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 buses was the opening of a women-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 afterschool 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."