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In Los Angeles, Bringing Food, Soap and the Salon to the Homeless


More Than Likes is a series about social media personalities who are trying to do positive things for their communities.


To Shirley Raines, they are royalty: The woman with the paralyzed arm who uses a shoelace as a sling. The man whose hands shake as he opens his bag. The little girl who, when seeing Ms. Raines and her bright coif, shouts “pink hair!”

Ms. Raines, 55, provides food, hygienic services and unconditional support to people without a home through her nonprofit in Los Angeles, Beauty 2 the Streetz. They are all “kings” and “queens.”

This is how she sees the people she serves: royals who have been dealt a bad hand.

Ms. Raines wants to spread that outlook — and has harnessed social media to do so. A camera hangs in the truck where she passes out food, capturing moments that are uploaded to her TikTok and Instagram accounts (5.3 million and 373,000 followers) that she hopes are changing the narrative on homelessness. It is also a fund-raising device for an operation that runs entirely on donations, Ms. Raines said.

“People have grown to love some of the people that we support and take care of,” Ms. Raines said. “It’s become a little internet family.”

Beauty 2 the Streetz became a registered nonprofit in 2019. Sydney Granados, the organization’s executive coordinator, estimates that it feeds about 1,000 people each week, mostly on Skid Row, an area of Downtown Los Angeles. Some days, Ms. Raines brings McDonald’s burgers. Other days it’s pizza from Costco. Sometimes a chef in a food truck cooks enchiladas, chicken tortilla soup or vegan cauliflower steaks. Ms. Raines and her volunteers also hand out toiletries — toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shampoo — and they even color hair.

“Homelessness is one of those very visual problems,” said Ben Henwood, director of the Center for Homelessness, Housing and Health Equity Research at the University of Southern California. “We see it all over the place, but actually seeing people for who they are, the humanity part, we often miss. These kinds of efforts that allow people to connect at a very individual level and be seen, I think, are hugely important for self-esteem.”

Wherever she goes, Ms. Raines lifts moods, with some banter and light teasing. In March, when a man she calls Big T showed up wearing a too-tight jacket, Ms. Raines joked that he was going to “squeeze out like a biscuit.” She’s often seen wearing fluffy yellow sandals and long rainbow socks, and has learned American Sign Language to communicate with the deaf “kings and queens.”

“She’s very magnetic,” Ms. Granados said. “She’s enjoyable, funny, bright — people love to be around her.”

In 2021, Ms. Raines was named CNN’s Hero of the Year, earning a $100,000 grant for her organization. The Beauty 2 the Streetz Patreon page pulls in about $6,000 each month, and the group also solicits donations on Venmo and Cash App. In recent months, those donations have allowed her to expand to San Diego, Las Vegas and Long Beach, Calif.

Ms. Raines’s path to creating Beauty 2 the Streetz started in 1990, when she herself was without a home. Her son Demetrius J. Stephens Jr. spent a lot of time at her grandmother’s home, in Compton, Calif. When Demetrius was 2 years old, she said, he accidentally swallowed an antipsychotic pill meant for one of her uncles and eventually died as a result. Ms. Raines was 23.

Ms. Raines “became a terror to this world,” she said. “My journey started with pain, death, feeling like, ‘why am I alive?’”

She had more children, moved into an apartment in Inglewood, Calif., with the help of a housing voucher, and got her first job as an adult working as a 411 operator. She began bodybuilding and became a fitness instructor before transitioning into a career as a medical biller.

Still, Ms. Raines said, suicidal thoughts shadowed her. “I endured a lot of freaking pain that people don’t see,” she said. “That’s what drives this caboose.”

After a heart-to-heart conversation in 2017 with her twin sister, who implored her to find greater emotional stability, Ms. Raines accompanied a friend to volunteer for Pauly’s Project, a nonprofit serving homeless people in Los Angeles. She developed a rapport with some of the women she met, who kept complimenting her hair and makeup. So one day, Ms. Raines returned to a Pauly’s Project event with beauty products from Sephora and a bucket of hot water. Ms. Raines dyed the women’s hair and handed out makeup kits.

She eventually attracted a following so large that she went out on her own. She set herself up on Skid Row with a small team of volunteers, administering what she calls “spiritual C.P.R.”

“Everybody wants to feel clean,” Ms. Raines said. “Everybody wants to feel good about themselves. I have a queen right now, we did her hair purple a couple weeks ago. I’ve never seen her smile so big. Her hair, all the purple has washed out, but her smile is still the same, because of the lasting effects of all the praise she got when her hair was colored. Those things don’t wash off.”

Part of the appeal of her social media videos is the recurring cast of characters her followers have come to know — and Ms. Raines’s relationship with them. One woman, who had been pregnant in a previous video, recently showed up to the truck with her newborn.

“She had the baby!” Ms. Raines screamed ecstatically, turning to the camera. “She had the baby!”

The effort, though, hasn’t been easy and has taken a toll. Her growing celebrity has been particularly tough on her children, she said. “When they were growing up, I was a woman with a short temper, partying, never had money for them to do anything,” she said. “The world is calling me an angel, and they don’t see me as an angel.”

Ms. Raines thinks often of the son she buried. She is particularly moved by the children she serves who come to her without parents.

“I think they help me as much as I help them.”





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