Op-Ed: ‘To be homeless, you have to be a lone wolf’

The shadow of a person appears near a person sleeping on the ground, obscured by personal belongings
Women make up about 30% of L.A. County’s homeless population.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

About 30% of the 40,000 unhoused people in Los Angeles are women, and they face special challenges. When surveyed in 2019, 60% of homeless women in L.A. reported experiencing violence in the preceding year, with more than 25% saying it happened “often” or “always.” I’ve continued speaking with unhoused people in my neighborhood, Venice, adding to a project that started in the summer and now includes the stories of nine individuals. Each of the following statements was created in collaboration with women I interviewed over the last few months, all of whom agreed to share their stories and photographs with the Los Angeles Times, asking only that their last names not be published. As these portraits illustrate, though all unhoused women are vulnerable, each is unique, arriving at her current situation with a specific set of circumstances — a reminder that the “solution” to homelessness will never come from one simple action, but will require long-term, multifaceted and thoughtful approaches. In the meantime, this crisis only keeps growing. — Robert Karron teaches English at Santa Monica College.


Jessie (Venice Boulevard and Ocean Avenue)

My name is Jessie, and I’m 35 years old. I’ve been homeless for 10 years. The first five were in Santa Cruz, and the last five have been in Venice. I came here with my boyfriend, because things got bad for us in Santa Cruz. Fentanyl arrived. It infected all aspects of life. There were lots of young people overdosing and dying. It was scary to experience that much loss and recklessness — and to see people making money off it, that was just depressing. So we got out, came down here.

As a child, I was depressed. I started seeing a doctor when I was 14, even though my father said he wasn’t sure he believed in mental illness. I was always tired. My depression doesn’t come out in crying. It comes out in being in a fog. I’m on medication now. I don’t really like it, but I’m learning that my body requires it. As we get older, we figure things out.


“Homeless people need transitional housing,” says Jessie. “You can’t just dump people into Section 8 housing.”
(Robert Karron)

I grew up near Cupertino. We were the children of the dot-com boom. All of a sudden, money was everywhere. There was a push for everyone’s kids to go to college. I ended up at UC Santa Barbara. I was a theater and dramatic arts major, learning how to be a stage manager. I loved being in school. I flourish in that scheduled world. But at some point it was too much. I got depressed, and I had to take a year off. I ended up working at City Lights Theater. It’s a small space, and they put on great stuff. I got to be involved in some cool productions. One of the best was “Jesus Christ Superstar.” That show had a lot of heart and talent — we had to add shows. It’s an intimate theater, where everything is raw, right in your face. I became part of that family. But when I looked at the lifestyles of the stage managers I realized it’s so hard: They’re the first ones in, and the last ones out. And the pay is so bad. I realized I didn’t want to be a stage manager. So I went back to school.

After college, I started drinking, and in a depressed way — alone. I was in the hospital a lot. Eventually, I went to Memphis, Tenn., because I had a boyfriend who was stationed at the naval base there. That’s when I got a job at the Gibson guitar factory. I spent some great years there, showing people around. I loved it. How could you not? It’s Gibson! But my demons came with me, and in retrospect, I didn’t see it coming. So I didn’t see a doctor until it was too late. By the time I realized it was bad, it was really bad. My parents shipped me back to California and forced me into rehab. Everyone thinks rehab is the answer. Let me tell you something: I’ve been to 13 rehabs. It’s not the answer.

For a while, my current boyfriend and I were living by the handball courts by Muscle Beach in Santa Monica. But last year they kicked us out, and a few of us were sent to bridge housing, by the old bus depot. I was so lucky to be sent there. It changed my life. Homeless people need transitional housing. You can’t just dump people into Section 8 housing. I know one guy who moved directly from the street to a two-bedroom apartment, and he didn’t know what to do with himself. He just sat in a chair all day, staring at the walls.

You have to be militant, as a woman. You have to be tough — but I’ve also found that it’s important to hold on to your femininity. You can’t let yourself get too tough.

— Jessie

I had to relearn certain things in transitional housing. I’d forgotten how to shop, how to do laundry, even how to take a shower. The first shower I took, I had to force myself to relax. I relaxed so much I almost drowned. I sucked water up my nose, and I started coughing. Also, in transitional housing, they give you a cellphone and an address, which is huge. But, unfortunately, in November, I got kicked out of bridge housing. I slapped someone in the face. That’s the one rule they have, and I broke it. My boyfriend’s still there, though, so most of the time I sleep on that side of town.

To make money, I recycle cans. I spend a lot of time on the beach, collecting them. One day a friend saw me, and he offered to help out. That’s how the community works down here. It’s a big circle. We help each other. When I’m not recycling, I’m keeping my belongings together, or cleaning up, or trying to make myself not look like a wreck from hell. It takes a lot of time, being homeless. I’m so busy! Think about trying to clean — but without a sink, or without trash bags. It takes time.

My neighbors and I in Venice see the suffering among unhoused members of our community. Many need addiction treatment and mental health care.

