It took Marjorie Hauser four days to get here from New York City last spring — and one hour to realize she was lost.
She had come for a job and a place to live. Her husband had died, she had lost her home and her car had been repossessed. She lived with her family for a while, then church members bought her a train ticket and gave her the address of a Los Angeles man who said he could help her find work and an apartment.
But no one met her at the train station and the address didn't exist. Marjorie didn't have money for a hotel and was too embarrassed to call her family to tell them she was stranded.
"Someone told me about a shelter I could stay at on skid row," she said. So the registered nurse hauled her suitcases to the Union Rescue Mission and lined up for a bed.
At a homeless shelter a few blocks away, a similar story of despair was unfolding.
Marie had fled an abusive, alcoholic partner in Tennessee. "I was living in terror," she said. I promised not to use her last name; she's afraid he is still looking for her.
One night when he left for the liquor store, Marie grabbed suitcases she had hidden in a closet, boarded a Greyhound bus and headed for California. She didn't know anyone in Los Angeles. "I just wanted to get as far away as I could," she said. "I was in a panic."
Like Marjorie, Marie unwittingly landed in a ghastly demographic, lining up every night with hundreds of homeless people, including addicts, derelicts and the mentally ill, outside skid row missions — and sleeping outside on filthy sidewalks when all the beds were filled.
"It was the lowest point of my life," Marie told me, closing her eyes and trying not to cry. "You feel so embarrassed. People passing by looking at you, and you're sleeping on the ground.
"It feels so cruel, so hopeless," she said. "You don't see any way out."
But the way out for Marjorie and Marie was just a few blocks away — at the Downtown Women's Center, where hundreds of homeless women gather each day for reminders that they matter.
Marjorie made her way to the women's center because she wanted a shower. Marie was referred by a domestic violence hotline. The two women met in the program's computer center, where Marie was teaching a typing class and Marjorie was checking her email and polishing her resume.
They saw a bit of themselves in each other; that seemed to make their ordeal less burdensome and shameful. "You have an education and you wind up like this. And nobody understands," Marie said.
Sitting across from Marjorie and Marie at the Downtown Women's Center on Sunday, I found it hard to imagine them — well-dressed, well-spoken, thoughtful and upbeat — sleeping on a skid row sidewalk. Or having to ditch a suitcase full of clothes because the shelters limit belongings. Or having no address to list on a job application.
Center Director Lisa Watson said their slide from stability to the streets is a story she hears often.
Los Angeles County's homeless population has grown by more than 8,000 people in the last two years; that includes hundreds of refugees from other parts of the country. And women are the fastest-growing segment of the numbers.
When the Downtown Women's Center opened 35 years ago, most visitors were elderly widows, newly broke and homeless. The 1980s and '90s added droves of women who were mentally ill or addicted. Now the recession is bringing in working-class middle-aged women, newly jobless and homeless.
The center on San Pedro Street in skid row is not a shelter; it opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m. It offers meals, showers, clothing, classes, healthcare, job training and counseling. It operates 119 small apartments, but there's a years-long waiting list for them.
For Marjorie and Marie, what the center offered most was a pathway to independence.