Authors@Google: Frances Noble

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 10.02.2011

>>Julie Wiskirchen: Hello everybody, I'm Julie Wiskirchen from the Authors Team in Santa
Monica and today I'm excited to welcome Frances Noble and Ian Noble who will be discussing
their book, "Blanket of Stars: Homeless Women in Santa Monica".
Frances Noble is a bestselling author, lawyer, and 35 year resident of Santa Monica. Her
previous books include "The Situe Stories" and "The New Belly Dancer of the Galaxy".
And her son, Ian Noble, is an architectural and fine art photographer. Together they spent
a year interviewing and photographing the homeless women in Santa Monica to create this
Please join me in welcoming Frances Noble.
>>Frances Noble: Thank you, Julie. It's a pleasure to be here and to tell you about
our book. As Julie said our family lived here in Santa Monica for over 35 years. I think
we're more like 45 years at this point when I recalculate the numbers.
And we moved here when Santa Monica was kind of a sleepy beach town, when real estate prices
were lower, when life was easier, and it wasn't such a chic address, didn't have fancy stuff,
and really contemporary industries like Sony and MGM and Google.
We were in the pre-Google years primarily. And in those years when things were quieter
and simpler there were also no homeless people in Santa Monica. And as I look across the
audience I see that it's a younger audience and you probably do not remember that time.
And so you can imagine what we felt and what we were talking about when the first homeless
people appeared on the streets in Santa Monica, and I remember the three. There were three
of them and it was in the 1980s; two men and one woman.
The one woman I'll bet you've seen though; she lived primarily, if that's the word you
want, on Wilshire Boulevard and she dragged a string of shopping carts down the street
filled with her possessions which to the rest of us would look like junk and garbage and
trash and so forth. And her face was smeared with makeup. Do any of you recall seeing her
at all on Wilshire Boulevard? I see a hand. Good. Well I'm happy to report that she's
off the streets now. But she was on those streets for 25 years, 20 years.
The two men are still out there and I see them periodically. I've watched their hair
turn gray and watched them, one in particular, deteriorate. They're both to me, to my novice's
view, seriously mentally ill which means they're roaming those streets untaken care of and
primarily uncared for except for the kindness of strangers.
The Urban Institute in 2006 commissioned a study about homeless people in Santa Monica
and, excuse me the City of Santa Monica commissioned the study. And the Urban Institute determined
that at that time which seemed to have been the peak time for the population, there were
on any given day in Santa Monica 2,800 homeless people. Now of course it's a fluid group,
it moves around, and in any given year 10,500. That is a lot of people.
And so it got to the point where you couldn't go anywhere or do anything without noticing
or seeing homeless people. And after a while in a way to defend yourself you got to the
point of not seeing them. And they became part of the landscape, they became part of
the seascape since they were everywhere we didn't see them at all.
And so I had to confront my own perhaps moral invisibility one day when I practically stepped
over the body of an elderly woman sleeping on the sidewalk. And didn't look back, didn't
think about it, and I thought, "What am I doing here? What is going on?"
And so it occurred to us that we wanted to find out more about homeless people in Santa
Monica and so I asked Ian, who is a photographer, if he would be interested in working on a
book project with me.
The main reason is that there are hundreds of articles in words. There are newspaper
stories, there are radio stories, but they don't show the pictures, and our feeling was
that if we we're going to try to make them visible again, then they have to be visible,
their faces have to be visible. We have to be able to see what they look like, we have
to be able to hear their words so that we can rehumanize this very large homeless population.
And so in, I think it was November 2005, it takes a while to do the research and do a
book, Ian and I started, decided we would start walking the streets. We had no idea
what to expect. We had no idea if people would talk to us. We had no idea if they would be
angry with us or happy to see us.
And we decided to cover every square foot of Santa Monica. It's 8.3 square miles; that's
pretty doable we figured. And that's what we started doing. Up and down every street,
in every park, in every market, parking lot, in every alley, we did these again and again
and again.
Now, at first, we probably naively thought we could talk to everybody. And we would do
this from dawn until dusk and thereafter for as long as it took. Of course, that's unreasonable.
In the first place, the crowd's very fluid; the group was fluid, people come and go. And
secondly, when we approached certain of the men on the streets, we found that they were
not happy to be approached by us. And some of them frankly seemed dangerous and primarily
unwilling and so we thought, "We need to beat a retreat." We really felt as though we had
entered into unwelcome territory.
So we thought for a couple of days, "What would we do here?" And decided, "Well, we'll
just go forward and we'll interview and talk to, photograph as many women as is possible."
Let me introduce you to some of the women that we met. And if you have seen these women
or spoken to them when I show you their photo, let me know.
The first one I wanna introduce you to is Betty. Betty appears at page 96 of the book
if you'd like to take a look.
[sound of moving book]
And when I show Betty's photo I always, when I look at it I always think, "This is the
face of an angel." At time that this photo was taken, she was 79. She had been on the
streets for years. I'm happy to report that recently at the age of 82 though, she has
been given an apartment and she's being taken care of.
