Reporting an L.A. pregnant homeless woman’s life since 2018

Los Angeles Times videographer Claire Hannah Collins had proposed a story about something our organization had rarely touched on in decades of reporting LA homelessness: pregnant women living on the streets. She and another videographer spent months compiling reports and contacting various agencies, interviewing several women who had experienced homelessness during their pregnancy.

Then Mckenzie Trahan’s mother called me — I was a member of the Times’ homelessness reporting team on homelessness — and was upset that her daughter, who was 6½ at the time.

Collins, photographer Christina House, and I slipped through a hole in the fence above the 101 Freeway in Hollywood and into a world of young homeless people, many of whom were raised in foster care and juvenile detention centers. Mckenzie’s mother, Cynthia “Mama Cat” Trahan, came to help with the pregnancy and became part of the story.

We would soon learn that each of us had a connection to Cat and Mckenzie: Claire and Mckenzie were the same age; Christina and Mckenzie were pregnant at the same time; and I was about Cat’s generation.

A woman sits on a bed and points a camera at her while another woman smiles at her.

Mckenzie Trahan (left) and Times videographer Claire Hannah Collins.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Cat and Mckenzie placed their trust in us, and we tried to respect their autonomy and control over their narratives while witnessing and examining some of the most difficult moments in their lives. Even when things were particularly difficult, they told us they supported the project: Mckenzie said she wanted her story to be told in all its rawness, and Cat said she no longer wanted to be invisible.

We hung out in the Hollywood tents and rode the bus or train with Mckenzie to her first ultrasound appointment, her rejection by a leading Christian organization for the homeless, and her entry into a homeless mothers’ residential program. We sat in the hospital waiting room to announce the birth of their daughter and watched the joy and tears of joy as Dad Eddie’s homeless friends, Cat and McKenzie gathered to celebrate.

PATH, the operator of the residential program, mercifully bent their no-go rule to allow us to watch Mckenzie play and bathe her daughter Ann in their tiny apartment, and we spent time with the daycare staff to observe the baby’s daily routine and Drop off and pick up by Mckenzie. We were there for portions of Mckenzie’s job search and work training program, fun and sweet moments with Ann, and days of uncertainty, frustration and extreme loneliness.

Two pregnant women are sitting on a bench, one woman is looking at the other.

Mckenzie Trahan, left, and Times photographer Christina House.

(Claire Hannah Collins / Los Angeles Times)

To understand Cat’s nomadic lifestyle, we woke up in the Alabama Hills west of Lone Pine in the Eastern Sierra and watched her brew coffee at sunrise. Claire hitchhiked Cat to Bishop where her stories of networking along the way were brought to life.

Through snippets of conversations with and between Mckenzie and Cat, we carefully stitched together poverty and trauma in the Trahan family, stretching back three generations to Louisiana’s Cajun Country. We set up strategic video interviews to piece together fragments of the story and get their perspectives, and reviewed what we could through court records and other government documents, contemporary newspaper reports, and photographs. Social media accounts dating back to the past have been helpful. Patience was essential.

We realized that Mckenzie had problems. But I was shocked by the speed with which social workers and the foster court placed Ann in foster care, and I was deeply saddened. For those who didn’t witness the first year of a baby’s life, her relationship with her mother, and in some ways even with us, was very real.

We were denied access to the dependency court hearings, but we watched from the hallway as Mckenzie read the child protection officer’s harsh assessment and broke apart.

After Ann’s removal, Mckenzie was in an extreme crisis, was moving and out of touch. We cold turned up at several homeless camps where we thought she might be staying; I heard there were more guns on the streets than ever before, which didn’t make me happy.

At Mckenzie’s tent near the top of a steep and slippery embankment with a treacherous drop to the Hollywood Freeway below, Christina and I almost went over the edge, but another homeless guy grabbed me.

Mckenzie’s friends spoke of the stigma of homelessness. Some were surprised and glad that the Times had taken an interest in the lives of homeless people.

A woman stands while holding a baby while another seated woman looks up and smiles at her.

Times videographer Claire Hannah Collins (left) and reporter Gale Holland with Mckenzie Trahan’s daughter.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The pandemic put our project on hold, but Mckenzie invited us to her new apartment for move-in day, and we met regularly, masked and socially distancing, even in the days after Eddie’s death. Mckenzie was devastated, but death surrounds her and her friends; Deaths are a recurring theme in conversations and on her social media pages.

We spent a few days in Spokane, Washington with Mckenzie’s case manager, Leslie Kerr, and watched her reconcile and care for her ailing mother after Kerr recovered from three decades of addiction.

Our goal was to tell the story of women standing on the cusp of our changing response to some of our most pressing social issues: intergenerational poverty, homelessness, child neglect, mental health, foster care and addiction.

The success of our efforts to end the scourge of homelessness depends at least as much on the people in the tents as it does in city boardrooms or in academic studies. I hope we brought these women to life in all their vibrancy and complexity.

Hollywood's Finest

Mckenzie Trahan – or as her head tattoo puts it, one of “Hollywood’s finest” – was born into a family riddled with domestic violence, mental illness, homelessness and child protection cases for three generations. Times contributors Gale Holland, Christina House and Claire Hannah Collins met Mckenzie in 2018 and have since documented the stories of Mckenzie and two other women — mother Cat Trahan and case manager Leslie Kerr. Join them on their journey.

**HOLLYWOOD'S FINEST DO NOT PUB** Illustration by Li Anne Liew / Los Angeles Times Reporting an L.A. pregnant homeless woman’s life since 2018

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