Mickey Z. -- World News Trust
June 30, 2020
“The only place I felt I did anything right was art class.”
Those are the words of Laura D. She and I crossed paths when she was homeless and panhandling near Bryant Park. I was out, making my rounds, in service of the one-man project to help homeless women I had started in October 2016.
“I began noticing and loving color at a very young age. My father was a chemist who made and sold pigments for a living. So, color made up my whole world. There were charts and test pigments all over the home I grew up in. As I got a little older -- maybe 5 or 6 -- my father and I would create stories together. He would write a sentence or two on a piece of notebook paper and I would illustrate it.” (Laura D)
My project -- Helping Homeless Women-NYC -- began with me creating packs of clothes, supplies, and food. I’d travel all around midtown Manhattan to hand them out. I learned a lot in the process. As I earned the homeless women’s trust and they began to guide me on how to really help, the project took on a life of its own. For example, when I first met Laura D, she quickly explained to me how to be more effective when it came to giving out underwear.
“At school, I was singled out for being strange/slow/odd. Kids can be very unforgiving. The only place I felt I did anything right was art class. My father noticed and started to sign me up for anything I wanted to learn, artist book-making, found-object sculpture, figure drawing, oils, etc. At 12 years old, I took my first watercolor class.” (Laura D)
I grew overzealous and lugged around so much stuff that I caused long-term problems for my feet (still going on). This painful reality, combined with the lessons I learned from Laura and others, led to changes. Eventually, I switched to giving out gift cards for local restaurants, coffee shops, and discount stores. This empowered the women to buy exactly what they wanted, when they wanted it. They’d also gain access to a clean bathroom and get a temporary respite from the streets. It was a chance, some would tell me, to fit in and feel like everyone else for a little while.
“I enrolled at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and chose Fine Art as my major. Watercolor was seen as a craft. This is common in the art world; feminine things are often seen as craft. But, one year into my studies, I realized nothing was out of the question when it came to art. I started taking every studio class that would fit in my schedule! Before I knew it, I was triple majoring (drawing/painting, sculpture, and photography) because I wanted to learn it all!” (Laura D)
I continued the project like that until the pandemic hit. Throughout the quarantine, I’ve been able to secure snail mail addresses where some homeless women can pick up envelopes of gift cards. For other women, I send money directly via apps like Venmo. Things will stay like this until NYC re-opens and I can safely return to making my face-to-face rounds.
"I moved to New York and, through circumstances beyond my control (related to my beloved father’s illness and death), I ended up on the street. I was unable to gain employment, get food stamps, or even enter most shelters. The shelters that would accept me were qualified as 'drop-in centers' and had NO security and NO drug tests. I was regularly threatened or beaten up by the other residents." (Laura D)
Many of the homeless women I’ve met have shared with me how they ended up on the street. These horrific tales are seared into my brain and I will carry them with me for the rest of my life. At Laura’s request, I won’t be sharing the details of how she became homeless and that’s fine with me. I’d much rather ask her about her journey and how she’s navigated impossible circumstances to move closer to her dreams.
I recently did an interview with my friend Laura D and it went a little something like this:
Mickey Z.: After all the obstacles you faced from officials and fellow residents at city shelters, you made the frightening choice to live and sleep outside. What types of challenges does a homeless woman in NYC have to deal with?
Laura D: Women on the street face insane challenges. The things a woman may think are her positive points become dangerous. Beauty becomes a burden. A decent figure opens you to being trolled as a prostitute. It’s worse than anyone would ever imagine unless they lived it. When I hit the street, the first sacrifice of something I prized about my body was to chop off all my hair. It was very long and I couldn’t maintain it. Next, I learned to rethink my clothing choices. I couldn’t wear tank tops, shorts, skirts, or anything that showed shape or figure. It brought unwanted attention from the type of man looking for someone desperate. They offer to pay, almost nothing, to make the homeless woman demean herself for the buyer’s pleasure. I lost all self, all self-esteem, all that was truly me living that way. I wouldn’t wish being a woman on the street on my worst enemy.
MZ: I must imagine this must have taken a huge emotional toll on you.
LD: Yes, the next thing I lost was most of my personality. I learned quickly that showing intelligence or brightness or joy or anything creative was seen as a negative and insulting to other street people. So, mouth shut, eyes down, keep to yourself became my life. I even would go as far as trying to disguise myself as male when setting up a sleep spot or getting in my sleeping bag. I woke up one too many times with men trying to get into the sleeping bag or jacking off over me. This was the low point.
MZ: Were you able to keep yourself safe?
LD: I would sometimes take some of the money I earned and “hire” a homeless man to sleep near me, to protect me. But that often led to the men I hired being the ones to attack me. After one particular beating, I woke up in a hospital bed. Everything I owned had been stolen.
MZ: Did the cops help at all? There is a lot of justifiable focus on the NYPD these days. During my time with this project, I have heard a far more nuanced take on the police. How has it been for you?
LD: I’ve met many, many, many cops while living outside. Most of them were assigned "homeless detail" but they were out to simply help those living on the streets. Slowly, the cops who were truly dedicated to actually HELPING learned who treated them like humans in return. (Some street people will spit or scream at these cops.) I was one who treated them like human beings and a few cops became good friends of mine. Later, when I started making and selling my art, they would go out of their way to buy me supplies, follow my Instagram, stop by off-duty to say hi with their family members, ask me to make them things for their lockers at the station, and even buy me birthday gifts! But there are two sides to every coin.
MZ: I had a feeling there would be.