When I saw Betty, she was holding and examining one half of a Christmas card. It was a picture
of a mother and child, of the Madonna and child, that she had taken out of a trash can.
And she looked at it so lovingly.
When I asked her if I could talk to her she looked at me and said, "Well do you believe
in Jesus? Because if you don't, I really have nothing to say to you."
Well we continued speaking and she told me that she had this unshakable faith in God;
that she knew God would take care of her, although life had been very hard, very hard
for Betty.
She left her family, her husband and it seemed like, although she's so delicate in her speech,
it must have been because of domestic violence. And that is a major cause of why certain women
are homeless. They have to leave their homes to protect themselves, protect their children.
It's usually frankly in concert with other factors as well which I can get to in the
Betty told us that when she left she took her cat; the only thing she had. She's the
only one of the family that's left. And when the cat died she experienced the greatest
possible sorrow. And so she went into the downtown women's center, this is in Los Angeles
years and years ago to recover herself, to recover her strength. And she did.
Speaking with Betty was like speaking with a person of great spiritual wisdom. I don't
think she knows that she has it, but she is so serene, she's so at peace, she's so free
of anger or fear that it really was inspirational.
Now I'm not a Pollyanna. Not every woman we met on the street was like this, but I can
say that she was. And it was really a pleasure to meet her.
I had seen Betty on the streets about eight years before and she was walking along Wilshire
Boulevard, walking along the gutter in Wilshire Boulevard, and at the time when the influx
of homeless people was getting greater and greater. And I did try to speak to her then
and she just looked at me without interest and so I backed off.
I was very happy to see her again. In fact I had been looking for her for years so it
was like a found treasure to see her again.
I just have to read you a couple of Betty's words because I personally find them irresistible
and you can take them as metaphorical or literal, however you want. But the few phrases really
give the key to her personality.
[sound of pages turning]
Where did it go?
Well, she describes, she said, "When I was a child" she met a man who was a "genuine
hobo" and that's how she said it. And she gave him a potato. She knows you shouldn't
talk to strangers "but sometimes a stranger is merely an angel unaware and if you don't
talk to strangers you won't meet the angel."
This is basically how Betty led her life.
Let me introduce you to another woman.
[sound of moving paper]
Now this is Lydie. Ian and I met Lydie one lovely bright day when she was sitting on
the grass outside Sears Department Store on Colorado Boulevard writing furiously, furiously
in legal pads. And when I approached her and asked her what she was doing and I talked
to her she told me she was writing to her various lawyers to try and bring the various
lawsuits that she felt she had coming to her.
One of the first things I noticed about Lydie was that her pupils were hugely dilated, suggesting
the obvious use of drugs, use of alcohol, although I didn't have any more particular
proof of that.
Lydie told us a number of things. That she had a grandmother who was a 106 and not a
gray hair in her head. And yet she looked, or a mother who was 106 and yet she looked
maybe late 40s, it's hard to tell sometimes. That she had children that she wasn't getting
child support for and then she describes her adult children. That she was a member of the
Retail Clerk's Union having worked for Rite Aid formerly Thrifty's, she told me. That
part she sounded pretty accurate about that.
I mention these various things that she told us because when we spoke, because I want you
to know that when we spoke to homeless people, homeless women, we didn't examine them; we
didn't question them; we didn't cross examine; we listened. And so there were a lot of contradictions.
And I also didn't record what they said mainly because they wouldn't let me. It made people
very nervous just like it would make us nervous. Nor would some of them even allow me to take
notes, although most did.
So what I would do after speaking to a woman who wouldn't allow notes, wouldn't allow me
to take notes, was run back to the car, write as fast as I could and then every night I
would transcribe so I had as accurate a picture as possible.
I do believe that I caught the essence of what they were saying even if there are some
minor factual inconsistencies, because what we're looking for is the essence, the soul
of the person.
And with all of her difficulties Lydie was communicating to us and we were trying to
catch what she was trying to say. And she came across as a confused, depressed, unaware
woman. I don't know where she is today; I haven't seen her in a long time.
Lydie was at page --
well, we don't need to worry about that.
[sound of papers being moved]
Thirty four if you wanna read more that Lydie has said.
The next person I'd like to introduce you to is Carol Ann Murphy.
We met Carol Ann in Palisades Park. You may have seen her there. I think she's still there
and we've seen her numerous times and spoken to her more than one time.
Let me show you Carol Ann's picture. Carol Ann is at page 30.
Obviously the first things you notice about Carol Ann are that she's unkempt, she looks
suspicious, she looks wary.
Carol Ann sat in the park and still sits in the park day after day. She's usually with
her shopping carts full of stuff and she gets very, very anxious when people approach her.
When I spoke to Carol Ann, I could barely follow what she was saying. Her speech patterns
were so disordered, which I assume reflected her mental patterns. Verbs and subjects didn't
agree and she would leap from topic to topic and I could barely follow what she was saying.
I wrote it down as fast I could -- those words; I think she said something about multiple
husbands, multiple children, but once again the Gestalt, the essence of that woman came
through. She's extremely confused; she's extremely unwell.
