As she received her award Sunday, Raines thanked her children including her late son, who inspired her work.
“This surely hasn’t been easy. I stand before you a very broken woman,” an emotional Raines said. “I am a mother without a son and there are a lot of people in the streets without a mother — and I feel like it’s a fair exchange.”
Every week, Raines and her team of volunteers set up shop and transform part of Skid Row — home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of homeless people — into an outdoor beauty salon.
Her goal: to make the homeless feel human, whether that means a haircut, a facial, a hearty meal or a hug.
“It’s not so much just giving them makeup or doing their hair, it’s also the physical touch,” Raines said. “People need physical touch. That’s what was hard when the pandemic hit. We had to stop doing hair, we had to stop doing barber services. And that might be the nicest touch they’ve had all day.”
As the 2021 CNN Hero of the Year, Raines will receive $100,000 to expand her work. She and the other top 10 CNN Heroes honored at Sunday’s gala all receive a $10,000 cash award.
Raines struggled for years with financial insecurity, grief and loss after the death of her young son, Demetrius.
“The world looked at me and thought probably the same thing they think about the homeless when they pass them by,” she said. “You never know what anyone’s going through, you know?”
Raines’ twin sister urged her to find a purpose for her pain. That purpose came in 2017 when Raines joined a church group on a feeding mission.
“I went to Skid Row, I’m like, ‘Oh, this is where all the broken people are? Oh, I’ve been looking for y’all all my life,” she said. “I never wanted to leave. It’s a place where people have amazing hearts, but nobody can see it because they can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Initially, Beauty 2 the Streetz was small, with just Raines and her children helping to hand out food, drinks, hygiene kits and beauty products. Raines alone would color people’s hair and do their makeup.
But then she started livestreaming the events and posting pictures to Instagram, and Beauty 2 the Streetz soon became more well known.
Licensed hair stylists, barbers, makeup artists and even big makeup companies reached out to Raines saying they wanted to help.
By 2019, Raines had registered Beauty 2 the Streetz as an official non-profit with about two dozen volunteers generously offering their time and efforts to help Skid Row’s residents feel beautiful.
As Raines’ efforts evolved into a full-scale operation, with music playing and lines forming around the block, she began providing more supplies and essentials: rape whistles, tents, sleeping bags, hygiene items — and she teamed up with local health officials to offer more services.
Before the pandemic, Raines was making 400 meals a week in her one-bedroom apartment kitchen in Long Beach and driving three times a week to Downtown Los Angeles to feed and bring supplies to people.
Then, as Covid-19 affected many organizations’ efforts, services dried up. But Raines pivoted, opting for bagged lunches and a tweaked schedule — and she kept going.
In tandem with the health department, which provided masks, sanitizer and other personal protection items, Raines said her group and other L.A. County non-profits and community projects worked tirelessly to serve the unseen.
“We just had to use our best judgment and figure out some ways to still keep them fed, while keeping them safe, and while keeping us safe,” Raines said.
Today, as vaccination rates are on the rise and a sense of normality is returning, Raines is offering help by way of food and supplies twice a week and expanding partnerships with local groups to let this often-overlooked population know there is hope.
“My sun didn’t come out for 30 years. It was 30 years’ worth of tomorrows before I even saw the break of day. I would be lying if I said I was always completely happy from doing this. It didn’t take away the pain of my son dying. But I’ve certainly gotten better. I can say his name now. He is the reason I do what I do.”