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Valerie and Henry: Unhoused but Unbroken attempts to humanize one couple's journey living unhoused in Los Angeles where on any given night some 65,000 live in the streets. Valerie Zeller, 52, bows her head in tears of joy following her first-ever wedding dress fitting by the side of her tent during sunset hour in Echo Park lake where she lives.

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Echo Park Lake, once a location for movies dating back to the silent-film era, has been the site of conflict between nearby homeowners and one of L.A.’s largest encampments of unhoused people. The scenic park is part of what was once a working-class neighborhood. The area has been gentrifying for years and now, with a median house price of more than $1 million, wealthier homeowners want unhoused people evicted from the park. 

Henry, 63, is a Gulf War Veteran diagnosed with PTSD. He spent 22 years in prison and was granted early release in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Henry said Los Angeles in lockdown looked like a science fiction movie.

Amie Roe helps Valerie out of her wheelchair as Heather Yoo holds the wedding dress to protect it from the mud as she gets ready for her wedding ceremony outside the tent where she lives. Valerie suffers from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), a rare neurologic pain disorder that has been nicknamed the “suicide disease” because of its unrelenting chronic pain and lack of effective treatments. 

Valerie looks into a broken mirror to primp her hair next to her tent on her wedding day in Echo Park Lake.  I never heard her complain about not having access to a shower or a makeup room to get ready for her wedding. Instead, she stoically carried on and gave herself a sponge bath under her blue tarp and sat in her wheelchair while her Pastor's wife, Amie Roe, did her makeup for her.

Valerie and her husband, Henry, face the audience after taking their vows at Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles. The couple is part of the unhoused community that had lived in the park.

 Valerie  faced a throng of journalists during a press conference organized by housing advocates to stop the eviction of some 200 unhoused residents living inside Echo Park Lake.

After Valerie spoke to reporters, she went into her tent to change into the wedding dress she had been married in four days earlier. I asked her why she put on her wedding dress:  “I want people to know the good that happened in this park a few days ago. My honeymoon is over and it’s time to fight. We (the unhoused) should be treated like humans, like everyone else.”

For two nights police clashed with protestors over the shutdown of Echo Park Lake, in Los Angeles, homeless encampments, and the LAPD made 182 arrests. Homeless advocates say some 68,000 people are living in the streets of Los Angeles where an ordinance recently criminalized homelessness by banning sitting, lying down, and sleeping on sidewalks. 

City officials fenced off the perimeter of the park overnight in Los Angeles, while the LAPD clashed with protesters who demanded the unhoused be able to stay in the park. Henry called me at 5 a.m. to tell me the park and surrounding streets had been cut off to the public and that hundreds of officers were patrolling the area. When I saw Valerie, from the other side of the fence, she looked fragile and disorientated and said she hadn’t slept or eaten in a long time. I told her Henry was on his way. 

Sanitation workers collected more than 35 tons of trash while cleaning the closed Echo Park Lake which reopened months later after $1 million in repairs and clearing of homeless encampments.

Henry and Valerie had the largest patch of land in the park with three large tents, filled with their belongings and treasures, covered with blue tarps. They made a living as night hunters, selling what they found in garbage bins or along sidewalks and alleyways. Valerie refuses to throw things out, so there is little room in the tents for her and Henry. Her belongings spill out onto the ground around the tents.  As the standoff wore on, outreach workers gently encouraged Valerie to accept the offer of temporary housing. Knowing the deadline of having to be out of the park by 10:30 PM was looming, Valerie would start packing her clothes frantically only to feel overwhelmed by the task and fall into despair. “I’m not leaving. I don’t care. They will have to drag me out of here … I’m tying myself to a tree." 

Surrounded by LAPD Henry pleads with Valerie to leave the park. Henry, who has spent time in prison, refuses to stay with her. Valerie is wearing her wedding veil. 

Avenir Light is a clean and stylish font favored by designers. It's easy on the eyes and a great go-to font for titles, paragraphs & more.