During the time that we were talking, she relaxed a little bit and she let Ian take
her picture. By the way, we never took pictures without specific expressed permission from,
of anyone that we actually spoke to.
And it was really quite charming. Carol Ann, who obviously lives in her own world, looked
up coyly and smiled and was thrilled to have her picture taken. There was something quite
charming about that.
Who are these women that we're meeting on the streets? I don't wanna say something so
simple as that they're just like us, but in many ways they are. And I say not like us
because they're poorer. They're homeless. Many of them deal with very severe, chronic
mental and physical illnesses. We're fortunate for the most part; we don't have to deal with
But on the other levels, we are really quite the same. When someone asks you if they can
take your picture, you don't crouch in a doorway. You don't look as bad as you can. You look
up and you smile. Every one of them did the same thing. It was very charming.
Another thing, sometimes we encountered women who seemed so severely mentally ill that they
couldn't know where they were. I direct your attention to the two large photos on my left.
You can see those women there. The one on the far left believe it or not, the one who
was crying out, we saw in Palisades Park. She wasn't making any noise. Can you imagine?
She was a beautiful woman. She still had the hospital bracelet on her wrist. She was in
such tragic condition and she should be in a hospital.
And the other one I saw, we saw on the Promenade, and she was running up and down the Promenade,
the woman in the sweat suit grabbing at people's purses. At first we were reluctant to go up,
what if she starts grabbing at us, we don't wanna be in a spot where we have to push back
or whatever. But I decided to try and talk to her anyway and I went up and said, "Excuse
me. My name is Frances." That's always fair. They get to know about me because I'm gonna
ask about them.
And I'd always say, "My name is Frances and my son is here and we're doing a book about
homeless women and we would appreciate it so much if you would talk to us. Anything
you want to know about me you ask and I'll tell you." And then I would ask about them.
And she looked so disoriented. She was so dirty. It looked like she had just crawled
out of a really filthy sleeping place, which I think in fact was the case. But when I said
to her, and she was kind of raving and looked so irrational. When I asked her her name there
was this moment of clarity and she looked and she said, "Erma." And then she was gone
That's another thing. The center was holding for certain purposes. The center part of the
personality in many cases is still there. So when we asked her her name, "Erma" she
told us. And then we tried to talk a little but couldn't; gave her some money which she
put inside the sweatshirt and dropped out. She's looking at it on the floor there; I
don't think she knew what it was. She was gone again and there was no other possibility
of talking to her.
So back to Carol Ann Murphy, who unfortunately shares some of the symptoms and some of the
conditions we feel that the two women whose larger photos on my left also share, which
seems to be a severe mental disorder.
After we had spoken to Carol, we left and we are walking down the sidewalk -- on to
find somebody else or perhaps take off the rest of the day and she looked really, really,
she was agitated. So we looked back and a man had come out and just for the fun of it,
if you can imagine, was shaking and rattling her shopping cart. She was very, very afraid.
She was so agitated. And so we went over and said, "Okay, fellow, leave her alone. You're
scaring her." And he says basically, "So what? She's crazy." And she was. Like that doesn't
matter, "doesn't matter what I do to her because she's lesser than I am. She's an other, she's
not like me."
It took us several times to get rid of this man. He would go hide behind a tree and come
back, agitate her again. It was truly amazing to see such kind of brazen cruelty, broad
daylight; shameless, the man had no remorse.
Another man whose name was Walter whom we got to know in the park, also homeless, came
to Carol's rescue and said, "Don't worry. I'll take care of it." And we've seen him
out there on other occasions helping her out and they seem to have a very general and generous
mutual relationship. I am hopeful that Carol Ann will find a place to live because she
really cannot take care of herself.
Another woman I'd like to introduce you to is Sister Chi Chi, page 88, a goddess by anyone's
standards. Sister Chi Chi describes herself as a priest of Isis. She knows that she was
in a former life because she had a reading and the woman told her that she was.
She has a larger than life personality, a glorious presence, a checkered background.
She loved having her picture taken. She asked if Ian would take one of her kissing the tree,
which of course he did. It's a gorgeous photo. She's so exuberant.
We started talking because she was sitting on a bench in Palisades Park and there was
a little pair of pink moccasins next to her and she asked me if I wanted them. She hated
to see things going to waste; she didn't like them. They weren't very comfortable.
And so of course we start visiting and she's open and she's talkative, and she's happy
and really a pleasure to talk to. She told us she became homeless because of domestic
violence. She also has five children whom she never sees. She has had difficulty staying
in shelters. She has indicated that she doesn't like to follow the rules.
We've seen Sister Chi Chi around quite a bit in town. She's quite a well known presence.
Once you see her, you do not forget her. But I'm not sure if her life is any different
and I'm not sure if her children's lives are any different. You can read more of her full
story in the book.
[sound of moving pictures around]
[sound of papers shuffling]
Nell is on page 66. And if you've walked down Wilshire Boulevard in the last few months
between Ocean and Second you have seen Nell. She sits in front of Hennessey + Ingalls in
a wheelchair and she panhandles. And she's adorably sweet and modest and unassuming and
I thought she would have housing by now, but she doesn't.
