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Donna Valiente, 48; poet, activist was advocate for aid to skid row residents

February 21, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

In her fight for the dignity of homeless people in downtown Los Angeles, Donna Valiente chose two methods: direct confrontation and prayer.

By day she was a firebrand, speaking out at City Hall, and during demonstrations, making her voice heard to officialdom. At night she made her voice heard to God.

At an office on Main Street, between 4th and 5th streets, she and other skid row residents gathered each Wednesday to pray for their community, for the day when those who are now homeless will be able to stand at an apartment window and say, "I used to sleep on those streets."

"Donna had that vision," said Brother James Upshaw, a friend and downtown resident, and she believed both methods would help her achieve it.

On Feb. 13, Valiente was found dead in a skid row hotel of what is believed to be natural causes. Her death comes at a time when the 48-year-old had increased her presence at City Hall and the Los Angeles Police Commission.

"She would come wheeling up the aisle in her wheelchair, I'm sure they were expecting some very quiet voice," said Pete White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a nonprofit group that works on behalf of the homeless and poor in downtown Los Angeles, of which Valiente was a member. Instead "you have this lioness roaring from her wheelchair."

As an activist she joined an anti-domestic violence campaign for downtown women. She also pushed to keep downtown hotels -- such as the one she lived in -- as affordable housing.

An artist and a poet, Valiente sometimes used her art to express her concerns about the homeless. Earlier this month at a meeting of the Los Angeles Police Commission she "denounced police abuse and mistreatment of downtown residents," White said. She read her poem "The Shackles Must Come Off":

What if by some odd chance it was all happening to you?

Would you not stand up for what you know is right and true?"

Born July 8, 1958, in Santa Barbara, Valiente grew up in Ventura and graduated from Santa Paula High School. An entrepreneur, she operated several businesses, including T. Liberty Rose Maid Service, said her daughter, Barbra Marquez. In addition to Marquez, Valiente is survived by her mother, Carolynn Klouse, of Bend, Ore.; a son, Christopher Rader; a daughter, Liberty Rader, and five grandchildren, all of Los Angeles.

About 15 years ago she was driving on the freeway when she collided with a jackknifed truck, leaving her seriously injured. A surgery years later didn't alleviate the problem and "finally she had to be put in the wheelchair because she couldn't walk without being in excruciating pain," Marquez said.

Unable to work, Valiente lost her apartment and ended up in a skid row hotel. Faith had always been important in her life, but sometimes she would fall into drug use, her daughter said. While living downtown she gained sobriety and stayed in the community.

"She felt that's where her calling was, she needed to help people downtown," Marquez said.

On the streets she handed out her poetry or handmade crosses. And when people marveled at her work, she would say, "If I can do it, then others can do it also," said Montgomery Garnett, a friend and resident of downtown Los Angeles. "She would have made a great motivational speaker."

Speaking up on behalf of the homeless was not a matter of radicalism but a by-product of Valiente's simple belief that things could be better. The weekly prayer meeting that she organized at the L.A. Community Action Network office on Main Street stemmed from that belief as well.

"There's a lot of blessed people on skid row," Upshaw said. "Where there is darkness, light that much more abides. It was proven in the life of Donna."


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