Valerie stands at the park entrance  telling an LAPD Officer that she has every right to stay in the park. While some 800 LAPD clashed with protesters outside the park, those inside the park were kind and sympathetic to the unhoused people who were reluctant to leave. When the standoff finally ended, I asked Valerie what she thought of it all. “I felt like I was being evicted from my home … and that’s exactly how I felt and that’s  exactly how it was. They were evicting me from my home … it’s as clear as day that’s what happened. I mean I know it’s a park but I wasn’t going to stay there forever.  We need to fix this (homelessness) as a society … They walled us in (with a fence) and then told us we could fill up two bags of our stuff.”

The following morning, after the park shutdown, I went looking for Valerie and Henry. I drove around my neighborhood looking at different homeless encampments, it was obvious how many “Valerie’s” and “Henry’s” there are in Los Angeles. There are 68,000 homeless people living on the streets of LA at the moment and those numbers will rise once the COVID-19 eviction moratorium expires. I found Henry and Valerie about two blocks from the park. They had spent the night sleeping in an alley behind Mitch O’Farrell’s office. O’Farrell is the 13th district city council member who ordered the park shut down for a $500,000 renovation.  Valerie was pouring a bottle of water over her head and Henry was sleeping in her wheelchair.

Valerie and Henry had their rent paid for two months inside a rundown rat infested hotel not too far from the Park.Valerie and Henry are survivors. I don’t know how they worked it out but they found several supporters to pay for a weekly room a few miles from Echo Park Lake in a one-star motel on Santa Monica Blvd. 

After spending three days sleeping in the street in Echo Park, Valerie returns to Henry and passes out immediately after lying down. Henry teases her over it.

Valerie and Henry are survivors. I don’t know how they worked it out but they found several supporters to pay for a weekly room a few miles from Echo Park Lake in a one-star motel on Santa Monica Blvd. They stayed in a small room using a shared shower and toilet. Valerie said the room had rats in it but she added her personal decorating touch to it and so it worked for the newly married couple for almost two months. 

Tired of the constant fighting with Henry and the rats in the motel room, Valerie heads to Echo Park to sell her trinkets along Sunset Blvd. She stayed on the streets there for three days. Valerie has moved so many times in her life. After her mother died, she moved back to Las Vegas. “… After that, I re-established myself in Vegas for a while but everything had changed … that’s when I met my girls in Vegas and when I started partying really hard. I started partying after my Mom died. But I wasn’t a, like, drug addict … I was doing my job at work. I looked good. I had a really nice apartment, a beautiful car — a Honda Prelude.” 

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Valerie breaks down in tears, crying on the phone to her pastor that no one is helping her move. She feels abandoned and overwhelmed by the constant fighting with Henry. Valerie told me she was once given a “5150” after she “lost it” while waiting for a friend to get help at a hospital. A 5150 is a temporary, involuntary psychiatric hospitalization. “I was so pissed off. I told them if they keep me here another minute I’m going to kill myself.”  She says jokingly. Valerie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder there and prescribed medication. I asked her if the medication made her feel better. She said:  “No, I feel worse. I feel jittery. I feel sluggish. It made me feel numb to the world. I didn’t care about nothing and I would sleep 18 hours a day.”  

I spotted Henry begging for money at the side of the road and stopped to see how he was doing. He asked me for a ride to the motel but I suggested we first go see Valerie, who was back on Sunset Blvd. selling things. When we arrived, she was in tears because Redd had been hit by a car. My heart sunk and Valerie and Henry got into a fight right on the street while Redd sat shaking on the sidewalk. Valerie said she left Redd on the sidewalk while she went “hunting” in the alleyway around the corner. Redd was covered in clothes and a shopkeeper told Henry that he fell off the sidewalk and a driver, trying to park, ran over his leg. I took her and Redd to the veterinarian where we waited 10 hours to have Redd examined. Valerie asked me to take care of Redd if anything ever happened to her. 

Henry knows Valerie doesn’t want to come back to the motel room because of the rats so he reaches out to supporters for help in getting a room in a new motel. The couple couldn’t get their packing organized so they continued to stay at the seedy motel after all.  

Valerie hugs Henry upon receiving a donated van while the motel manager and his family look on from the window. She says, “This is our new home, Henry.”  The van, which has a lot of miles on it,  was donated by a coalition of neighborhood organizers 

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