We met Nell in Palisades Park. The day that we met her was a sunny, warm day and she was
eating an ice cream cone in her wheelchair and motating forward by pushing her feet along
the ground. And after she finished the ice cream cone, or what she was going to eat of
it, she moved forward in her wheelchair and put the rest of the cone in the trash. And
I thought to myself, "Good citizen."
And then she moved back and she appeared to be falling asleep in her wheelchair on the
sidewalk and she went forward more and more and her head dropped more and more and I'm
standing back kind of patiently, respectfully I'd like to say something to her, but I don't
want to interrupt or interfere. But she kept going lower and lower and lower and it looked
to me like she was gonna fall out of the wheelchair on the sidewalk. So I went over and, "Excuse
me, ma'am, ma'am I'm afraid you're gonna whatever." And she snapped up and she said, "I'm reading."
[laughs] And she had one of these large print comic books in her lap. Apparently that's
what she was reading. It was really, it was funny. And so we talked as much as we could.
I find it very difficult to understand her because I think she'd had a stroke or another
debilitating accident and so our conversation didn't go on very long, but as you can see,
the sweetness of that face. I mean she's really darling. When I introduced her to Ian and
she said yes, we could have her picture. He could take her photo. She looked over all
smiles, just as warm and thrilled as anybody to have her picture taken.
And we shouldn't I guess be surprised because when you wanna talk to somebody typically
you don't go out and seek out a homeless person to talk to. Nobody ever asks them except a
social service provider or maybe another homeless person. Nobody ever says, "How are you? What
can we do for you today? Nice day isn't it?" Or "What do you feel about such and such?"
When's the last time you asked a homeless person for his or her opinion? And so they
were almost to a person, thrilled to talk to us, absolutely thrilled that somebody cared
enough to talk to them.
I still see some of the homeless women on the streets that were there during the time
that we were working on the book and one in particular, Miriam calls out and she says,
"How the book coming? Is it finished yet?"
And there's Linda on the Promenade who said, "When do I get a copy?" And I actually took
one down to give it to her and I couldn't find her, but I'm sure our paths will cross.
And there was darling Jeanine who we met on the beach one day who as we were leaving said
to Ian, "Now you take care of your mother."
I mean these are -- and I would say that Jeanine was very, had a very difficult life, she was
very young and she seemed very impaired to me and yet she seemed like she had been a
very well brought up girl. She had lovely manners and so she communicated this well
And then there was Star. Star's, I'm not sure what page she's on, but if you've, Star wore
so much makeup and a long blond wig and kind of elaborate headdress and she called herself
"Star" because she was absolutely convinced that she could be one. The first time I met
Star was on the Promenade. She seemed very depressed, very afraid, paranoid I think it's
probably fair to say, and so we had a lengthy interview but no photograph. Ian wasn't there
that day, I just happened to run into her.
And then a few weeks later we were walking in Palisades Park and there is Star again,
a totally different person, practically [pause] flying through the park, flying with joy with
her new bicycle and so happy and so expressive and so emotive. I mean the shift in moods
was so noticeable that you wonder what kinds of mood burdens that she has to bear.
She was ecstatic to see us again. She said that she would love to have her photo taken
but only with me. We have a wonderful one of us together [laughs] and then Ian managed
to get some others of her.
And the last time we saw her, she was sitting on the cannon, you know the old Civil War
cannon in Palisades Park, with a cordless microphone in her hand. Not cordless fancy
like the ones in here that actually work, but a microphone without a wire and singing
her heart out because she knows that she can be like J.Lo or Mariah Carey if she only gets
the opportunity.
And let me introduce you also to Glory, page 76. Glory is one of those women that is older
like so many of the women we met on the street and what a surprise to think that this is
the way you're gonna spend your old age. Glory had a career as a nurse's helper as I think
she told me. It was difficult sometimes for me to follow what she was saying. But she
was a magnificent presence. She had a great sense of herself as you can see, a very powerful
personality that demanded respect and observance of whatever particular customs she was going
to enforce at the time. And of course we, as usual, let her determine the course of
the conversation.
The City of Santa Monica was as surprised as anybody when the homeless people first
appeared on the streets. And at first, and I read 25 years of newspaper articles to do
some background work with this, for this book as well as doing a legal review all the laws
that pertained, as well as reading medical journals and sociological journals, etcetera,
etcetera, etcetera.
But I remember some of the earliest articles about the City of Santa Monica saying in effect,
"We've got a couple of homeless people here. Well let's give them some job counseling and
that should take care of it." And I think the figure was $85,000 this year for that.
If you've ever spent time online looking at the city budget, you know that it's up in
the tens of millions now and we still have a lot of homeless people.
The city had to learn like everybody else what to do about this problem. And so from
just assuming it was an employment issue like so and so lost his job or she lost her job.
It's rough and so she couldn't make the mortgage payments or she was living paycheck to paycheck,
no family around, these things happen. But that hasn't been the case for the population
of homeless people, those long term homeless people, the chronic homeless I believe they've
come to be called.
