For more on Los Angeles’ Skid Row and Beauty 2 the Streetz, watch “United Shades of America” Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
For a few hours every Saturday morning, Los Angeles’ Skid Row – home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of homeless people – transforms into an outdoor beauty salon.
There, where tents line entire city blocks, homeless people gather to get free makeovers from Shirley Raines, or a member on her team of volunteers, made up of licensed hair stylists, barbers, makeup artists.
The service began three years ago, when Raines started her non-profit Beauty 2 The Streetz, an organization dedicated to making those who are homeless look good and feel even better.
“Just because they live on the streets doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can do to help them not appear as they live on the streets,” Raines told CNN. “It’s their right to be beautiful.”
She said she came up with the idea after volunteering at a soup kitchen, where she realized that while food, water and shelter may be what homeless people need to survive, a haircut, a new hair color and some makeup are what help them thrive.
“These are people who are homeless with a husband, with a wife,” the 52-year-old said. “We’re talking about people who go to work five days a week, but still remain homeless. They want to get beautiful for their spouse. They want to get cleaned up and beautiful to go to work. The little kids who are still going to school need a fresh haircut.”
The coronavirus epidemic has put the organization’s beauty services on pause – but the non-profit is still helping in any way it can. It has since shifted its focus to providing resources to help protect homeless people from the coronavirus.
And now that California Gov. Gavin Newsom has allowed hair salons and barbershops to perform services outside, Raines said she hopes to restart haircuts and makeovers soon.
A purpose stemming from her pain
For many on Skid Row, Raines has become much more than a stylist. With each interaction, she said people in the homeless community share their life stories with her.
But caring for people experiencing homelessness has also helped Raines heal a traumatic pain of her own. About 30 years ago, she lost her 3-year-old son in an accident.
“That just broke me,” she said. “I came down with panic and anxiety disorder… I wasn’t a good mom to my living children. I was just a really bitter person and my loss made me that way.”
With her twin sister’s advice to “find a purpose for the pain,” and a friend’s recommendation to volunteer at a soup kitchen, Raines set foot for the first time in LA’s homeless community, helping give out food.
“I saw so much brokenness, so much heartbreak,” she recalled. “I just recognized that because I felt like I was one of them. I’m broken too from the pain and so I really liked it and I continued to go out.”
As she gave out food, she quickly realized that the homeless women, both cis- and transgender, were more interested in her hair, makeup and fashion.
She asked them if they wanted some hair and makeup products and they said yes so she headed to a makeup store and bought dozens of mascaras, eyelashes and other simple makeup items.
Then she went home to pick up bottles of hair color that she hadn’t used and headed to Skid Row. As she handed out makeup products and dyed people’s hair, she realized that she had found her purpose and decided to launch her own operation.
Initially, Beauty 2 The Streetz was small – with just her five children helping to hand out food, drinks, hygiene kits and beauty products. Raines alone would dye people’s hair and do their makeup.
But then she started live streaming the events and posting pictures to Instagram, and Beauty 2 The Streetz soon became more well-known.
Licensed hair stylists, barbers, makeup artists and even big makeup companies reached out to Raines saying that they wanted to help.
By 2019, Raines had registered Beauty 2 The Streetz as an official non-profit with about two dozen volunteers generously offering their time and efforts to help Skid Row’s residents feel beautiful.
She left her job as a medical biller last year and started running the organization full time.
Giving her clients confidence
Cherish Benham, 30, and her husband were homeless on and off for around four years, an experience she described as “traumatic.”
“I saw a man get shot and drop dead just 15 feet away from our tent,” Benham told CNN. “To see that, it gave me fuel to get me out of that situation.”
Benham already had a reason to get her life back on track – but she just needed the confidence, and the right opportunity.
That’s when Beauty 2 The Streetz came in – with Raines giving Benham a makeover that let her natural beauty shine.
“I felt like a brand new woman,” Benham said. “It gave me the confidence to lift my head up higher. To not worry about the situation I’m presently in, but move forward for what I can be in the future.”
In the year that they’ve known each other, Benham said Raines was always there provide her with anything she needed, whether it was some money for a work uniform, job connections or just someone to talk to.
Now, Benham is working for the Census Bureau, and has been living in permanent housing with her husband for three months. In addition to her own hard work, she credits Raines for turning her life around.
“Ms. Shirley is one of the most caring, loving souls ever,” Benham said. “No matter what situation you’re in, no matter what you look like, she’s always treats you with the utmost respect. Especially in Skid Row, you don’t get that much welcoming respect, but with her and her team, they make me feel like a normal human being.”
Pushing through the pandemic
When California ordered all its residents to stay at home in late March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Raines and her volunteers complied and did not go to Skid Row.
But their presence was greatly missed.
“That Monday, I opened up my DM on my Instagram and several homeless community members sent me messages saying, ‘Where are you? We’re hungry. We’re alone. Nobody’s out here feeding us,’” Raines recalled.
“I realized that we didn’t have the luxury of self isolating because we built this relationship with the community so we need to still go out there and help them.”
Because homeless people live in close quarters and have limited access to hand washing resources, Raines knows that they are extremely vulnerable to contracting Covid-19. So instead of hair and makeup, she shifted her operations to focus on food, hygiene and protection.
The non-profit has been handing out supplies every weekend since March 28, making sure they’re adhering to social distancing guidelines and wearing masks themselves while on Skid Row.
Raines and her volunteers distribute hundreds of McDonald’s burgers, as well as kits packed with hand sanitizer, bottled water, socks, masks and vitamin C-rich fruits to boost the immune system.
Still, the desire for hair products and makeup is there, Raines said, so Beauty 2 The Streetz has also been slowly bringing out wigs, makeup, combs and brushes so homeless people can style themselves.
Raines said If there’s anything to learn from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that “any one of us could be them (homeless) at any given time.”
An analysis published in May by Brendan O’ Flaherty, a Columbia University economics professor, predicted that homelessness will increase 40-45% by the end of the year if the coronavirus pandemic continues to drive unemployment levels as high as predicted.
That would mean 250,000 more Americans would become homeless compared to last year, bringing the total number of those experiencing homelessness to above 800,000.
“We’re already looking at places where landlords are putting tenants out and we’ve got moms and children sleeping in the car. They just had a job. Everything was fine with them,” Raines said.
“One pandemic came in and changed everyone’s finances. I want people to understand that they are no different than us and the narrative of what homelessness is has to change.”
CNN’s Harmeet Kaur contributed to this report.