Shirley Raines is behind Beauty 2 The Streetz, a nonprofit that has supported Skid Row’s homeless community for the last three years and is now helping them combat coronavirus
It’s an early Saturday morning in May and a line of nearly a hundred people, many of them clenching grocery bags or shopping carts filled with their life’s belongings, have gathered near a bustling intersection east of Downtown Los Angeles.
A motorcade of cars and rumbling Harley-Davidsons arrive a quarter after nine and bring with them a group of familiar faces who immediately begin setting up tables in front of the eager crowd.
The Harley riders — a crew of six from Fighters for the World M.C., wearing leather vests decorated with nicknames like “Mr. Clean,” “Vegas” and “Professor” — quickly split up their duties. Some help the other 20 volunteers who are organizing the supplies and meals the group has brought with them, while the rest function as bouncers to manage the growing line of people. Those tasked with watching the line have their work cut out for them — by the time they pack up in a few hours, they will have served nearly 800 people.
Sporting her hot pink hair and rainbow eye shadow, Shirley Raines stands out as she emerges from a white SUV and pulls down her shimmering face mask to greet the crowd.
“Good morning, you guys!” the mother of six says into a megaphone. “Happy Saturday!”
Raines is no stranger to those who have come to this corner of Fifth Street and Towne Avenue. She’s the founder of Beauty 2 The Streetz, a nonprofit that has been one of the primary means of support for many who live in Skid Row, an area roughly the size of 50 city blocks that has one of the largest homeless populations in the U.S.
“We’ve Been Living in Danger”
For three years, Raines and her team of volunteers have made weekly visits to Skid Row to distribute donated food, hygiene products and other necessities. But the group has also provided something unique — free beauty makeovers to the community’s cisgender and transgender women. Many of these sessions can be seen on Instagram, where Beauty 2 The Streetz has over 136,000 followers.
At the start, Raines believed these hair and make-up transformations would change the way the public viewed homelessness. It didn’t take long for her to realize she needed to work at an even deeper level.
“One of the things I wanted to do was change the face of homelessness, and I thought I was going to do that through hair and all these things,” the 52-year-old, who works full-time for the nonprofit, tells PEOPLE. “But I soon understood we needed to change the narrative of what ‘homeless’ means. Just because they’re without a home does not mean they’re without love. They are homeless, but a lot of them are not jobless. A lot of them are not kidless, phoneless or familyless. There are many levels of poverty as there are many levels of wealth.”
“And I know more unhappy housed people than I do homeless people,” she adds. “They are very strong people.”
But this strength was tested, for both residents and the nonprofit, when the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill. Raines immediately put makeovers on hold after Los Angeles authorized lockdown measures to combat the disease in mid-March. She then turned to her team in the hopes some would be comfortable returning to Skid Row. To her surprise, many were.
“We’ve been married to these streets,” Raines says of their decision to continue. “I took a marriage vow to my community a long time ago, and I wasn’t going to break them now.”
Before the pandemic, Raines drove 20 miles to Downtown Los Angeles from her home in Long Beach four times a week (one day with volunteers and three days without). Now, she and the team only visit on Saturdays to protect themselves and the homeless from being exposed to COVID-19, which can cause coughing, difficulty breathing, fever and death.
On these mornings, the group meets at 8 a.m. at a nearby McDonald’s, which has provided the nonprofit with hundreds of free food items to donate. The restaurant’s parking lot also gives the volunteers extra room to bag the supplies, hand sanitizer and face masks that will be given to those waiting at Fifth and Towne. Team members wear face coverings and do their best to remain six feet apart during the process.
But simply providing Skid Row residents with protective equipment during the crisis hasn’t been enough to convince many to take the pandemic seriously, Raines says. To the people who live here, the constant physical threats they face — like theft, rape and assault — take precedence over a virus they can’t see.