So the next kind of program that the city used and it was I think probably state of
the art at the time or least it met the highest standards of what the information was, the
available information was at the time, was called the continuum of care. So we get you
a case manager, you check in at OPCC, Ocean Park Community Center and we'll give you a
case manager and then if you have substance abuse problems, alcohol problems -- okay we're
gonna take care of that and we're gonna teach you how to budget. And if you need medical
assistance and you need some kind of prescriptions for mental or physical problems okay we'll
give you those. And then the gold at the end of the rainbow was then you got housing. And
it worked for some people, no question about it. It didn't seem to work for the chronic
And now the thinking is, and I think this is probably the gold standard in the care
of homeless people, is housing first. Because most people can't do all the things, a lot
of the people cannot accomplish all the steps that they must accomplish to earn that housing
at the end of the rainbow. And so you get them off the streets, get them to a safe environment,
and then presumably the rest will come.
What we found is that that would probably apply to many people, but not to most of the
women that we met in Santa Monica. The estimates that you'll probably read in the paper are
that a third are mentally ill of homeless people, a third are just out of a job, a third
are just poor -- not "just", but you know what I'm saying. They try to give some categorical
But in fact of the women that we spoke to, Ian and I pretty much concluded that 85 percent
or so seem to display symptoms for a serious, chronic, mental disorder. Now what does that
mean? It means that they're never gonna be able to live by themselves. They're never
going to be able to have a job. Most of them never had a job already, today, they never
had that. They can't be reunited with families who don't know how to take care of them.
And so for that group, for those people, those women that we met who are afflicted with long
term, serious, mental illness, they need, we felt, the equivalent of assisted living;
some kind of a shelter where there's somebody around to give a hand when they need it.
When we started the book, we had never heard of Daybreak. Daybreak is an arm of OPCC here
in Santa Monica and it runs two facilities. One is the drop in center where any woman
can drop in, have something to eat maybe get cleaned up a little bit, rest, get off the
street, escape the miseries of the street for a few hours.
And the other is the Daybreak shelter which is a transitional shelter of six to nine months
residency and the women live on site, and during that time are given the skills to try
to live on their own once and if, let's say if, housing becomes available. They can always
go back to Daybreak, they can always participate in the group therapy and the various sessions
in the clubs, in the skill groups, in the craft groups. Once you're there you can always
But yet even then some of the, and it's the best facility we saw by far, and it was the
only place that not one woman we spoke to had a critical word for. Everybody loved it,
everybody wished they could be there. It's quite a remarkable place. I attribute that
to Amy Turk who runs it and her help. They are, and we were there many, many times --
they are unfailingly respectful and kind and intelligent in how they deal with the
women that are there. It's a really remarkable facility. But there are not enough Daybreaks
-- that's really the problem.
Santa Monica has really rolled out the carpet for homeless people in a very generous way,
but it's the only political entity in L.A. County, of which I think there are 88 different
cities, which has taken its responsibility to heart.
Now there are things about the way that they run their programs that Ian and I would have
perhaps comments on. But to be fair it's the only one that says, "This is our social responsibility.
How are we going to take care of it?" And they allocate generous amounts of money to
try to help their homeless population.
Some of you may have been aware of the $100 million that the L.A. County Board of Supervisors
earmarked for five, I think it was, like organizing centers in various cities throughout L.A.
County. It is my understanding that because of so much resistance by the five locations
that were chosen none of that money has been spent. But that appeared in the paper, "Wonderful,
my God," we think "$100 million. This is gonna help solve the problem." But as far as I know
it's still, it probably never moved from one account to another and of course there isn't
any money now is there? And so that kind of thing didn't really, didn't really come to
When there are so many competing social needs, it is very difficult to believe that one social
problem will be solved. And on realistic days, we don't believe that. It is known, we know
how to do it, the people that give the care know how to do it. But there at this time
isn't money or the political will.
I mean the same can be said for our school systems. There are so many areas that require
attention and they won't be getting the complete attention that they require. Nevertheless,
one thing that was said to me, both of us during our research was that, "As long as
you cure homelessness one woman at a time," we were just talking about the care of women,
"that's how you progress." I think that is a good way to look at it.
There's some photos here on my left that I wanted to point out to you, identify them
for you; Ian Noble took them. These are mainly, these are his night shots. I didn't go out
at night and he went out, I didn't. He was out all night many nights watching what was
out there.
This first one was taken in front of the Christian Science Reading Room and we actually gave
them a copy of the photo. It takes a few minutes, or few seconds for your eyes to focus to see
that there's somebody sleeping there in front. Hopefully in the protection of a religious
sentiment, one hopes. That's on the Promenade in Santa Monica.
The next photo was also taken on the Promenade. I think it's a great shot of a woman reading
a book in the middle of the night by the light of one of the store windows.
The next shot was taken on Santa Monica Boulevard. You don't have a bed so you make yourselves
into a bed. This enterprising couple, they had I think a flat sheet and a fitted sheet
just like you have on your normal bed. And each one of those sheets each is wrapped around
the person. You become invisible you hope -- at least you feel protected.
