On Skid Row, manicures and pedicures make homeless women feel like queens

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Skid Row is a man’s world. But the Downtown Women’s Center is a sort of safe haven for the women who get caught up in homelessness and just need a hand to get them to a stable place.  What’s great about the Center are the volunteers. I met two incredible volunteers-twins,  who give manicures and pedicures to formerly homeless women. Above is a photo of one of the twins by John McCoy. Below are photos from AP Photographer Jae C. Hong. Here is their story (Daily News, Nov. 28, 2006):

Once – before their nails glimmered under shades of wine red, before their skin felt like velvet – the hands and feet of the residents of the Downtown Women’s Center bore their history of homelessness.

Theirs were fingers stiffened by cold, toes tender from too-small shoes, heels and ankles rough with neglect.

But thanks to the hands and hearts of the “Salon Girls” – twin sisters from the San Fernando Valley who swoop into downtown once a week – the women’s pasts are buffed, massaged and polished away.

“It makes you feel better about yourself,” resident Angela Boughton said of the free manicures and pedicures she receives from the Salon Girls. “It makes me feel good because I’m a little bit of a prima donna.”

The Salon Girls are Anne Walker and Alice Chapman, 47-year-old twins who grew up in Northridge, two of 11 children in a family raised with a sense of giving.

“We were 11 children living on a teacher’s salary,” said Chapman, now a teacher herself. “I remember thinking we were poor because my father was always working, sometimes three jobs. But my parents still set the example of volunteering.”

One night a week for the last three years, the sisters have donned “Salon Girls” T-shirts, loaded the car with snacks, nail files, buffers and dozens of bottles of nail polish with names like Cool Blue Blast and Cappuccino Creme, and headed to the Downtown Women’s Center.

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To the dozens of women who live at the center, the sisters are their own personal fairy godmothers.

“I thank God for Anne and Alice,” said resident Melzina Smith, her toenails twinkling with silver polish.

Chapman and Walker said what they receive in return is a connection to women they otherwise never would have met.

“These are wonderful women,” said Walker, a bookkeeper for a construction company. “I can have the most stressful day at work, and then I come here and all that goes.”

The front door of the Downtown Women Center’s opens directly onto Skid Row. It is the only building where the lights shine from windows at night, not far from the lopsided pup tents and dented cardboard boxes that sprout on sidewalks like mushrooms.

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Founder Jill Halverson established the center in 1978, after noticing that Skid Row was very much a man’s world. Facilities where homeless women could bathe, eat and sleep were nonexistent after the closure of mental hospitals in the 1970s, forcing women with emotional problems to turn to shabby hotels or the streets.

Halverson’s storefront has since evolved to a facility that houses 45 women who pay $190 a month for a personal bedroom, as well as a day center, where up to 2,000 homeless women a year stop in for meals, showers, and a place to rest and socialize.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s recent commitment to clean up Skid Row has benefited the agency, with politicians recognizing that women have special needs, officials said. There are even plans to move and expand the center.

“The mayor has put a lot of good focus on homelessness in the community,” said Anisa Mendizabal, the center’s planning director. “Councilwoman Jan Perry has helped us locate a building which will be very accessible.”

Still, women who live on Skid Row remain vulnerable, Mendizabal said. A survey conducted in 2004 found that 70 percent of the women living in on Skid Row have been victims of violence.

“Another thing that is very disturbing to us is that about 20 percent of the women exchange a sexual favor for protection, for food,” she said.

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As a result, many of the women are mistrustful – a reticence the Salon Girls help overcome.

“Anne and Alice help break the social isolation of these women,” said Brooke Lykins, volunteer coordinator for the center. “By giving these women a simple manicure or a pedicure, by talking to them, they spot health issues such as diabetes and bring it to our attention.”

For Chapman and Walker, the few hours they spend at the center is less about volunteering and more about visiting with friends.

They liked the experience so much, they began to bring their daughters along, to instill in them a sense of giving.

“I wanted them to have an experience outside themselves,” said Chapman, whose daughters Jackie, 18, Caitlin, 14, and Margaret, 13, along with Walker’s daughter, 10-year-old Alyssa, all help paint nails.

“I’m really thankful that I had this opportunity,” said Jackie Chapman, who wrote a paper about one of the center’s women that helped her get into California State University, Northridge.

“I think it’s helped me grow … It’s taught me everything is not always about me.”

Chapman and Walker said businesses in San Fernando Valley have been generous in donating supplies, but the sisters hope to encourage more women from the Valley to volunteer. The center hosts several volunteering opportunities-from cooking clubs to serving meals.

“Being here with these women demystifies Skid Row,” Walker said. “It takes out some of the fear of what it’s like down here. I realized after meeting them, it could be any one of us.”

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