By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Verdal remembers being terrified those first few nights in her camper. "I slept with one eye open, like cats do. I was frightened of lunatics, vandals, the cops and crazy people, lonely people in the middle of the night."
It was a cold November, and she slept in the warmest part of the truck: a bunk toward the roof. The space was too small to stretch her legs out, so she slept in the fetal position. She took in two more cats. Her cats kept her warm. "They saved my life," she says. "Time has a way of slipping without you noticing. The cats became my alarm clocks, waking me for their breakfast, keeping me grounded."
With no other means to express herself, Verdal says, she made homelessness her performance art. "I had to have the camper clean, neat, the bedding fresh. I got very creative with cooking. I always kept my clothes fresh and looking good. No one would believe I was homeless. My hair was always neat. I didn't want to buy into that stigma of being downtrodden, part of the great unwashed, as it were, in the eyes of the world."
She set up her chair, and planters bursting with vibrant geraniums on either side of the chair. It challenged passersby because there was beauty and dignity in her situation.
"I had to win people over, and it took a long time," Verdal says, sitting cross-legged on her bed. "They think either you're a mental case or you're a drug addict, or there's something very, very dysfunctional about you, for you to live in your truck. Sometimes people would come talk to me, but most times people treated homelessness as if it was some kind of contagious disease."
Verdal flips through her scrapbooks and pulls out a couple sheets of paper, her poems written to her street sisters and brothers. She chokes up a bit as she reads them. "It's something very visceral that you feel out there," she says when she's finished. "It's so empowering because you're able to survive another day, pretty gracefully, and not get hooked on anything — when you know you could, very easily, through despair, take an extra drink or get hooked on something that's not legal. I'm telling you, had I not had the dancer's discipline, I might have."
"I've been a vagrant for some time," says Raven Servellon, in the tiny, nearly gutted, abandoned Airstream trailer she calls home. But she doesn't look like someone you'd call a vagrant, and not just because she's young, even younger-looking than her 25 years, or freshly showered and sharp; it's because of her optimism. She smiles a lot and laughs easily. You can see a bit of the waif, a touch of street urchin, maybe? But a vagrant?
"Vagrants can't help it. There are people who are able to not be vagrants and there are vagrants. I couldn't help it. I don't want to think of myself as that now, of course," Raven asserts. "I like to think I live here now."
She surveys her space, her artwork on the trailer wall, the floral comforter on the makeshift bed, her few decorative garments hanging across from the "could-be" kitchenette. Could be, if the dollhouse-size appliances — a stove, fridge and sink — were hooked up. But if they ever worked at all, nobody knew. Instead, the stove houses some sketchbooks, the fridge some receipts. The defunct bathroom in the back was repurposed as a vanity. "I guess you can say I fell off the grid," she offers, shrugging her shoulders. "It kind of happened and I'm okay with it."
Falling off the grid for Servellon didn't happen in an instant. It was a long peregrination that perhaps unofficially began when she dropped out of high school and left her "crazy, dysfunctional family" back in Orlando. She bounced around, lived in New Orleans for a while, returned to Florida. She had been, as she describes it, "swimming through life," when she got pregnant at 19 by an on-again, off-again boyfriend. By the time she turned 20, she had given birth to her son, Quinn, and moved to begin a new life in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to be near her boyfriend's mother. "I was immature," Servellon says of herself at that time. "Just because you have a child doesn't mean you suddenly grow up."
She became increasingly restless with her life in Los Alamos, and when a 28-year-old musician living in Los Angeles began to woo her on MySpace, she saw it as her chance. She moved to L.A. to live with him, leaving behind her infant son, with the intention of settling in and sending for him in two months' time.
L.A. didn't make a great first impression: The MySpace dude lived with two other guys, who crashed in the living room. He had no car and no job and whatever online chemistry they had going on didn't hold up in real life. To compound the situation, Raven found it hard to find work.
"When I moved out here it was difficult to be stable," she says, tracing the roses on her bedspread. "I didn't come here with entertainment ambitions. I didn't know anything about art. I didn't even know what Andy Warhol looked like. I didn't do music, or any Los Angeles–type things. I just came to live here and see what happened."
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city