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Portrait of an artist on Skid Row

by Michael Radcliffe | Off-Ramp®

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Skid row resident and artist Juanita Pina stands with some of her drawings Michael Radcliffe

Downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row is home to over 8,000 people living on the streets. Off-Ramp Contributor Michael Radcliffe spent time downtown with an artist, named Juanita Pina, who calls Skid Row her home.

When I first met Juanita she was pulling her hair back tightly, revealing a kind, welcoming smile. In her hand, a colored pencil was gliding across a sheet of paper.

She was drawing vivid pictures of African queens wrapped in the fires of the phoenix, red flames and feathers swirling up around her and off the page.

"Sometimes I'll go into my own imagination," she said. "But I don't know, I appreciate what I see around me."

I asked her to pull out some more of her work. She showed me beautiful drawings of zebras, giraffes and tigers. Other pictures showed tango and belly dancers.

"I think I did my first portrait of another human being... I was maybe 7 or 8 years old," said Juanita. "I don't have the patience for oil, but I do love colored pencil, ink and acrylic."

Harvey, a friend and neighbor of Juanita who would only give his first name, lives around the corner on the same block.

"She'll buy the cheap stuff and if you've seen her work, you would think that work was done with expensive material. But she has a wonderful eye, a wonderful eye. She can really draw and really bring a picture to life," Harvey said.

A normal day for Juanita begins about 4:30 in the morning.

"I get up and, of course, take care of my hygiene part and start packing my belongings up inside my tent," she said.

Then she heads for the Starbucks. "I have some coffee and do my artwork over there," she said. "[It's] kind of a chance to be away from, you know, try to ignore the fact that I sleep on the street."

But when you live on the street, you can't count on normal days like that. When I came back a week later, Juanita was gone. Her tent, her clothes, her pencils — all of it had vanished.

I was able to find Harvey, who said she went to jail. He didn't know why.

He said the the police had come early in the morning as everyone was cleaning up.

He said the police told her to go faster. She got upset and they took her in.

Juanita called me the next week — she'd been released. But the police had taken all of her belongings to a warehouse five blocks away.

"They take everything, all your property," she told me over the phone. "They know you need your things to survive. You can't not have a blanket."

She said she felt gross — she had no way to clean herself. She pulled her hair back again tightly and secured it with a hair tie that she had bartered a cigarette for.

We walked the five blocks to the warehouse — big, with corrugated metal walls in the middle of a crowded parking lot. The walls looked like they hadn't been painted in 20 years.

We got there at 12:30 and were greeted by a bare white sign. It said the warehouse was open just 20 hours a week, and today it closed at 1 p.m. It was 12:30, but the place looked dead. She dialed a number on the white sign, but no answer. An hour passed and no one showed. She called again.

"I've been waiting, well, since, what time was it? It was like 12:30 or some time around there," she told the man who answered.

He told her the warehouse was closed and there was nothing she could do about it except to go back tomorrow. "Last time it took me five times to get my stuff," she said. "You get here, call the number. You might get somebody, you might not."

A few months ago, a federal judge ruled that the city of Los Angeles can't destroy a homeless person's property without warning. Stuff like medication and bedding were getting trashed or stored at this warehouse. In March, the L.A. City Council passed a law that allowed homeless people to keep personal property on the street — it just needs to all fit in a trash bin.

The next morning, I was on my way back to Juanita's spot and a few people were hurriedly cleaning up their areas. In front of her sidewalk was a police SUV. I saw Juanita's feet sticking out from behind a blue tarp, her back against the railing. She refused to clean up.

"You're not gonna bully me around," she said. "You sit under the same laws we do. You are not unreachable. You are not the law."

We made plans to go back to the warehouse again, but then I got a call from Juanita — she'd been hospitalized but would be back soon.

I went back a few times trying to find her. Her neighbor told me she hasn't seen her in a week. She suggested a few places I could look.

I scanned the sidewalks: hundreds of homeless men and women on every part, tents lined up next to one another, the courtyards at the shelters just as full. Juanita would be nearly impossible to find.

Suddenly, trip after trip downtown, Juanita was unreachable. I started coming to terms with the fact that Juanita was gone.

But then she called again. "I'm getting my gallbladder taken out," she said. "I'll be fine. I'm coming back. I just forgot to let you know that."

Juanita was in Phoenix. She said that health care was cheaper there, but she'd come back soon.

I went down to find Juanita, to help her, finally, move her stuff out of the warehouse. I was looking forward to seeing her. But when I got there — again — she was gone.

I haven't heard from her since. More attempts to find her proved fruitless, and like a lot of people with homeless family or friends, I'm stuck wondering where she is — and if she's OK. Can she even get in touch if she isn't? I hate the uncertainty of it all. I can only imagine what it's like for Juanita.

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