What’s it like being an unhoused woman? Well, having your period on the street is awful. It’s the worst thing in the world. My boyfriend and I are usually on the beach, so we use the beach bathrooms. For us, the beach bathroom is the Taj Mahal. But there are hours when it’s locked up. A guy can pee on a fence, but a woman has more to think about. Even if there’s a dumpster I can duck behind, at night, that can be bad. A few times something almost happened to me, but I’m lucky. I think it’s because I’m tall; people tend to leave me alone. You have to be militant, as a woman. You have to be tough — but I’ve also found that it’s important to hold on to your femininity. You can’t let yourself get too tough. You don’t want your skin to become too leathery. I try to remember that, because, when you’re concentrating on being tough, that’s a part of yourself that can be forgotten. Not that you can forget it totally. No matter how tough you are, you’re still going to get your period, and it’s still going to suck when you can’t get into a bathroom at night.

Three men recount their family ties, their romances, how they came to live on the street and how they make ends meet.



Cassi (Main Street and Sunset Avenue)

My name is Cassi, and I’m 24 years old. I was born and raised in San Diego. I stopped going to school when I was 14. I was bullied for my lazy eye, and I was the only white girl. School in general made me anxious. It wasn’t just the bullying. I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking about how I had to go to school the next day. I’d wake at 6, which is too early. I was always tired. The only class I liked was geography, taught by Mr. Casian. He cared. If he noticed something was wrong, he’d pull you aside and ask you about it. And he didn’t just teach visually, pointing to maps. He was hands-on. One time he had us blow up balloons and cover them with newspaper and glue to make the planets. He was so impressed he asked to keep them and show them to the next year’s class.

I think it was my love for geography that led me to hopping trains. I haven’t done it for a while, but I used to, a lot. Sometimes I’d hop one when I was bored, and sometimes it was to see friends. The first one I hopped was from San Bernardino to Las Vegas. You do it when there aren’t any workers around, and from the heart of the yard, where they put the trains together. You don’t hop in a car like they do in movies. There aren’t doors. You climb a ladder, to the catwalk, the space in between two stacked double containers. The only thing you have to worry about is if there’s a floor. Some catwalks don’t have floors. Those rides are called “suicide rides.” When I hopped trains I’d make sure I had essentials — food, cigarettes and a coat — and I’d just look at the landscape. No one can touch you then.

“When I hopped trains,” says Cassi, “I’d make sure I had essentials — food, cigarettes and a coat — and I’d just look at the landscape. No one can touch you then.”
(Robert Karron)

When I was 16, my mother moved us to Mexico. She couldn’t afford San Diego, even on Social Security. She figured Mexico would be cheaper. She left me there a year later because she didn’t like my boyfriend. He was manipulative, and she couldn’t handle it. Eventually I couldn’t take it either, and I left him and went back to San Diego, to find my mom. I knocked on her door, but she wouldn’t let me in. I think she thought the boyfriend was still with me. Soon the cops came. They put me with child services. From there, I hopped a train — all the way to Arkansas, to a town called Jonesboro.

Are people nice to me? If you’re in the South, yes. In Los Angeles, people are rude; they think you’re gross.

— Cassi

It’s a nice town, but it’s flat, and there’s nothing for miles. I just walked around and bought groceries. People gave me money if I flew a sign — held up a sign that said I needed money. One time, a friend joked he was going to “fly an invisible sign,” just put his hands in the air, fingers pinched, like he’s holding a sign. It was a joke, but one day I found myself without cardboard or markers, so I did it, I flew an invisible sign, just standing on the corner with my hands in the air. I actually made money that day — not as much as I would normally, but not nothing. I left Arkansas in March of 2020 and came to Los Angeles. I left because I had an abusive boyfriend.

If I need clothes, I stand outside a Goodwill or a Salvation Army, and I ask someone to buy them. One time in Arkansas, in another rainstorm, this older lady who owned a flower shop saw me freezing, and she asked if I needed anything. She brought me pants, gloves, a hat, and a hot chocolate too. Are people nice to me? If you’re in the South, yes. In Los Angeles, people are rude; they think you’re gross. It depends on where you are.

I left my daughter in Arkansas; she’s 4. She lives with her foster parents, in a five-bedroom house. They’re good to her. I haven’t met her, but I’ve seen videos. She’s beautiful. No, I don’t regret my decision about her, especially to go to foster parents like that. I’m keeping the baby I’m carrying now though. I’m due June 17th.

Houston has cut homelessness over the last decade by more than half. The big takeaway for L.A.: Strategic clarity and execution lead to success.

I was working as a paid intern at the Community Garden, on Lincoln, but once I found out I was pregnant, I had to stop. Because I’m pregnant, they’re trying to find me a hotel. I actually have a Section 8 voucher, which took me two years to get — but it’s hard to find a place that’s not in South-Central, East L.A. or downtown. I want my baby to grow up in a safe neighborhood.

Being an unhoused woman is hard. I try to be with another person, for safety. One time in Missouri I was flying a sign with a friend. When he went to the bathroom, someone grabbed my arm and tried to pull me into a car. I punched him in the face, and he sped off. Every day, creepy men come up to me, asking if they can buy me coffee. It’s never, ‘You want a coffee?’ It’s: ‘Let’s get coffee.’ I tell them to get lost. But that only happens when I’m not with M. We’ve been together two years; we’re having this baby together.


