After eight months as Mckenzie Trahan’s case manager, Leslie Kerr left the company. Mckenzie was so down that a friend had to get her to show up to say goodbye.
Kerr, now 60, saw himself in Mckenzie, who was almost four decades younger. Both were blunt and sarcastic, and found the same silly things funny: How Kerr arrived with tuna in her hair after crashing her car in the middle of a sandwich. When Mckenzie complained about her jerky teeth, Kerr popped out her upper dental bridge to make her laugh.
Both had endured addiction, homelessness, and the loss of children to foster care. Kerr understood in her bones what Mckenzie was going through as she tried to raise their newborn daughter, Ann, on her own. She babysat Ann in her spare time so Mckenzie could train to be a forklift driver and had diapers delivered to Mckenzie’s apartment.
“She could tell me what I needed to do and she could be a slut,” Mckenzie said. “But she stood behind me. With ALL. I f— love Leslie.”
During their time together, Mckenzie did whatever the homeless system asked of her, Kerr said.
It wasn’t enough.
Kerr was sad but not shocked when Mckenzie lost her home and parental rights. Mckenzie, who had two older children she fathered when she was a teenager, really wanted a baby this time, Kerr said.
But the expectations of her – raising a child alone and finding housing, day care and a job – were overwhelming.
“They pushed her very hard to do something that was impossible for her,” Kerr said.
Especially for new moms, “It’s going to take a hell of a lot more than putting them in a house, telling them they’re going to look after their kids, and shoving them out the door,” Kerr said.
journey of reconciliation
Kerr traveled to Spokane, east Washington, in June 2019 to join her children, granddaughter, and mother, Sally, to make amends for her behavior during her three-decade addiction.
Sally had taken on the task of raising Kerr’s children and kept them out of foster care for a time. Kerr’s homecoming could offer Mckenzie a model for reconciliation with her own children.
But real life is never that simple. She completely cut off one of Kerr’s five children. Another has a drinking problem and one lost her own child to a foster family.
As much as Kerr empathizes with Mckenzie’s pain, she said it’s the children who suffer when they go into foster care: “What the children go through is far more than you could ever imagine. It’s devastating for them.”
Unlike Kerr, Mckenzie has no home to return to: her mother, Cynthia “Mama Cat” Trahan, is homeless.
Despite their similarities, Kerr’s upbringing in suburban Los Angeles in the 1970s couldn’t have been more different than Mckenzie’s rootless beginnings.
Kerr said her parents are loving, but her mother is strict and alcoholism runs in the family. Kerr began using drugs the day she left home at age 18, starting with cocaine and then switching to meth.
Kerr has been convicted six times of petty larceny, meth use and possession, and vehicle injury, court records show. When she was in her forties, her boyfriend and dealer kicked her out and she was homeless in Arcadia.
homelessness in the suburbs
Back then, homelessness in the suburbs was ignored. There were no tents, and Kerr said she slept alone in an industrial part of town under a jacket, or on a good night under a blanket.
“I’d go to a gas station and hand-blow dry my hair and wash my hair…put on makeup and everything,” Kerr said. “I could make myself look like I wasn’t homeless.”
In 2010, Kerr was facing a three-year sentence in a meth possession and theft case when her public defender persuaded her to accept a transfer to a Pasadena addiction treatment center.
She had previously been in recovery and had relapsed. This time, she said, the people at the treatment center offered unconditional love, and the rehabilitation took time.
Kerr studied Alcoholics Anonymous with Talmudic fervor and worked hard on her program. After receiving her alcohol and drug counseling license, she worked with teens with substance abuse disorders before joining The People Concern, one of LA’s largest housing and service agencies for the homeless. She was living in a sober house and finishing her bachelor’s degree when she met Mckenzie.
Kerr said the homeless system doesn’t give people the time or resources to recover from their experiences. In Mckenzie’s case, she was never offered any training or an intensive drug treatment program, although she would have been successful in either, Kerr said.
“You get six months, put them in a home and that’s it,” she said. “When I looked at Mckenzie about the recovery, I didn’t see anything that we addressed or anything that addressed her.”
Tod Lipka, president and chief executive officer of Step Up, a homeless services agency that provided Mckenzie’s psychological therapy and drug counseling, agreed that clients like Mckenzie with intergenerational homelessness and severe trauma need intense support. But agencies are “challenged by funding streams that make demands,” he said.
In Spokane, Kerr rented a two-bedroom apartment, spacious by LA standards and neatly maintained, with family photos and memorabilia, including a collection of wall plates with carousels – her mother’s talisman – in relief.
Unable to transfer her drug counseling license to Washington state, Kerr ended up working at a hardware store and a fulfillment warehouse. Shortly after her arrival, her mother, Sally, developed arthritis and Parkinson’s disease and asked Kerr to take care of her.
Up until Sally’s death last year, Kerr was her seven-day-a-week caretaker, handling the most intimate of daily chores — bathing, dressing, and helping her use the restroom — a strict regimen that contrasted sharply with the indulgent manner in which she lived when she was using it.
Bitterness had reigned between mother and daughter over the decades of Kerr’s addiction. During a previous attempt at reconciliation, Kerr had her boyfriend come from LA with drugs and fled during the night, leaving only a note.
Sally once suggested separating Kerr’s children and putting them up for adoption so they could have a better life.
During their long hours together, forgiveness grew on both sides, Kerr said. They critiqued reality “judges” shows for hours together and Sally shared the family story Kerr missed.
“My mother never thought in a million years that I would take care of her. … I wasn’t responsible,” Kerr said last year. “She has great respect for me.”
When her mother could spare her, Kerr power-walked around the parking lot of an abandoned department store counting her diet points. She returned to her apartment each night after dinner to tend her potted plants, then fell on her knees to pray at her bedside and went to bed.
The next day she would get up promptly at 8 or 8:30 to be with her mother. There wasn’t much time for her children, but “the difference is that I’m here. I’m here.”
Of course, that meant she wasn’t with McKenzie anymore.
Mckenzie “was a very focused young lady. … If she had the right person behind her, she would have gotten there, it’s as simple as that,” Kerr said. “I f— love Mckenzie.”
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.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-13/hollywood-finest-los-angeles-homeless-case-manager-leslie She was once homeless. Years later, she helped women in L.A.