And then we have Erma and the other woman and then down the way she was sleeping in
Palisades Park. She appears to be wearing a blanket made into a jacket and the arms
are made out of tying parts of the blanket with string. We saw numbers of those blankets
throughout the city during the time that we were writing the book, and I believe that
some agency handed out blankets during the cold part of the year and she made hers into
a coat, jacket.
The next photo is a poor woman sitting at Inspiration Point, bent down looking like
she's experiencing some sort of despair, if her posture is any indication.
And the last one is on Second Street at the Knoll Chair Store and once again it takes
a few seconds to look to see the person sleeping just outside the light.
People say, "Well, if there are shelters, why do some of these women stay outside and
not go to the shelters?" And let's assume for purposes of the discussion that there
are shelter beds.
Well, we were told many, many times, as a matter of fact it was a constant theme from
the women we spoke to, almost regardless of their mental condition that they didn't like
the shelters because they're very noisy which was frightening; some of the men there they
felt were dangerous, they didn't want to be around them; and who wants to sleep a few
feet away from somebody that you don't know if they're crazy or violent or whatever. And
so some of the women stayed away from the shelters. It's not that they were ungrateful;
it's that they wanted to take care of themselves, they can be frightening places.
And I was talking to a retired city attorney from Santa Monica and saying, "Well would
you want to sleep in a shelter?" "Actually no." He said, "All they would like is a small
room of their own," assuming that they're well enough to take care of it.
[sound of papers shuffling]
So people say, "How did it happen? How did this happen?" Well you can see some of the
reasons just from the stories of some of the women that I've told you about today. The
mental illness, and there's a period in this country when there was a deinstitutionalization
of the mentally ill; they were moved out of mental hospitals supposedly into community
care centers which, of course, were never funded. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said at
the time, "We're capable of doing this and we do it with regularity." Congress failed
to take care of the problem that it said it would take care of.
People were first moved away from the mental hospitals in the 60s and the 70s. They were
terrible places. People were not treated, often they were just drugged to control really
aberrant or violent behavior. And the kinds of fancy psychotropic drugs that we have today
did not exist. I mean one can appreciate the quandary of people who are trying to take
care of severely, severely mentally ill people, nevertheless, a bad situation all around.
And so there was the deinstitutionalization that was pushed by many people in the 60s
and the 70s who were trying to break away from other perceived authoritarian structures.
The problem was there wasn't much to replace it with. We didn't, the society didn't fund
better care and so what you had is what we see on the streets today.
We see people who are out of the mental, are out of a mental care system and free, but
what are they free to do? They're free to go to roam through a garbage can, they're
free to sleep in any doorway that they want.
There's a lot of discussion legally as well about what kinds of restrictions should be
put on a mentally ill person. California law for many years only allowed involuntary commitment
if the person was an immediate danger to him or herself or to another, which didn't really
allow for evidence from those people who knew the mentally ill person best about whole series
of events perhaps culminating in something or culminating, or other kinds of behavior
being told to the court which would clearly indicate a severe mental illness. That has
been changed. There is a better evidentiary requirement now; more evidence can get in;
families can get more involuntary commitment if that's what they seek. But that's still
a very, very controversial topic.
If I had asked, we did ask some of the women that we spoke to what would they like, where
would they like to be? And I don't think either of us had the courage to ask any of them,
"Would you prefer involuntary commitment?" We know the answer. It would have been no.
So I mean it's a very difficult subject.
So people ask me, "So what are they like?" And "What are homeless people like? What are
homeless women like?" Well, it's very difficult, it's very difficult for me to give a short
answer in a sentence or two. But let me just read you a couple of, a few paragraphs from
the beginning of the book which I think sums it up, at least from our point of view.
"They sit on the grass under trees in the parks. They sit in filthy cars in front of
City Hall. They sit on benches, park benches, bus benches, benches on Third Street Promenade,
benches on the pier. They stand in doorways. They sleep in doorways. They rummage through
trash cans. They panhandle. They visit with friends.
They move around -- walking, shuffling, staggering, often looking down, usually alone, burdened
by bags and backpacks, pushing shopping carts spilling over with their possessions.
They are distressed, calm, disoriented, rational, incoherent, articulate, filthy, clean, angry,
forgiving, pretty, plain, resigned, hopeful, brave, afraid, unspoken to.
They write poetry. They paint. They drink too much. They use drugs. They're sober. Their
families don't know where they are. Their families kicked them out. Their families want
them to come home.
They come from far away. They are home grown. They appreciate the kindness of strangers.
They want to be left alone.
They're ex-cons. They're church goers. They're old and they're young. They hate the cold,
the rain, the wind. They stay out of the heat of the sun. They don't trust the police. They
had a job once. They never worked.
One grabs at people as she walks by. Another howls silently. Many talk to themselves when
they think nobody's listening. They're always poor.
They say they live outside because they don't qualify for assistance. They say they don't
qualify for assistance because they aren't insane or a drunk or an addict or they'll
lose their freedom if they go inside, or they're afraid of the men at the shelters, or the
bank stole all their money, or they're being followed by a man who assumes many shapes
and identities, or the FBI and the CIA are after them, or they're helping the police
find a serial killer, or nobody asked them if they wanted an apartment and there are
no apartments available to them anyway.