I’m not sure what I’ll do after I give birth. My dream is to be a photographer, but that’s hard these days, with everyone having cellphones. Or a marine biologist. That’d be a good career. I want a career, not a job. In school, they always ask: What’s your dream job? I never had an answer for that. I don’t want a “job.” I want a career.

Three men, in their 50s, 60s and 70s, represent a growing population among L.A. County’s unhoused.


Devotion (Venice Boulevard and Washington Way)

My name is Devotion, and I’m 27 years old. I got here in December, from Pittsburgh. I love Pittsburgh — especially the night life — but it snows, and it’s hard to be unhoused. I just figured: It’s warm in Los Angeles; that’s where I’ll go. I took two planes to get here. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t even have much money. I thought: I’ll find a place to live; I’ll figure it out. First I was in Hollywood, on the Strip. That was bad. One morning, at around 5:30, when I was just trying to find a place to sleep, I was raped, by a complete stranger. He was on drugs, and he started screaming at me. I went to the train station to get away from him, but that’s where he found me. That was the first time that happened to me. I had high hopes for this place — and that killed it. I didn’t go to the police, because he scared me into not talking. I didn’t go to a health clinic either. To be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about that.

After that happened, I came to Venice. (Also, I started carrying a knife.) It’s safer here. I’m surrounded by a great community. That guy over there — he gives me food every day. I don’t ask him where it comes from. And the library gives out free water. And people come by every once in a while, just to check on you. I’m not sure if they’re from health services or just from the neighborhood. Either way, it’s nice. Right after I got here, someone gifted me a tent.

“I played violin from the third grade to the 12th grade,” says Devotion. “My parents didn’t encourage my creativity. They didn’t even like me practicing violin in the house!”
(Robert Karron)

I was born in Philadelphia, and I lived in Pennsylvania my whole life. I was living with my parents until last year. I had to leave the house because of conflict between them. I didn’t want to be around that. I was house surfing for a year — until I moved to Los Angeles.


In high school, my favorite subjects were art, literature and music. I liked the arts for the creative expression they offered me. They helped get my creativity out. I sang from the fifth grade to the 12th grade, and I played violin from the third grade to the 12th grade. My parents didn’t encourage my creativity. They didn’t even like me practicing violin in the house! That gives you a sense of what it was like. Music — it’s everything to me.

You could say I grew up as the emo kid — the black sheep, always listening to music. My friends were like that too. Not anymore. They all have families now. They’ve joined society. Not me. I’m still the black sheep. I don’t mind it.

I’d love to get a job playing music — though I don’t have a violin anymore, and because I’m on disability I can’t work more than 30 hours a week, so that’d be complicated. Also, I haven’t worked for the last five years, so my work history isn’t great. I’m on disability for mental health reasons, and I haven’t worked because I’ve been in and out of mental hospitals. They put me on medication, but I didn’t like how it made me feel. These days, I self-medicate, with cannabis. Without that, I’d be anxious all the time, especially in crowds. But I love concerts! I don’t get anxious because I just close my eyes and get lost in the music.

I’m surrounded by a great community. ... People come by every once in a while, just to check on you.

— Devotion

I have a brother in New York, and a sister in Maryland, but my sister lives with her boyfriend, and my brother lives with his grandmother. There’s no room for me in either place. When I came out here, my parents moved from our house and into a one-bedroom apartment, so even if I wanted to go back home, there’s no room for me there.

To be homeless, you have to be a lone wolf. Most men are lone wolves, but sometimes women are too. I’m a lone wolf. I’m used to doing things by myself because no one ever helped me. In my tent I have blankets and hygiene products. You’ve got to stay clean. I use baby wipes and deodorant. You don’t need to shower if you have enough baby wipes. In my bag I carry hand sanitizer, my wallet, makeup products, feminine hygiene stuff, a brush and shampoo. I don’t leave those in my tent because I don’t want anyone taking them.

I don’t really have a daily routine. I just go wherever I want. Most days, I can use the bathroom at the library, but on Sundays, when it’s closed, I take walks, strategically, so I can end up at public restrooms. There’s one near 7th Street that I use a lot, so I walk over there a lot.

Moving homeless individuals out of parks and large encampments, and into temporary housing is a first step of what may be a long and complicated process. The ultimate and most difficult goal here is to get people into permanent housing.

I went to beauty school. I graduated and passed the first of two board tests you need for your license, but I decided not to take the second one. It just wasn’t for me. I trained in cosmetology. I can do hair, makeup, nails and scalp massages. I haven’t done any of that in a while though.

Guys approach me all the time. I try not to talk to them; I try to ignore it. But that only works some of the time. What guys do is, they “neg.” They’re always negging, being flashy and peacocky, to get what they want. You just try to ignore them. It’s all you can do. What do you do when a peacock puts its feathers up and walks up to you? You just turn away from it.