It keeps coming back to me at unexpected moments: the voice of a woman from inside a lean-to made of tarps and dirty blankets.
She was part of a homeless encampment along a fence topped with swirls of barbed wire in an alley near MacArthur Park.
I never saw the woman’s face. Her voice was laced with pain and anger and seemed to linger in the sweltering air long after its words were spoken.
“I’m sick,” the voice said, emerging from the heavy darkness inside the lean-to. “Pray for me.”
Listening was Sister Anne Tran, a nun from the Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women, a tiny person somewhere in her mid-50s with a dominating presence.
She was on a regular visit to the places where homeless people live, a journey she has made three days a week for the last 10 years, bringing them food and clothing and cosmetics.
Sometimes she talks them into coming to the women’s center to live for a while and get help, but mostly they stay where they are, unwilling to crawl out from under the tarps to face the world.
“Do you need a hospital?” the nun asked the woman inside the lean-to.
“I need a drink,” the voice replied, laughing loudly. The laughter died quickly. “God, I’m sick.”
“Why don’t you come in with me?” the nun asked.
There was a long pause until the voice said, “Only when I find what I’m looking for.” Then it went silent.
The alley reeked with the smell of rotting garbage. This was worse than the park benches, worse than the doorways, worse than the places under the pier. This was encapsulated filth.
Looking eastward down the alley, one could see the distant towers of the city in the shimmering heat, tall, clean symbols of another world. Even the view, observed from positions of despair, was laced with irony.
“There are so many of them,” Sister Anne said as we drove through areas of decay on the western fringe of downtown, her familiar blue van winding slowly through the neighborhoods.
Drug dealers wander these streets, seeking buyers among those with nothing to lose but reality. Sexual predators prowl these alleys.
Sister Anne: “Sometimes the women come to us with their faces bloody from beatings. We try to help them, but they won’t always let us. They shrug and say whatever happens happens.”
The nun is no stranger to blood. Born in Vietnam, she joined the Order of the Lovers of the Holy Cross during the war and administered to the wounded, both military and civilian, in churches converted into hospitals.
“It was a terrible time,” is all she will say of those years. Arriving here in 1975, she received a master’s degree in social work from USC and began patrolling L.A.'s streets of sadness.
The Good Shepherd Center, once a convent, opened as a homeless shelter for women in 1984, a unit of the Catholic Charities program.
“Anne is our outreach,” says Sister Julia Mary, the center director. “She goes out there armed with nothing more than sandwiches, coffee, clothing and hope.”
Volunteer Iva Carrico makes the rounds with the nun and helps hand out the food and clothing. They’ve been a pair for several years.
“We saw a woman once who was so beautiful it was hard to believe,” Carrico says. “As the weeks and months passed, she kept getting dirtier and dirtier. Then one night she disappeared. . . .”
On this day, most of those we saw wanted cosmetics, no matter what their state of personal hygiene. One woman who spent her endless days sweeping the streets around Lafayette Park asked for deodorant.
Her clothing consisted of rags. Her face was streaked with dirt. And yet something in memory brought her back to a world that said a roll-on would make her beautiful, would make her complete, would change her life.
Sister Anne handed her the deodorant. There was no mockery or amusement in the gesture. “God bless you,” was all she said.
Down another alley, a woman requested perfume, another dug through clothing at the rear of the van. When we arrived, she was brushing her teeth vigorously. The van was there for 25 minutes. During all that time, she never stopped brushing even as she sorted through the clothing, cleansing something from her life we can only guess at.
I left Sister Anne on a bare and littered hilltop overlooking the Harbor Freeway. As I drove away, I kept hearing the anguished voice from the lean-to, the voice of a people we never really see--no substance, only sound--and I was taken with a terrible feeling of guilt.
Al Martinez can be reached on the Internet at email@example.com