Every day the streets of Los Angeles are filled with people suffering from unbearable loss. The kind of loss that makes you lose your mind. Loss of your job, loss of your home, loss of your car, loss of your family, loss of your standing in this world, and worse of all, the loss of hope.
It’s the kind of repeated letdowns that tip people over the edge–whether that edge be drugs, alcohol, or even suicide. We see some of these people talking to themselves or to someone we can’t see. They lie motionless on the ground or scream at the top of their lungs because they are angry. But there are many these people we can’t see–until it’s too late.
The proliferation of low-income single adults and families living in weekly motels as a last resort to keep a roof over their heads is seldom discussed. I call them the “hidden homeless.” They’re indoors, so we don’t see them like we see the people living in tent encampments on the street. But let me tell you that these motel rooms are not five-star accommodations. They are small, dark, foul-smelling, dirty, moldy, and have beds with bugs and often roaches–and that’s inside. These motels are prone to sex work, drug use, and violence outside. Ask me how I know.
And if living in a one-room motel room takes a toll on you as an adult, imagine what it’s doing to the children who call it home.
The struggle is real.
Many of these same low-income adults and families can’t afford the cost of moving into more permanent housing–let alone the monthly rent in Los Angeles. Yet they end up spending thousands a month to pay a weekly rate for substandard housing conditions.
This is Monica’s story, but it’s the story of so many women right now in Los Angeles.
“That’s what I don’t want to have to return to doing,” 45-year-old Monica* Brown says to me on the verge of tears while looking at a barely dressed woman gingerly strolling down Figueroa in South Los Angeles. It’s a mild sunny Monday afternoon. Monica is trying to gather up the few belongings she and her six-year-old son Nicholas* have left after being evicted. Everything is stuffed into two duffle bags.
The “that” Monica refers to is sex work–and in her case, survival sex work.
For almost a year, Monica and Nicholas had room to breathe. Monica had been given assistance to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Lancaster after living in a Downey motel room for three-and-a-half years.
At 6-years old, more than half her son’s life has already been spent living in dark, dusty, smelly motel rooms, and a year later, he’s back with her, living in one.
Nicholas says to me, “I know how to open the door, ” with a smile on his face, referring to the key card I am holding for his mother.
Monica’s landlord evicted her and another tenant in February to use the apartment for a family member–or so the landlord claims. Monica doesn’t believe the landlord.
“I told HOPICS that I was being evicted,” Monica explains. “I will never forget. It was November 10 when I got the notice from the landlord that I had to be out by February 8.”
HOPICS or the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System, assisted Monica with finding the apartment last year. It was the first time she wasn’t on the street or living in a motel room in more than three years.
“I felt like life had started over for me,” remembered Monica. “I felt like everything that I went through–that I can live, I can start over. God gave me a second chance. He didn’t just leave me out to the wolves. I can make up for time and what we went through in the shelters and motel rooms. I was very happy and very grateful. Nothing mattered prior to that date. I had a new future.”
Before moving to the Antelope Valley, Monica had occupied a Downey motel room through a program with HOPICS. Monica, like many families, had taken to living in motel rooms as a last resort to avoid being on the street.
I first met Monica when we were both placed in the same foster home in Carson. She was a very pregnant 17-year-old when my social worker picked me up from MacLaren Hall Children’s Center and brought me there. At the time, Monica was pregnant with her first child–a daughter she named Lily*.
In the beginning, I wouldn’t say that we were friends. I was 15-years-old and scared as hell of her. She was everything I wasn’t. Loud, hood, somewhat of a bully, and made it clear that even though she was pregnant, she could and would kick my ass. Needless to say, she had her own bedroom while the rest of us shared rooms.
This was the mid-90s, so when Monica aged out of the system with a baby, she quickly went from the Department of Children and Family Services into the welfare program, where she received a Section 8 housing voucher, food stamps, and a monthly welfare allowance. It wasn’t too long after she gave birth to her daughter that she had a son. By the time of the births, neither father was in the picture.
When you spend time in placement as we did, you tend to move differently through the world, which was true of Monica. She hustled. Even though she had two young children, she worked when she could, usually security jobs. She was a high school dropout, but I never knew Monica to just sit on her ass and do nothing. Her kids might not have had everything, but they were clean and had food, clothes, and a roof over their heads. She made sure of it.
At some point, when I emancipated from “the system,” as we called it, I fell back in with Monica. For a few years there, as I finished up high school and was still in placement, we were separated, but we managed to reconnect once I was on my own. So she remains one of two women I keep up with that I was in foster care with.
There was a time that I babysat for her while she worked and when I needed a place to stay in my late teens and early 20s, it was Monica who let me sleep on her couch.
