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Living in the Shadows : Sarah and Joanna look as if they have it all. They're sleek, educated and spend their time in museums and libraries. But they live in their cars, wash in public restrooms and steal food from markets. Not even their children know of their plight. Some call them the hidden homeless.

December 02, 1990|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don't worry about Joanna--she'll be warm tonight. She'll park in her old neighborhood, on a street with no security patrol and tall hedges in front of the houses, so no one will notice her car.

She'll open the window a crack, lock the doors, curl up in warm clothes beneath blankets.

Tomorrow she'll do the Beverly Center. Or maybe Westside Pavilion. She'll wash her hair and underwear in Nordstrom's ladies' room, dry them under the hand blower, apply makeup from testers at the cosmetic counter downstairs.

She'll nibble her way through Vons, her cart piled with items useless to a woman with no home in which to use them. While pretending to shop she'll munch roast beef, potato logs and salad from the deli counter--then abandon the cart before she checks out with only two apples, which is all she can afford.

You won't know her if you see her. She looks and acts the well-heeled woman. She knows the Westside ropes. It's where she can survive--someone the census never counts, the regulars never notice. Not even her children, now in college, know she has no home. She will get back on her feet by herself, she says--or die in the attempt.

One recent afternoon, Joanna and Sarah (not their real names) sipped coffee at the Boulangerie in Venice. They were invited by Marjorie Bard, who works with the homeless, to meet a reporter who couldn't quite believe such women exist. Certainly not in such residential areas as Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood and Malibu.

Everyone knows about the homeless who camp out on the streets. And about isolated celebrity cases like TV newscaster Jackie King, who lost her job and wound up living in her car.

But Bard, says there are thousands of hidden homeless--middle-class people who once had fine homes and jobs, who are educated, energetic, capable--but who now have no money for shelter or food.

They are proud, resourceful people, she says, who have already imposed on family and friends as much as they dare. They view their cars as being more dignified, safe and private temporary shelters than anything the social services system could provide.

Bard, who works only with women, found that the hidden homeless survive by staying in the neighborhoods where they used to live and by frequenting familiar places: Department stores and markets, libraries and museums. Places that offer food, hygiene facilities, or simply the sense of cultural enrichment and well-being to which they were accustomed.

Bard said she has met about 1,000 women nationwide and recorded their oral histories. In fact, she said she used to be one of them herself.

She became an "overnight indigent," she says, when she was forced from her Maryland house by her husband 15 years ago. With no money for basic necessities, let alone for lawyers to fight for her financial rights, she began looking for a job.

Bard, now in her 50s, had a bachelor's degree and had taught elementary school in Los Angeles before she married. In Maryland, she was a a community activist who taught jewelry making at a college. "But when I went to look for jobs," she recalled, "they said 'you're overqualified,' 'you're under-experienced,' 'you don't know the computer,' things like that. They were really saying I didn't fit in anywhere, anymore. I couldn't get a decent job."

In desperation, she stashed clothes and jewelry-making tools in her car, which she used as home base for the next three years while selling jewelry to support herself. Then she started the drive West, toward her mother's home in Beverly Hills.

"At first I thought I was alone," she recalls. "But in each city, I spotted women doing the same things I was doing. We had what you might call similar tricks of the trade."

She would, for example, befriend hotel maids, who would let her use just-vacated rooms so she could shower, wash her hair and catch some sleep before the rooms had to be cleaned.

After a month on the road, Bard reached Beverly Hills, moved into the house of her ailing mother, and began tracing the hidden homeless population of the Westside. She entered graduate school at UCLA, supported by grants, and received her Ph.D. in 1988. She did her doctoral dissertation on homelessness.

She wrote a book, "Shadow Women" (Sheed & Ward, 1990), which documents stories of women who "mingle with polite society during the day, but sleep in their cars at night; women who may have been wealthy but are suddenly unable to support themselves."

These women don't want handouts, welfare, or to sleep in shelters, she says. They want to fend for themselves, and are willing to live "in hiding" until they can get back on their feet.

Joanna and Sarah are among these women.

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