LOS ANGELES -- Shirley Craig, donations and inventory associate at the Downtown Women's Center, smiled as she looked through the large cart full of toiletries.
"I think this is wonderful," she said. "The ladies are going to love these. They're packed nicely, and they've got so many things in them."
The gallon-sized plastic bags Craig was referring to were full of necessary items a woman might need if she was going on a trip -- socks, lotion, shampoo, feminine hygiene products, combs, toothbrushes, makeup and even packs of playing cards.
However, these bags weren't packed for a leisurely trip or vacation; they were going to the many Los Angeles women calling the center and the streets of Skid Row their temporary home.
The truck bed full of toiletries was delivered to the center Jan. 23 by employees with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District.
This is the sixth year the LA District has participated in the toiletry drive, aimed at benefiting homeless women at the Downtown Women's Center, and to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who spent his life working to better the lives of others, according to Bridgett Hollier and Arnecia Williams, both LA District employees and members of the Black Employment Program Committee.
The theme of Martin Luther King Jr. Day is "A Day On, Not a Day Off." It is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service to encourage Americans to volunteer to improve their communities.
The toiletry drive embraces King's vision from the Poor People's Campaign, which was initiated by King in 1967 and continued after his death in 1968.
"This is what (King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) did," said Felicia Weaver, administrative assistant with the LA District Public Affairs Office. "They actually went to poor people and took toiletries, clothing, socks and stuff like that. So this is actually keeping with the vision and the dream of Martin Luther King Jr."
In the past, the committee hosted a program for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Hollier said, but the members felt they could make a bigger impact in their community by helping those less fortunate, something King would have advocated for.
"There is a lot of homelessness around here," she said. "And, with most of us being women, we just figured we could give them something to smile about."
During the first year of the drive, donations were accepted on a smaller level, with committee members setting up boxes to collect unused trial-sized toiletries, like shampoo, conditioner and soap employees kept from hotels they stayed at during work trips. The items were then packaged into quart-sized plastic bags to take to the shelter.
"The first year was a little challenging, but when we brought the donations to the ladies and got to hand them the bags, they were thrilled and very appreciative," Williams said. "It felt good to us and to me to be able to experience someone actually receiving something and being very grateful for it -- something they really needed."
In subsequent years, the toiletry drive grew, with committee members collecting towels, soap, tooth brushes and other feminine hygiene products to give to the women in the shelter to get them through at least a week to two weeks, Hollier said.
The additional donations enabled the group to go from filling quart-sized bags to now -- more than 100 gallon-sized bags.
"They're very excited to get it as well," Hollier said.
In addition to donating items to the women's center, the group also donates gently used items to the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row.
"This one particular year when we went to the rescue mission, a lady ran to another lady's tent to tell her, 'Get up, get up! They're giving away little goodie bags!'" Williams said. "It really touched me just to hear that she was so excited to go over and get the other lady up for something they really needed and were really grateful for."
STATISTICS OF HOMELESS WOMEN BLEAK
According to a 2019 Los Angeles City Women's Needs Assessment conducted by the Downtown Women's Center, from 2013 to 2019, the city saw an increase of homeless women by 41 percent.
If Craig could have just one wish, it would be to end homelessness and get everyone off the streets, especially women, who are particularly vulnerable.
Craig has worked at the women's center for the past four years and has known many of the women who come to the shelter for a while. Their stories vary, she said, but they all have one common denominator -- homelessness.
"To be down here on Skid Row, the ladies sleeping here on the streets, that's something," she said. "Then you leave and go home (for the day). The weather changes, and the ladies you know and are with every day, they're out on the streets in the rain. That affects you. It really does. I'm just hoping we can get everybody off the streets."
One of the main contributing factors as to why some of the ladies are on the streets, Craig said, is because they can't pay rent.
"It's not alcohol, it's not drugs or anything like that; they can't pay rent," she said. "The rent is so high. You've got to realize if you're paying $2,000 a month for rent, and you've got an $8-an-hour job, that's not going to make it. You're going to have to bring in 15 more people into the household to make that rent. And that's the truth."
One way to help get homeless women off the streets, Craig proposes, is to offer more low-income apartments.
"If they fall behind and can't pay their rent, they end up out here on the street," she said. "And then that's where the drugs and alcohol come in because they're going through some things -- that's the only thing to do to saturate their minds to dull the pain."
In terms of donations, Craig said, the women's center always needs large ladies clothing and large shoes -- sizes 9, 10, 11 and 12. To donate items, call the Downtown Women's Center at (213) 680-0600 or email Donate@DowntownWomensCenter.org.
New or gently used items can be donated from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Friday to Tuesday. If a donation is exceeds 10 bags or boxes, donors can schedule a drop off with Craig by emailing ShirleyC@DowntownWomensCenter.org.