‘I’ve had to become tough’: How homeless women survive the dangers of Skid Row
Skid row is a man’s world.
It started out that way more than a century ago, when transient men took trains to work on the nearby railroads. Hotels and social services sprouted up just for them, and not much has changed since.
That’s how Felicia Rodgers sees it. For 20 years, Rodgers has called the skid row area, nestled between Third and Seventh, and Main and Alameda streets in downtown Los Angeles, her home.
“Skid row was made for men,” Rodgers, 51, said.
• Photos: Women of skid row
On one recent morning, she walked past lines of men sitting or standing outside the Midnight Mission to reach one of the few clean women’s bathrooms in the area. Inside, Rodgers used a $1 tube of pink gloss to paint her lips to feel better, she said. To feel human.
“Women just happen to be here,” she added, as she carefully applied mascara.
About 30 percent of an estimated 2,000 people who sleep on skid row’s streets or shelters each night are homeless women. But those numbers keep rising, especially among older women. Homelessness surged across Los Angeles County’s neighborhoods and suburbs this year compared with 2016, with more than 58,000 people sleeping on sidewalks, in their cars, or along the Los Angeles River, according to results released by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Countywide, nearly 18,000 are women, a 16 percent increase.
Around skid row, long considered ground zero for transient men who fall on hard times, women who can’t find shelter sleep within the rows of tents and amid a mishmash of sagging tarps, piles of soiled clothes and pieces of old suitcases lining the sidewalks.
• Related Story: 3 reasons why so many are homeless in LA County
Skid row is a man’s world not just visually, but because most of the women who live on its streets or sleep in its shelters almost always bring the ghost of a man with them: the father who abandoned them physically or emotionally, the husband who beat them, a boyfriend who sold them, a stepdad or an uncle or a family friend who touched and used them as little girls. Almost always, those ghosts leave trauma, exacerbate mental illness, or fuel drug addictions and drinking.
A recent study conducted by the Downtown Women’s Action Coalition found that about 68 percent of the 371 women surveyed on skid row are survivors of child abuse.
The survey also found:
• 40 percent of the women who sleep in shelters or on the streets report they had experienced physical or sexual abuse.
• 20 percent reported trading sex for money, alcohol, drugs, shelter or food
• More than half of them — 55 percent — said finding a clean, safe restroom was difficult.
• Most of the women of skid row — 60 percent — are 50 years old and older.
“A lot of us invent ways to take care of ourselves,” said an older woman one morning as she folded her clothes inside a laundromat run by the nonprofit Lamp Community on San Pedro Street. She held up a prototype of her own invention: an adult diaper with three maxi-pads taped inside, for extra absorbancy. It’s for women who sleep in tents and are too afraid to use a public toilet in the middle of the night, she said. Few women like to admit they use buckets in their tents.
LEADERS TAKE NOTICE
County officials earlier this month were asked to dig deeper into Measure H funding to support a minimum of 200 crisis housing beds for women.
On any given morning, around the homeless missions, women, some barefoot because they’ve traded their shoes, sleep alone and exposed along street curbs. Their legs dangle over crosswalks. Others sit on their suitcases or bags in front of the cluster of shelters hoping to secure a bed for the night. If not, they’ll sleep in a crowded courtyard, or a tent or doorway. There is always a shortage of beds, especially for women.
One afternoon, Donna Barkauskas rested outside the Midnight Mission, with two big duffle bags beside her. She wore large, men’s sneakers on her feet, and a light blue floppy hat on her head to hide her eyes, so people couldn’t see her cataracts. A man she had lived with at a nearby single room occupancy died in October, and she could no longer afford the rent. Bedbugs crawled within the folds of a worn gray jacket she wore, and she cried as she thought of sleeping inside the shelter another night, instead of at the SRO.
• Video: On Skid Row for 20 years
“I need a lawyer,” the woman said tearfully. “I need help.”
Across the street, Sara McCullough, 35, sat on a narrow step of the Food for Life Mini Mart and Restaurant. An empty child’s car seat, used for her clothes, sat beside her. Her arms, ankles and neck were lined with tattoos that read “Lil Girl” and “Lil Man.” Asked if it’s hard for women to live on skid row, McCullough wrote “Pocahontas,” and “reincarnation,” in a reporter’s notebook.
If you’re not careful, if you give up, skid row can catch you and keep you there, said Victoria Evans, 61. Stomach cancer caught Evans, a former bus driver and Walmart employee, off guard. She went through her savings and disability checks until she found herself at the door of the Downtown Women’s Center, where at least 200 women are served each day. Evans was in her mid-50s. Two years later, she was able to secure one of the 119 single room occupancies overseen by the center and earn a degree in culinary arts. She now works full-time at L.A. Kitchen, a food preparation site and training program.
Evans knows she was lucky. An increasing number of older women, who are single, with no drug addictions or young children, who can’t make rent, end up on skid row too.
“Places like this give you a choice,” she said of the Downtown Women’s Center. “But you have to want to choose.”
SURVIVING THE STREETS
On skid row, the women will tell you again and again, to survive you’ve got to become hard. You have to walk a certain way, be careful who you look at, shout and cuss and “look crazy” if you feel threatened, and always be ready, even against other women, who have grown so hard themselves they’ve become downright vicious and will hurt you for a space on the sidewalk.
Drugs, turf wars and gangbangers have combined to create an area ripe for violence, said Anne Miskey, CEO for the Downtown Women’s Center.
“Very few women become homeless as addicts,” Miskey said. “They become addicted after they live on the streets.”
But for some women, the streets of skid row are still safer than the places they’ve run away from.
Janice Ross, 55, sleeps under a blue tarp among piles of her clothes on San Julian Street. She said men don’t like her because she doesn’t do what they tell her to do. But the streets are also no place for a woman, she admitted.
“I don’t need no man ’cuz no man has done one god--- thing for me,” she said.
At the same time, Ross and other women acknowledge that a man is protection. He guards them from the strays and gangbangers looking to use them in all kinds of ugly ways.
“If you have no man, then you’re a target,” Ross concedes. “I’ve had to become tough. And I shouldn’t have to be. I’m a human being.”
Despite the need for more housing, beds, and mental health services, some women say services are much better on skid row than they used to be.
Stephanie Williams, 55, called skid row a generous place, even though she has a faded bite mark on her left cheek from a woman who fought her for sidewalk space. Her front tooth is also chipped from breaking up a fight.
“It’s not a scary place,” said Williams, who made pillows for people, until she said police took her sewing machine away. She’s known on the streets as the “activist” and the “protector.”
“People can be very giving, very good,” she added.
Rodgers agreed. She showers each morning at LAMP, eats well and receives nice donated clothes. Sometimes, the services are too good, she admitted. For those who use drugs, like she does, temptation is on every corner.
“It’s the devil’s den,” Rodgers said. “They need to do something to motivate people more.”
She’s attended drug-treatment programs, she added, but the smell of pot and crack cocaine found so easily on the streets lures her back.
Once, Rodgers was given housing, but the place was too far from her friends, and she didn’t think she deserved it, she said. So she returned to skid row.
But if an opportunity for housing comes back, she’ll take it this time.
“I want to change, but I’m too scared to change,” Rodgers said. “I don’t want to die here.”