Jan. 11, 2018: FRANCE-AMERIQUE - The Voice of the Homeless in Los Angeles
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In Los Angeles — the U.S. city with the highest number of homeless people — a French woman is fighting for the rights of those most in need. Formerly homeless herself, she has become a self-made “ambassador for dignity.”
Louise Mbella feels right at home in Skid Row, a neighborhood home to a large homeless population in Downtown Los Angeles. And for good reason. The French woman spent her first years in California living on the streets, before being taken in by a women’s shelter on South San Pedro Street. She has since found an apartment, but is continuing to fight for the rights of society’s poorest and of women in the City of Angels.
The French woman’s most recent achievements include the opening of a women-only wing at a shelter, and the creation of a mobile hygiene center open to the residents of Skid Row. The lack of public sanitation in this area — where between 8,000 and 11,000 homeless people live — is contributing to the hepatitis A epidemic currently sweeping across California. “The struggles faced by the homeless go beyond housing. They also lack education, healthcare, and hygiene,” says Louise Mbella. In the run-up to the 2028 Olympic Games, she is planning permanent camps, and mental health and reintegration centers to be installed on every parking lot and plot of wasteland across the city. “I’m fighting to defend the rights and the dignity of those who are unable to express themselves,” she says.
A “Comfortable” Childhood
Louise Mbella grew up in Créteil, a residential suburb southeast of Paris. She says her childhood was “modest but privileged,” and she remembers summer camps and sailing lessons. “I wasn’t engaged in the fight against homelessness before I arrived in the United States,” says the advocate. She refers to “traumas,” but doesn’t go into the reasons why she became homeless a few years after she arrived in Los Angeles in the 1990s.
After “several years” sleeping in the streets, the French woman was accepted into a women’s shelter, where she realized her particular status. “I was a black woman, but because I was French and educated, I was different from the other residents.” Nicknamed “Frenchy,” she slowly took on the role of spokesperson, and people would come to see her for help writing letters, to complain about meals, and to negotiate with the administration.
A Talented “Diplomat”
In 2010, Louise Mbella shared her experience of living on the street at a fundraising event for the Downtown Women’s Center, a organization for vulnerable women. Seduced by the television cameras filming her speech, “Frenchy” expressed her commitment to “defending human rights.” From working as a volunteer for the charity, she was soon appointed orientation facilitator for new members, then secretary of the Downtown Women’s Action Coalition, and finally co-chair. In 2015, she took advantage of a meeting in Sacramento — the political capital of California — to invite Senator Holly Mitchell to visit Skid Row. (She accepted.) And when speaking before a group of LAPD chiefs, “Frenchy” quoted article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.”
Praised by the mayor of Los Angeles for her commitment and service to the community, Louise Mbella puts her talents as a “diplomat” down to her nationality. “The homeless people on Skid Row — African-Americans for the most part — are traumatized,” she says. “They don’t trust the police, or the government. I’m Black too, but I don’t have the same scars. The town of Créteil never hurt me. My unique position enables me to talk to elected officials in Los Angeles and change things.”