all our problems," Raines says, noting that many companies that routinely donate have diverted their attention. Until then, she's asking for donations on the Beauty2TheStreetz webpage — and hoping something will change soon.

The World Health Organization says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.

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