Remember when I said that those of us who spent time in the system moved differently? In the mid-90s there were no programs to catch the many young men and women who aged out of the foster care system. Either you made it, or you didn’t, and the difference between making it or not was often as basic as having a couch to sleep on at a friend’s place.
Monica, like myself, didn’t have any family to rely on for help.
She had been in foster care since she was baby.
“From what I was told, my mom was on drugs,” Monica said. “I was told that she had cancer and eventually, I guess she started doing drugs. She didn’t die from the drugs. She died from cancer.”
Monica’s parents died within a year of each other. Her father was murdered, and she is still trying to find out why.
The system raised Monica. So her hustle was always different because she had two children to take care of, and she knew that there was no one else to help her do it. She also knew that if she failed, the same foster care system she aged out of would gladly take her two Black babies in the blink of an eye. So this mother’s hustle was real.
I don’t know how she did it, but she did it, and before I knew it we were in our 40s and those two babies I used to babysit were grown adults with children of their own.
There was a point where I had gone my way in life, and she had gone hers, but we would make sure to check in with one another periodically through the years.
I remember how shocked I was to find out that at 40, Monica was pregnant with her third child. I thought she was done with having children because by then she was a grandmother. When she became pregnant, she was living in Bakersfield, had a car, and apartment, and worked at Walmart. By the end of her pregnancy, she was unemployed and on the verge of homelessness.
I don’t know much about that situation except that the child’s father was in prison and, like the two before him, was not going to be in the picture in terms of raising his child.
I’m Goin’ Down
I couldn’t tell you what exactly happened in Bakersfield that put my friend into homelessness. But, whatever it was, the stress of it was written all over her face and body. Add the fact that she was dealing with untreated mental health issues, and it was a perfect storm–a storm that six years later is still ravaging her.
The next time I would hear about Monica would be in 2019, when her adult children reached out to me because she had gone missing somewhere in South Los Angeles with the baby. I don’t know how I found her, but I did, somewhere off Main Street in the 80s. What I do remember crystal clear is the man she was with was not too pleased to see me parked outside asking for the baby and asking a million and one questions to a very disheveled, almost unrecognizable Monica.
She was a hot mess, and even though she didn’t say it, I could tell from her energy she was concerned about the man’s reaction to her oldest son and me just showing up there.
My friend never had a drug problem but what she did have was untreated mental health issues. I know you’re thinking–her and half of Los Angeles. Right? Right. But couple untreated mental health issues with the loss of your job, home, and dignity, and that is the current recipe of disaster that is being cooked up and served throughout the City of Angels. And while she’s never confided in me about drug use, based on what I have seen, I am pretty sure she was doing drugs. I probably would have been too if I had to do what she did to make it.
She did eventually break free of that man and got enrolled in the city’s HOPICS program with her son Nicholas. On a couple of occasions, I know I dropped her off at a building near San Pedro and Slauson in South Los Angeles. She could be a fierce advocate for herself when she had to be–when she had the strength to be.
I made many visits to that Downey motel room to visit them and help when I could. When her big break came three and a half years later, and she was finally moved into permanent housing, I was so happy for her. Even though it was far away, it wasn’t a motel room. It was a place where she and her son could breathe free air. Nicholas could finally go to school, and he desperately needed sunlight to play in the grass like other kids his age and eat food that didn’t come from a liquor store or a fast-food restaurant.
She moved in with very little. Eventually, she got assistance with furniture and started to make that apartment a real home for them both.
Monica also started on a path to get help for her mental health. She was doing all of the things to get back up on her feet. But, unfortunately, many of these programs put into place to allegedly help women like her gave her the run around.
Finding a job wasn’t easy for her because of childcare. It remains to this day one of her biggest obstacles. She would get jobs in Los Angeles and have to find childcare that could accommodate her schedule, including her commute on public transportation back and forth from the Antelope Valley.
Her life was far from perfect, as far from perfect as she was–but she was out of that motel room, and for the first time in a longtime, I saw that my friend had hope.
I didn’t hear from her for a while until recently, when she reached out to me after running out of money to pay for her motel room that she was back to living in again. She was in South Los Angeles after HOPICS was unable to help her with another apartment by the deadline for her to move out of her Lancaster apartment.
I found her and her son standing outside of a motel with their bags.
“I told HOPICS in November of last year I was being kicked out,” Monica explains. “They show up on February 8 and take me and my son to a shelter in South Los Angeles. The next day they took me back to Lancaster and told me that I could only take what could fit in their two vans. I lost everything.”
Besides losing her clothes and other belongings, she lost the only photos of her mother, grandmother and brother that she had. Photos that she managed to hold onto from placement to placement and into her adulthood were gone.
“I cry every day about losing those photos,” Monica cried. “But maybe I was meant to lose them so that I could start over fresh and leave the past behind.”
