Sometimes I wish I didn’t exist. Oh, I don’t want to die. I just wish I could be somebody else, live someone else’s life. Not mine. But then I think that if I was someone else, my kids would be different too and I’m not so sure I’d want that for them. I only want it for me. Is that selfish?
I once had a therapist who asked me why I didn’t commit suicide. She said, “After hearing your life story...well, I think most other people would have.”
All I could think of to say was, “Am I crazy because I didn’t?” You know what she says to me?
She says “No. You’re not crazy. You’re one of the most courageous women I know.”
“Not me,” I tell her. “I’m the biggest chicken shit in the world.”
You never saw it coming. You spend days wondering what you had done to deserve it. "It's my fault" you think. "If I hadn't burned the toast; if I had only finished the laundry before he came home; if I had have hung the towel back on the rack the right way." You can think all the 'If I's' you want to, but it won't change what he is.
You never know when it will happen again. You walk on eggshells trying to figure out what will you’ll do next to set him off. You try hard to be the Stepford wife. Perfect in every way; never giving him a reason to be angry. Then you wake up, and realize he doesn't need a reason. You can laugh the wrong way; sneeze the wrong way; yawn the wrong way. You can be sound asleep, and the way you breath can send him into a rage. And if he's in a mood, he'll strike out.
The moment you feel that first punch, with the same breath that is sucked out of you from the impact, your dignity leaves as you exhale, and you just know , this time he’s going to kill me. He doesn’t. You’ve had enough. You weigh the odds. Do you choose the violent and drug riddle streets of the big city, or living with a monster? You make the only choice you can.
Dignity is the first to go. Decorum is a thing of the past from the moment you squat in the woods, or pee in a cup. Your pride leaves when you stand in line for hours for a lukewarm bowl of soup or a day old doughnut that actually tastes like heaven for you haven’t eaten in days. Paranoia kicks in and in the wee hours of the morning, you cling to the backpack that contains all of your worldly possessions.
What do you next? Where do you go? If you are in Los Angeles, you go to the Downtown Women’s Center, where you will find a hug, a shoulder to cry on, a friend to lean on and shelter from the storm your life has become.
Rosa was one of the women who chose the streets of Los Angeles. You could find her pushing shopping carts down the streets of skid row. She’d put big cans of water out in the morning so they’d heat up during the day. She’d put up barriers so she could bathe with this heated water privately. She’d also cook on a makeshift stove and often you’d find her sharing her meager provisions with others who were as unfortunate as she.
The founder of the Downtown Women’s Center started to work with her, and found it a very profound experience. She realized there weren’t specific resources down here on skid row for women. She founded the Downtown Women’s Center with that purpose. The mission of the Downtown Women’s Center is to help women suffering from homelessness and extreme poverty.
Downtown Women’s Center is not a shelter. They offer supportive services, a day center and permanent supportive housing offer sanctuary to approximately 50 ladies. They feel solutions do exist to homelessness and it starts with them.
The women in the mural that surround the current Downtown Women’s Center, are the women who are living within its protective walls. Many of the women are elderly. Rosa, is now in her early nineties. You can find Rosa painted in the middle of the mural. She’s the one with all of the roses, and her beloved cat on her lap.
Many of the ladies who are living within the confines of the center may experience mental health issues, domestic violence issues, and extreme poverty. But they also see some much younger women who are there due to unemployment. The average stay is 7 years but some will stay at the center for a year or two as a stepping stone, and then move on elsewhere.
Of the Skid row homeless population, women make up about 35%. Do to the rising numbers in homeless women; the Downtown Women’s Center has outgrown their space. Their new location, due to open in December of this year, can be found on San Pedro and 5th, the heart of skid row. In their new digs, they will be able to provide about 100 units. They will also be opening the first full spectrum medical and mental health clinic designed especially for the women on skid row, focusing on preventative health care. Health Screenings, mammograms, mental health management, and medication management will be offered daily and they are working on getting the first mammogram machine on skid row.
The new building was purchased from the city of Los Angeles for $1, with the condition that they restore it to its 1920’s elegance. Five years in the making it will be a lead certified green building. The staff of the Downtown Women’s Center worked closely with the ASID American Society of Interior Designers, and put together 6 themes ranging from modern to traditional, Mediterranean to country. For most of these women this will be the home they live in for the rest of their lives and the Downtown Women’s Center wanted them to feel at home, therefore, each lady got to pick the theme they wanted. Each floor will have a common area as well as a roof top garden and a second floor garden.
Rosa is going to move. It’s going to be hard for her after 30 years in her cozy refuge. Each lady has been assigned a moving partner or mentor if you will. It started in February with a moving mentor working side by side as the current residents began the process of de-cluttering, packing, and of course dealing with anxiety issues. This is their new permanent home, but it is also a big transition for them.
As I toured the current facility, I was delighted to hear laughing; those deep from the belly kind of laughs that you know only come from feeling safe and secure in your environment. There is not a lot of shaded green space on skid row so in the back of this small community as you go through the open kitchen with the hearth and home feeling, I find the source of the peels of gaiety.
There, away from the violence their lives once were, we find a beautiful serene garden where the women can sit and relax, listen to the birds, the water and today have mani’s and pedi’s.
You will find more than a sense of community and support at the Downtown Women’s Center. Here, you will find a sense of home.
Today was a special day for many of the residents here. They were able to shout to the world that they will no longer be victims. Through the Clothesline Project women can express their emotions by decorating a shirt. They then hang the shirt on a clothesline to be viewed by others as testimony to the problem of violence against women.