LD: There was the time I was picked up by Intelligence detectives because they thought I might know something about a crime. They held me for more than nine hours for no reason except the idea they might get a name out of me. Also, there was an NYPD sergeant who behaved as if he was getting kickbacks from Bryant Park or simply had a vendetta against anyone who lived outside. He picked on all the street people on 42nd Street. Over time, he issued me three tickets for “storing items on the sidewalk.” That’s what he called the cardboard display I made to sell my art. He would throw all of it out. When I moved to an area further from Bryant Park, the same cop would watch for me to exit the subway in the morning. He’d rip my display board out of my hands and destroy finished artwork.
MZ: How was this situation resolved?
LD: A bystander finally got him on video doing this and he was fired. I was told he also lost his pension because he had so many complaints about harassing street people. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just me he picked on.
MZ: Despite all this abuse, you persisted, you found a regular spot and began to panhandle for money.
LD: Yes, and this is around the time I met you! I couldn't muster seven words in a row. The first time I spoke more than a few words was actually to you, with the undergarments comments (see above). When you went out of your way to give me something I actually asked directly for, it changed my outlook. I realized that some people WANT to help! I started to show my personality! I started SMILING again. This is not something often done by the homeless. I was known as “f*ckin sunshine” or “that weirdo who smiles” within homeless circles in midtown. But I didn’t let it stop me.
MZ: I’ll never forget how excited I was to bear witness to this transition!
LD: It was the move I needed. I've never been a sad person at heart. I can become sad like anyone else, but I always felt life is far too short to dwell on things like that. This was the start of my 180-degree turnaround! I began to make friends. Having you, a woman named Kim, and a few others helping me, I started to become more confident. I was still in a tough situation but I was feeling hope.
MZ: Please talk about Dr. Marc.
LD: He’s a psychologist who worked more than 11 years on Rikers Island. This gave him a very broad insight into “street people.” He’d stop by my panhandling spot for months. I didn’t realize it but he was assessing me. Hearing me tell my story, again and again, he noted that it never changed. He saw me solve crosswords and Sudoku puzzles. Most of all, he watched me draw and sketch while I sat. He started by handing me five-dollar bills. Pretty soon, he was buying me breakfast every morning that he was at his midtown office. Eventually, he told me he owned an apartment on the Lower East Side. It was empty except for his books and things. He said I could stay there instead of sleeping on the street.
MZ: Were you suspicious of this offer?
LD: I was extremely hesitant! An older man who I didn't yet know well was offering to pick me up at the corner I slept on and drive me to an apartment where I could stay for a while. I needed time. Now, it was my turn to assess him! It took three months for me to accept his offer but it gave me a chance to get to know him a bit. This was how I was able to reclaim my life as an artist.
MZ: I’ve interacted with hundreds of homeless women in the past four years. Based on my conversations with them, I can imagine how disconcerting it was for you to adjust to not sleeping on the street every night.
LD: My first month or so off the street was confusing and scary. I had no idea how to act. I felt self-conscious doing everyday things like buying food or walking around. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be treated like a real human being because I hadn’t been one for so long. Dr. Marc realized how much the street had changed me, so he urged me to embrace my art again. He believed I could start selling it. For a month, I kept repeating the same answer: “No one would want my art.”
MZ: Considering how talented you are, it’s no surprise that the opposite is true!
LD: He bought me high-quality photo paper to make copies of my drawings. I started selling 4"×4" “minis” for five dollars, and 9 x 12 pieces for $8. When I saw people taking an interest, my self-esteem went up a little.
MZ: What did you do next?
LD: I used some of my earnings to buy myself a 99-cent watercolor palette and some thick-but-cheap paper and started experimenting. This is when I met David, a chess teacher at an Upper East Side private academy. He has helped countless people like me and offered some assistance to me. He asked what I would need to start an art business on the street. When I told him, he took out his phone right there and ordered real brushes, real watercolor paper, and a real paint palette with paint I could actually do something with.
MZ: You certainly did “something”! I marveled at how your painting skills just kept improving and I was not the only one. One of the last times you and I spoke on the street, you were fielding commissions and getting attention from the art world. And then… a little something called Covid-19 showed up.
LD: By the time the pandemic hit, I had built up a following for my art on social media as well as the people who saw me every day on the street. I had a good business going -- selling to tourists daily and regulars here and there, and now and again, I’d make an online sale. I was starting to make a living and was putting a tiny bit aside for a rainy day (something I hadn’t been able to do in many years). Then I started seeing the pandemic panic. Offices closing, the streets were getting empty. After years being on 42nd Street, I was suddenly able to stand on Fifth Avenue and see straight up to 6th Avenue in one direction and all the way to Grand Central in the other. It’s something I’ve NEVER seen, not even at 6 AM on a Sunday!
MZ: I remember stopping by in early March to give you some gift cards and the Bryant Park area fell mighty strange.
LD: On March 16, I stopped setting up. The business I’d spent almost two years growing was either going to have to drastically change or I'd have to figure out something totally new in order to make a living. When I posted on Instagram about losing my normal income, I was initially flooded with orders and support. This took me into mid-April without having to worry. The online orders and one very loyal online student kept me going until May. I felt very lucky. But that’s when everything stopped. I tried setting up again but that’s when the protests started and it wasn’t safe. The pandemic seemed to fall out of people’s vision, even though it’s still very much happening. The orders stopped and I became despondent. I felt I had no purpose again. And since my business relies on tourism, I know I'm going to have a hard year ahead. I have quite a bit more adjustments to go until I can pinpoint how to survive in this new world.
MZ: What can readers do right now to help you during that adjustment?
LD: They can buy some lovingly handmade artwork. I do portraits, pets, random photographs -- really anything you can think up, I’m happy to paint. Besides that, they can donate at Venmo or Paypal (below). Every little bit helps especially right now:
Mickey Z. can be found on Instagram here. He is also the founder of Helping Homeless Women - NYC, offering direct relief to women on the streets of New York City. To help him grow this project, CLICK HERE and make a donation right now. And please spread the word!