Many have a hard time knowing what they think much less saying it because their thoughts
are muddled and their words don't come out right. They hear extra voices in their heads,
they see things the rest of us don't see, and they believe things the rest of us don't
Who are they? They're the homeless women of Santa Monica. They are the homeless women
Thank you.
[sound of dog barking]
Thank you.
I take that as applause. [laughs]
>>Julie Wiskirchen: Does anybody have any questions for Frances or her son, Ian, the
photographer is here as well?
>>Frances Noble: Anyone?
>>male #1: I actually have a question because I've spoken to a bunch of homeless people
in Santa Monica and I find them really interesting and I wanted to just see if your take though
was that if you found this to be correct that everybody is fearful about talking to people.
They might look fascinating and you see that some of these people are highly intelligent
and creative but there's always the fear that they are gonna be nuts and they're gonna go
off on you, go crazy. I mean is that often the case or do you think it's not so much
the case when you talk to them?
>>Frances Noble: Well as I said no we, we antici--, we weren't sure about initial reactions
either when we began. And what we found among the women was that there was really no need
to be anxious or afraid. And there was only one woman I spoke to who, whose face completely
changed expression and she was going into a psychotic episode and I stepped back and
gave her space, but it didn't accelerate into anything. And I said, "Thank you and good
But by that time we'd had a lot of experience. We spoke to hundreds of people, not all of
them of course got in the book. But as I mentioned an untreated, seriously, mentally ill male
is a different person from the counterpart who is a female. And so we were wary, that's
why we stopped interviewing men.
We were out so long too that we got to the point where we could pick out the most subtle
body language and see that somebody was homeless and they were trying to hide it. And in those
cases we were hesitant to go up sometimes 'cause you didn't want to embarrass them and
make them feel -- but you could tell certain things. The way a person walked, all sorts
of things. What their feet looked like. And we got, it got to the point where we had a
pretty good read on the person's personality.
>>male #2: What's the police, like the police do they, what are their sort of instructions
on how to deal with the homeless?
>>Frances Noble: Well there is a liaison, a homeless liaison in the Santa Monica Police
What we heard from a lot of the women was that they felt uncared for by the police or
hassled. And the City's a little bit schizophrenic in its approach sometimes. There are these
extraordinary programs which are online, so anyone can read what kind of care or services
are available for homeless people.
At the same time there are signs in various businesses doorways, "Don't sleep here." And
if somebody sleeps there in violation of the warning on the sign, the police can pick them
up. There are other places where sometimes people are sleeping [clears throat] excuse
me, which I'll show my bias like in the industrial section there's nobody there. There doesn't
really seem to be a problem where the person will be told in the middle of the night, "Get
up and move on."
So I think it's not the easiest relationship. I also understand that the police probably
spend a huge percentage of their time on problems "created by homeless people." So that's an
issue for them I'm sure. It's a complicated matter.
My sense is that probably more, my sense is that most of the women don't feel that the
police are their ally. That's my sense.
>>male #3: So I've got a question for you. Well first, thanks so much for making visible
and pursuing this project. We really appreciate it.
>>Frances Noble: You're welcome.
>>male #3: And a question for I think Ian and for you both is what do the subjects of
your photos think and have you had a chance to share with them? I know you talked a little
bit about it but --
>>Frances Noble: They all really love it. It's very touching. You don't always know
if that will be the case even if you went forth with permissions and signed releases
and all that. There are times when people say things and then when they look back they
didn't quite fully understand that it would be made public. And yet we have a very, very
positive response. We spent more days at Daybreak again, for example, giving books to the women
there. They're so pleased. One woman said, "Look at this picture. It made me remember
that I used to smile." It was touching.
And we feel that we have a very good relationship with the homeless community.
>>male #3: Thanks.
>>female #1: Thank you for coming. When you started this project, you probably had some
preconceived notions about homeless and what for you is the one thing that changed the
most when you finished this project?
>>Frances Noble: I feel, well I didn't know what to expect. I don't think Ian did either.
But I feel that I understand the population better and it was a huge educational experience.
And we spoke to not only homeless people, we spoke to people in the city, we spoke to
citizens, we spoke to social service providers, psychiatrists, everybody you can think about
to try and get a complete picture. The main source of information frankly though was the
women. I mean really there's no question about that.
I just feel comfortable with the idea of them. I don't, and I see them very, very much. So
in the old days, it's easier to look away sometimes. Once we started working on this
book, it got to the point that all I could see on the street were homeless women. And
sometimes I would not go out. I would not take my usual walk. I needed a break. It would
be all I could see.
And so it certainly increased my information and my knowledge about a part of humanity
I didn't know too much about.
>>Ian Noble: I think for me -- is this working? Cool. I think for me it was just the level
of mental illness, how many really were suffering from something serious. I'd always heard the
a third, and a third, and a third argument. Some people are down on their luck, they'll
be back on their feet soon. Some are addicts or alcoholics and the other third is mentally
ill. But just the percentage of people who seem to be suffering from something very serious
was far beyond that and that's really what struck me above anything else, I think.
