Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I sat down with Shauna and her adorable dog, Koa, this month at their apartment. I first met Shauna years ago at a local encampment. She immediately struck me as articulate, feisty, and tenacious. After living on the streets for four years, she was finally housed in 2021.
My favorite part of this interview, other than spending time with them, is how clear and confident Shauna was when I asked her what large-scale change we can make to solve homelessness. She immediately knew. Read her story and message for us.
Sheikh: Tell me a bit about yourself. Where were you born, where did you grow up?
Shauna: Born in Buffalo, New York, I was seven years old when my mother and two siblings came to Los Angeles to escape my father, a Vietnam veteran who was abusive. Of course, I’m sure he’d seen some crazy things too. It’s complicated, right? But I remember spending three days on a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles. We came right to Lomita, and that’s where I grew up.
My mother ended up marrying her high school sweetheart. I went to Eshelman Elementary, Fleming Middle School, and Torrance High School. I know she meant well, but these Torrance kids had money and were already doing things like meth. I tried meth for the first time when I was 16.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a beautician. I’ve always wanted to make people feel pretty and was constantly doing my mom’s hair and makeup growing up.
What circumstances led to you becoming homeless?
I never thought I could become homeless. It seemed like the worst thing that could happen to someone.
In 2017, I had been working at Farmers Insurance for five years as an office manager and was great at my job. I was living with my boyfriend in Torrance and making $19/hour, driving a Mazda, having a pretty normal life. He started to have issues with substance abuse that got out of hand, and I tried to move out. I couldn’t find anywhere to live on $19/hour. How was that possible? I tried renting a room but got scammed a couple of times by private renters who stole deposits and never handed over keys, things like that. When you’re at the bottom of the rental market, people are awful. So I stayed with him.
I finally left my boyfriend in 2017 and went to stay in a hotel after he got violent. I was still working. Soon, I was pawning everything I owned since $19/hour just wasn’t enough. A couple of months later, I got in a car accident, lost my car, and then lost my job. On top of it all, I started menopause.
In 2018, I spent my first night on the street, right on the corner of Western and PCH. I had no tent and no tarp and cried all night long as I tried to sleep under the blanket with all my things next to me in a shopping cart.
I spent my life thinking this was the scariest thing that could happen to someone. And it was. It was frightening.
What does being homeless feel like? How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t had that experience?
Scary, degrading, lost, lonely. That is how I felt every minute. I remember thinking, “How did I get here? I used to have a job and life, and when I talked, people would listen to me.”
I met a caseworker from Mental Health America (MHA) and did the intake paperwork to start the process of getting a voucher. That took a year. I got my voucher in 2019, and then the pandemic hit. Caseworkers couldn’t have people ride in their cars; their hours were limited, and no one could take me to see apartments. I was lucky that we were able to renew my voucher until I found a place. It took almost two years to get a place that would take my voucher. All that time, I was living this nightmare.
How do you feel now?
Look, this place is a dump. It has rats and cockroaches. But it’s mine, and I can lock the door; for all I know, I’m in Hawaii. I’m still struggling, even now that I’m housed. I get $200 to live off each month [from general relief] and $250 for food [from electronic benefit transfer, EBT]. That used to be enough, but with the price of everything going up, that typically lasts a week or two before I need more food. Even the price of doing laundry in this building has gone up to four dollars a load for these tiny machines. I’ve been looking for a new place to live since June, but no one will take my voucher. Let me know if any of your readers can help.
So, even now, I feel like I can’t get my head above water. But oh my god, I’m so grateful to be off a dirt road. Koa [my dog] and I are safe.
What is a misconception about homelessness that you wish you could correct?
I was so judgmental and ignorant about homelessness. I judged what I saw them spend money on and do with their time. And then I realized, some days, a cigarette and my dog were all I had.
The things that people hate about homeless people, we hate more. Do you know there is nowhere to get food or use the bathroom after 10 p.m.? Deciding between soiling yourself or going in public is the worst decision you can make.
In your experience, what’s the biggest change on a large level that needs to happen? What are the biggest roadblocks that people face?
Caseworkers. They aren’t paid enough or given enough training, and the organizations can’t give them the hours they need to just do that full-time. They can’t handle the work and then quit, and we get passed to someone else over and over again.
I spent my life thinking [homelessness] was the scariest thing that could happen to someone. And it was. It was frightening.
What is something that WE can all do to help?
1.) Landlords need to take vouchers. Please take vouchers. Please. 2.) Stop being so judgmental. It’s so hard to pay for housing in this city as a single person. Give people a chance.
Every story I hear is different, but similar themes echo across these storylines: the shock of becoming homeless — often told through the memory of someone’s first night on the street — the need for a stronger system of services, and the call to action for everyone to stop judging and start helping.
While I was visiting Shauna, she showed me an eviction notice. Shauna doesn’t pay her own rent, so this is understandably frustrating. Luckily, we have a local network of advocates that are on this. If Shauna loses this housing, 1.) she will become homeless again, and 2.) she will have a black mark on her tenant record, which will only make getting someone to take her voucher harder.
Shauna was very clear in what she knows the solution is: hire, train, and pay caseworkers well.
Shauna and I are lucky to know each other, so we can fix this. She currently has a service provider assigned to her. But due to the overwhelming caseloads these often part-time caseworkers face, and the firehose of people becoming homeless each day, often formerly homeless people — once housed — fall to the bottom of the priority list. These systemic challenges are how we got to more than 69,000 homeless individuals in L.A. County.
My action item this month begins with looking inwards. We’re starting slow here. I hope it will be more impactful than any quick gesture that leaves you feeling like you’ve done your part.
As you’re driving around today or tomorrow, notice the folks living on the street and try to peel away one or two layers of your judgment. Soften your gaze. Take a deep breath. See a human. I promise you that “getting soft” won’t allow some influx of new homeless individuals, but it may open our hearts to solutions we never considered before.
Drop me a line to tell me how reading this story made you feel: