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When Shirley Raines was named the 2021 CNN Hero of the Year in New York City last December, she wasted no time bringing the honor back to her Skid Row community in Los Angeles.
“It’s just a really amazing opportunity for the homeless to be seen, helped … for people to understand what they’re going through,” she said.
The founder of the non-profit Beauty 2 the Streetz, Raines provides hair and makeup services, food, clothing, hygiene and safety items to thousands of homeless people every week. She hopes the award will continue to garner attention for a community that is struggling and often overlooked.
“I think it’s important to change the narrative of what people think Skid Row is about, to see the commonalities that we have,” Raines said.
Rain or shine, she sets up “shop” weekly at the corner of 5th and Towne to serve those she calls “Kings” and “Queens.” Her goal is to help them see themselves as worthy, whether that means a haircut, a facial, a hearty meal, or a hug.
Raines says she knows how it feels to be labeled. For decades, she struggled with financial insecurity, grief and loss after the death of her first son.
“The world looked at me and thought probably the same thing they think about the homeless when they pass them by,” she said. “You never know what anyone’s going through, you know?”
After volunteering with a church group on Skid Row, Raines said it was the homeless community that helped her find purpose.
“I went to Skid Row, I’m like, ‘Oh, this is where all the broken people are? Oh, I’ve been looking for y’all all my life,” she said. “I never wanted to leave.”
Early on, Raines began live-streaming her Beauty 2 the Streetz events on Instagram and Tik Tok and soon gathered a devoted social media following. She has more than 4 million followers on social media – people who not only want to help but also follow her work and life. In times of need, Raines often appeals to them for donated tents and hygiene items.
And in 2021, when Raines found out she was a Top 10 CNN Hero, she also encouraged her followers to vote for her for CNN Hero of the Year.
“As much as you want to say it doesn’t really matter, let’s be real. I wanted to bring that prize money, that win, that recognition to the community,” she said. “It felt really good to know that social media really rocked with us.”
Raines was presented with the award by hosts Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa and thanked the Skid Row community and her children, including her late son, who inspired her work.
“I wanted people to understand you are not looking at a woman who buried a child, who started a non-profit, got her life together, and now she’s a CNN Hero winner,” Raines said. “You’re looking at a woman who did all those things and remains very much broken, but yet is still a CNN Hero winner.”
Raines’ organization received $100,000 to expand its work, and she says the money will be used for feeding programs. As homeless populations increase, she says they need support more than ever.
“The work continues on,” Raines said. “But it’s the hardest thing to get the support and help for. There’s a massive need for tents (and) blankets down here.”
For those Raines serves, the honor and award have indeed been a win.
“It was like a team feeling,” said Skid Row resident Michael Jackson who was featured in Raines’ profile piece. “Everyone was approaching me … I was happy and proud just to know her. She’s helped out more people than you can imagine.”
Despite the honor, Raines says she wants to stay grounded and doesn’t think of herself as a hero.
“I don’t do hero stuff, I do human stuff,” she said. “I work out here in the streets to gain the trust of my community. The world had that opportunity to vote for 10 amazing organizations. And they chose one that dealt with homelessness … to them that might say, ‘Oh my god. People really are paying attention. People really do care.’”
Want to get involved? Check out the Beauty 2 the Streetz website and see how to help.
CNN’s Dan Przygoda contributed to this story.