Lina Vital doesn’t remember the exact date she met Charlene Leslie. But she remembers the circumstances.
Vital, a photographer and administrative assistant at the Carl Cherry Center, was walking through Seaside not too far from the Weekly’s offices at Fremont and Williams when she saw two Seaside police officers in an alley speaking to a woman.
“I saw her walk away hurriedly. I asked if they were harassing her and she said, ‘No, they were just talking to me about not loitering and asking me to move on,’” Vital says. “She wasn’t upset at all. She was totally pleasant.”
She also didn’t look homeless. Vital, who was working on a group project to photograph homeless women of Monterey County, asked her if she was. And Leslie’s story came spilling out.
She served in the U.S. Army. She worked for the Monterey Police Department. (The department confirmed Leslie was a detention officer in the records department for a few years in the mid-1980s.) Her life entered into a downward spiral of alcoholism and homelessness following the death of her son, who was serving in the U.S. Army when he was killed.
The picture Vital took tells the story – Leslie, a strawberry blonde with freckles covering her broad face, looks straight into the camera with tears streaming from her green eyes.
“She drank a lot, and she wasn’t clear on the exact circumstances of her son’s death, but I took it as a big piece of her life when she was telling me about it,” Vital says. “She seemed like such a courageous woman. She was trying to be tough, but she was so vulnerable and in so much pain.”
Vital recounted the circumstances of the meeting about 10 days after Leslie’s body was found floating in the water under the bridge at Laguna Grande Park. How she died has yet to be determined. How she lived, without shelter and without many – if any – resources is unfathomable to most of us.
Vital’s picture of Leslie is part of Becoming Visible: The Face of Homeless Women on the Monterey Peninsula, an exhibit staged at Carl Cherry in November 2012.
Several co-organizers of the show, including Rev. Michael Reid, associate rector of St. Mary’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, reached out after we ran a story on our website that reported Leslie’s death and described her as a transient.
Just as Reid’s email and my subsequent conversation with him spawned my thoughts, Becoming Visible spawned much more. It prompted the Community Foundation for Monterey County to launch a “field of interest fund” called the Fund for Homeless Women. In 2014, the fund expected to award up to $90,000 to support efforts at helping homeless women on the Monterey Peninsula.
One of the recipients, the One Starfish Safe Car Parking Program, was started by Defense Language Institute contract employee Tia Sukin.
CMFC’s fund donated $21,500 to One Starfish, a program that seeks to help individuals and families living in cars by providing a safe place – in this case, church parking lots – for those people to park overnight and sleep without fear. The goal, Sukin says, is for a social worker to work with program participants and help them secure permanent housing, healthcare and adequate income.
It’s been just over a year in the making, but One Starfish launched with its first church, Community Church of the Monterey Peninsula, earlier this month. (To participate, you have to go through the intake process with the social worker.)
There are some issues of zoning and code enforcement. Pacific Grove, for example, allows sleeping in cars on private property for no more than 30 days. The city is working on changing the ordinance to participate in One Starfish.
The P.G. Challenge, launched by Councilmembers Ken Cuneo and Rudy Fischer, granted One Starfish $15,000 on the same day Leslie’s body was found. According to the obituary that ran last weekend, Leslie was to be cremated and her ashes spread at sea.