Monica’s time at the shelter came to an abrupt end after being involved in an altercation with another woman. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there and there are always two sides to a story, but what I do know is that living in these shelters is like living among powder kegs–it can pop off at any time.
You have to remember that everyone in these shelters is going through something. No one is alright. I remember how it was for me in placement living in group homes with 5 or 11 other angry girls I didn’t know. We were teenagers, and these are grown women with grown women problems.
After being kicked out of the shelter with her son, Monica was able to crash with her oldest son for a few weeks before that too was no longer an option.
And before you judge Monica or her oldest son, let me say this. This country is made up of fractured families suffering from all kinds of unhealthy or estranged relationships for various reasons.
As I once explained, everyone didn’t have Clair Huxtable for a mother. And by the same token, every mother didn’t have Theo for their son.
My mother could call me right now and the odds of me even bothering to answer the phone are so not in her favor.
After HOPICS recommended that Monica take her 6-year-old son to the LA Mission on Skid Row and call a domestic violence hotline, she used every last dollar she had to pay $130 a day and $140 on the weekends to live in a motel room.
Which brings me back to the beginning of Monica’s story. Monica doesn’t want to return to survival sex work to pay for a motel room for her and her son, but she says she will do it if there’s no other option.
When someone says to you with tears that they don’t want to resort to selling their body just to keep a roof over their head, it puts LA’s homelessness crisis into another perspective.
I have literally watched my friend age 20 years in the past six years. The stress of it all has definitely taken a toll on her. Her son is going to have issues for sure. He’s been raised in a dark motel room for much of his life eating fast food. He’s already overweight, and he’s not in school.
Some would say that he needs to be taken away from her and put into placement, and I would disagree. First, I think my friend would kill herself if her son were put into foster care, especially after what she experienced growing up in the system. Second, taking kids is not always the answer. Helping the parents should be first.
I have watched Monica call 211–a free telephone number providing access to local community services, and get no help at all. I have watched her be told she needs a referral to get help for her mental health crisis. A referral from a doctor that she doesn’t have because she can’t get a referral. I have seen her turned away from COVID relief programs designed specifically for families like hers. Every phone call she makes, she’s told someone will call her back, and no one ever does.
I don’t know how much more she can take before she can’t take it anymore. But, honestly, I am surprised she’s held on this long. I don’t think I would have. I would have been the Black Jasmyne to Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, sitting on the bench talking to herself after suffering a mental breakdown.
What I do know is that Monica is living in a motel room with a 6-year-old and eating cheap fast food to survive. I know that nearly everything she owns today is stuffed into two navy blue duffle bags and that check-out time is 11 a.m. Friday will mark her 46th birthday.
She told me that she feels like she owes it to Nicholas to keep fighting because of the life she gave him.
“I owe my baby,” Monica says. I put him through so much.”
She also confides in me that if it weren’t for Nicholas, she probably would have given up a long time ago. We both look at each and know exactly what “given up” means without a word spoken.
You Gotta Believe
Monica’s story isn’t unique except that, for me, I know her. Her story however, is the story of so many Black mothers and fathers living in motel rooms from week to week and in some cases day to day. They are LA’s hidden homeless.
Before you see her or someone else like her on the evening news for doing something desperate–I felt it was important to share Monica’s story to understand how a person gets to the point in their life where they would contemplate sex work as a means of survival and how our local government contributes to the misery that Black women like Monica are experiencing.
At the end of the day, she needs both a short-term and long-term solution to housing for her and Nicholas. Short-term, she needs to have the money to keep a roof over her head and food for her son until she can find long-term permanent housing again. Monica also needs access to all of the programs that the city and county claim to have in place to catch mothers like Monica.
Monica’s story is the real story of so many Black women in Los Angeles right now. Women who are walking the street who we pass by in our cars and look at disapprovingly. These are the people LA’s mayoral candidates are not talking about. The people teetering on the edge of sanity. The “hidden homeless.” The Monica’s.
In the short term, I have also organized a GoFundMe campaign to support Monica and Nicholas until more sustainable accommodations can be made. And because I don’t ask anyone to do anything I, myself, am not willing to do, I have paid $520 for her to have a roof for the past four nights.
Monica gave me permission to share her story, partly, I think, out of frustration, but also because she wants the powers that be to know what life is like on the streets of Los Angeles. It’s hard to focus on who to vote for when you have no permanent address, and you struggle daily to keep a roof over your head.
The system put into place to help women like Monica is broken. It’s not helping them and is doing more harm than good. The irony in all of this is that while my friend can’t get help to house or feed her and her child, if the stress of this pushed her off of the deep end, both of them will have housing courtesy of the Los Angeles County jail and the Department of Children and Family Services.
This is Los Angeles.
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals in this story.
If anyone knows of any realtime resources to help Monica, please contact me here.
Crossposted from Jasmyne Cannick