For more than six years, Vickie, a 63-year-old homeless artist, did most of her sleeping on Los Angeles’ public buses.
"Nobody’s going to rape me on a bus," says Vickie, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy. "It’s the safest place for a woman to be. The only problem is you never get to lie down flat."
Fear of rape, violence and theft had kept Vickie off the streets at night. But she says that fear also kept her away from homeless shelters, where she could have gotten a bed.
"Some of them have bad reputations," she says. "The ones that have outstanding reputations are always full."
What finally coaxed Vickie off of buses was the opening of a women’s-only shelter in Boyle Heights, one of a very few in Los Angeles, and the only one to cater to older women like her. The Guadalupe Homeless Project Women's Shelter has 15 beds arranged in a converted classroom that used to house an after-school program. It’s run by Proyecto Pastoral, a nonprofit under the auspices of East L.A’s Dolores Mission. Most of the women are in their 50s and 60s. The oldest is 80.
Raquel Román, the shelter's director, says the need for a women’s shelter in East L.A. became clear last year, when the body of a 36-year-old homeless woman named Lorenza Arellano was found floating in the lake at Hollenbeck Park. Arellano had often eaten dinner at a men’s shelter that Proyecto Pastoral has run in the community for decades, recalls Román, but because its beds were not open to women, she slept in the park. Police said she died of a drug overdose, though how she ended up in the lake remains a mystery.
"Her tragic death was a shock to all of us," Román says, "and I was really compelled to say, we need to provide services to women in our community that are in the same situation."
Amy Turk, program director for the Downtown Women’s Center, a day center for homeless women, says that other than the new Boyle Heights shelter, she knows of only two other women-only shelters in Los Angeles, totaling roughly 300 beds.
Yet the need for them is great, she adds, because the fear of violence often keeps women away from traditional shelters, much as it did with Vickie. A majority of homeless women recently surveyed by the center reported being victims of sexual abuse or other violence. A vast majority said they preferred women-specific homeless services.
And yet "we hardly ever see any funding geared solely toward unaccompanied women who are experiencing homelessness," Turk says. Women trying to escape abusive partners have more options. So do homeless women with underage children, but they tend to be younger, and overall the population of homeless women is getting older.
As they age, Turk notes, they're getting sicker faster than the housed population, which makes it harder for them to stay on the streets.
Those challenges are evident among the women at the Guadalupe Homeless Project, where each evening they do daily chores before being taken by van to a nearby school cafeteria where they're served dinner.
Carlette Luka, a 59-year-old from Hawaii, has an easy smile and a jovial demeanor, but suffers from high blood pressure and a bad hip. She uses a walker. Before arriving at the shelter, she says she often slept in a graveyard to avoid trouble.
Another 59-year-old, who sings in her church’s gospel choir and asked not to be named, treks out on foot every morning to look for work but is slowed down by plantar fasciitis and pre-diabetes. Several women are getting treatment for mental health issues.
The goal of most of these women is to eventually find a job and an apartment, a task made difficult by the reluctance of many employers to hire older women, according to Román. Some of the women at the shelter face the added complication of being in the U.S. illegally.
But some of the women are starting to get back on their feet. At 53, Eva Gonzalez is among the shelter’s younger residents. She once had a business designing and selling dresses for quinceañeras. For reasons she’ll only hint at, she lost the business, and then her home. She stayed in hotels and with friends, then finally heard about the shelter and secured a bed there.
For weeks, she struggled to find work.
"They told me I was too old," she recalls. Gonzalez finally found work selling dresses in downtown L.A.'s garment district, adding that she's saving money and plans to get a place of her own.
Unlike some of the women living with her in the shelter, Gonzalez says she still has time to start over.