>>Frances Noble: If I could just add one thought to that. We wondered why that was. And we
came to the conclusion that in the sense we had a self-selected group. People who were
able to take care of themselves better, get back into the employment world, or get themselves
back to a family member who could assist, were doing that.
The people that we saw were the ones who were sitting and kind of hiding in the parks or
cocooning in the parks, or hoping that they would be alright. Not that some are not social
and visiting with each other, but in general we felt that we were exposed to the most vulnerable
for the most part of the group. And that's why they were self-selected. They couldn't
do anything else but what they were doing.
>>Julie Wiskirchen: Any other questions?
>>male #4: You talked about some of the issues that were keeping them away from shelters.
When you were speaking to people who were involved in shelters, did you get the sense
that they all understood that and it was simply an issue of funding of administrating or that
that was, that they didn't fully understand the sort of issues that were, what they were
doing maybe that was driving people away or what they would need to do to be, bring more
people in?
>>Frances Noble: I think that most people that were involved in administering the shelters
or the programs understood. I also think at this particular time when we were doing the
book they were inundated and you can't, and so it was a scramble, "Can we get this bed
for so and so. Somebody is calling and saying they have two people."
I think that it's probably quieter now. I know that there's been relocation of some
of the programs and they seem to be much more orderly on the outside which I'm going to
suggest or hope to suggest that it's more orderly on the inside. The people at Daybreak
of course always understood what was going on and how to provide a safe environment for
the women.
And I really believe in equality of the sexes and I can also say I think that women do need
more protection. On the streets they're subject to -- I mean the statistics are horrifying
-- to far greater numbers of assaults and rapes and robberies. And many women told us
about their terrible experiences being on the street.
So I do think that most people are aware.
>>male #5: Is there something particular about Santa Monica that there's been such a concentration
of homeless people versus like Pasadena or Beverly Hills or other affluent communities?
>>Frances Noble: Oh sure. Santa Monica what is it, the People's Republic of Santa Monica,
the non-nuclear proliferation zone, wearing its heart on its sleeve at all times. That
is not Beverly Hills. Pasadena actually does have a significant homeless population, but
nothing like Santa Monica.
Also by the ocean, a straight shot down the freeway, and it's the personality of the city.
It wants to be a progressive, liberal, generous city. That's, as I know you all know when
you read the newspapers, the arguments that go on in the City Council meetings and so
forth. That's how they portray themselves.
Beverly Hills, I think, just doesn't allow it and that's my understanding. I'm sure exactly
how they do that, but [laughs] if you had a choice of going to Beverly Hills or here,
you'd come here if you're any kind of a knowledgeable homeless person.
>>male 6: I heard actually at – I was talking to a homeless person one night -- we were
at [ ] saying that something about Santa Monica being much safer than somewhere like downtown
LA --
>>Frances Noble: Oh.
>>male #6: and I think probably there is such a tolerance [ ] why [ ]
>>Frances Noble: Of course.
>>male #6: [unintelligible]
>>Frances Nobel: But downtown L.A. is its own horrid world. It's terrible. It's very
dangerous. It's, skid row down there is truly a terrible, terrible place. That is not the
case here. It is much safer here and there's no doubt.
[talking in background]
>>male #7: It looks like the problem's not ever gonna be solved, so from our point of
view; us versus them. So it looks like there's a way of living together and learning from
each other and I just wonder what you, what kind of generosity and kindness and openness
and great things might have arisen from what looks like something really difficult so it's
something that is more attractive for the more established side of that us/them divide
to wanna engage with?
How can we either enjoy it or make it more attractive to people who don't even look at
it like you were saying at the beginning?
>>Frances Noble: Well I guess education is part of it, isn't it? And learning more about
people so that they're not other; they're not perceived as beneath us. Anytime we don't
perceive the other person as individual human, it's very easy to be cruel, unkind, to be
oppressive as we see around the world every day. Education, of course, is one way.
I guess how do we learn more about homeless people? I guess volunteer at some of these
organizations that offer care to people. That can be very rewarding. And on a more specific
basis or in a more specific way, I guess as people say, "Well should we give them money?
Do you give them money?" And I said, "Of course, always." If there were a place for everybody
and people just refused to go, I probably wouldn't. But I know there isn't. I know there
are not enough places to live. And as one man said, "Anything that makes the sidewalk
softer." That is a very touching phrase to me.
So, and saying hello, although I do not -- it feels natural to me now because I know
some of them and because I worked on this project for so long, I'm not uncomfortable
approaching somebody and saying, "Can I give you a couple of dollars?" Or, "How you doing?"
whatever. But it didn't feel natural at all in the beginning. So I'm saying, so I say,
"Hello," but maybe you all shouldn't say, "Hello" or you're not ready to say, "Hello."
You know what I'm tryin' to say? I don't want this forced companionship, but there are various
ways compatible with our various personalities and our levels of experience, information.
>>Julie Wiskirchen: Okay. Thanks very much, Frances.
>>Frances Noble: Oh, my pleasure.
>>Julie Wiskirchen: Thanks everybody for coming.