Rescuing the Homeless ‘Pretty Blonde’ in Pacific Palisades

By Nancy Klopper
Special to the Palisades News

(Editor’s note: L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote about the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness efforts in a July 29 column, “The Mystery Homeless Woman of Pacific Palisades and the Village That Helped Her Home.”)

It was March, and the Pretty Blonde was in front of Ralphs in Pacific Palisades. She was having great trouble breathing. The mental health unit evaluation (MEU) officer thought it was allergies or sinus. I thought it was panic.

There had been a long string of problems. She had been escorted out of the public library many times for “major disruptions.”

During the heavy rains last winter, she slept in the post office on La Cruz, where she defecated, urinated and smeared her blood on the walls. When the postal workers arrived for work, she terrified them with her screaming. Postal police had to be called. Some said she had started warming fires on the bluffs.

This was the Pretty Blonde’s “home” in the parkland below Via de las Olas, where camping is prohibited. Photo: Sharon Kilbride

This was the Pretty Blonde’s “home” in the parkland below Via de las Olas, where camping is prohibited. Photo: Sharon Kilbride

Many people in the Village had noticed the attractive woman who lived on the bluffs below Via de las Olas and walked through the Palisades during the day. To anyone who observed her, it was quite clear she was mentally ill. She flailed her arms, made guttural sounds, and spoke incoherently in an indecipherable language.

Many people called the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness, hoping to see her off the streets. Some worried this small, young attractive woman would be raped by other homeless.

I followed her for months, because I feared for her safety.

I joined the Task Force when it was formed in late 2014. But everything changed the day Sharon Kilbride, who heads up the enforcement committee, asked if I would focus on homeless individuals in the Village.

The enforcement committee’s goal is to get people to accept a myriad of services, to go into shelters, and ultimately move into housing.

In one attempt to help the Pretty Blonde, whose name we did not know, LAPD Officer Rusty Redican took her in October to Harbor UCLA Medical Center on a 5150 (psychiatric hold). The doctors there told him she would be there for a very long time.

A day and a half later, Redican saw her walking on the bicycle path along the beach on her way back to her “home” in the bluffs. Why had she been released? HIPPA laws prevented the Task Force from finding out.

But at least now, I knew her name. I went to the internet to see what I could learn, and found her old Facebook page, she had used as recently as 2015. I studied it and clicked the translate button with frequency.

I learned this Scandinavian citizen had been in Los Angeles more than 10 years, had married and had a child. After weeks of searching, I found a woman that I thought might be her mother and sent a message.

I awoke to a reply that said, “This is the happiest day of our history, we have been looking for our daughter for two years and assumed she was dead.”

The Task Force made plans with the parents to come to Los Angeles. The parents put me in touch with their daughter’s ex-husband and his partner.

A friend suggested that I speak with Palisadian Veslemoey Zwart who was from the same country. I did, and the next morning the resident was at the Consulate, to bring them on board. That resident also volunteered to reach out to the parents via emails in their native language.

But the Pretty Blonde was still on the streets. Members of the Task Force hoped to have the woman taken in for another 5150 hold, and that this time it would stick.

At an earlier PPTFH general meeting open to the public, Judge Michael Levanas had spoken about conservatorships and guardianships for the mentally ill, and how difficult they were to get.

Now he arranged for me to talk to an attorney who specialized in this area. The lawyer repeated to me what the Task Force was up against. I have to confess, I was scared. I’m a casting director, not a mental healthcare worker. I remember thinking, “Surely someone is going to step in and take this over any moment.”

The parents and brother flew into LAX, where they were picked up by the resident who spoke their language. She drove them to a friend’s apartment where they would stay for several weeks. That night I met the parents and told what had transpired to date, and that our second attempted 5150 would take place the next morning.

It was a sleepless night for me, because I knew how crucial it was for us that things went right. I was also painfully aware that if things went wrong, the outcome could have been crushing.

The “Pretty Blonde” left behind a diary. Photo: Nancy Klopper

The “Pretty Blonde” left behind a diary.
Photo: Nancy Klopper

Rusty and I had planned carefully. I had asked OPCC (now The People’s Concern) to send a social worker, Simone Nathanson, and we had two mental health unit evaluations.

At 9 a.m., the Pretty Blonde was spotted at Ralphs. When she exited the market, Simone tried to engage her but was met with an extended arm and fist, along with some undecipherable but angry sounds.

Rusty took over and very gently placed her in handcuffs. I will never forget what I witnessed next. Rusty treated her with such respect, was so gentle and kind that it was almost surreal to watch. It seemed more like ballet than police work. He continually touched her shoulder to make her feel safe and cared for. He kept adjusting her hat and sunglasses; everything he did was in service to her well-being.

He tried to talk to her, but she was speaking gibberish. One of the MEU officers said he didn’t think she met the “gravely disabled” qualification required to take her in.

When I questioned him about his assessment, he responded, “She bought a chicken in the market, so she is able to provide for herself.”

The Pretty Blonde was breathing in fast, short bursts, and it appeared she was headed for a full-blown panic attack. I pointed that out, but the MEU officer responded, “She might have sinus problems.”

It seemed we were looking at the situation in two entirely different ways—that was scary.

We pointed out that we were in contact with the consulate, and that the parents had flown in the night before.

One MEU officer immediately saw the bigger picture and said, “We should transport her to Harbor UCLA because if we don’t take her, we’re going to be back here in the same place, doing this again.” They agreed to transport her.

As I got into the car to go the hospital, I sent an S.O.S. email to Dr. John Mazziotta, the vice chancellor and CEO of UCLA Health in Westwood. I told him of the urgency of the situation.

He then emailed Dr. Tom Strouse, director of psychiatry at UCLA Resnick, who emailed Ira Lesser, M.D., who is head of Harbor UCLA Psychiatry.

At the hospital, we were escorted to a private room where a two-hour intake process took place. Dr. Vivian Tang was in the Psychiatric Emergency Room that day and she was clearly moved by the poignancy of the situation.

Afterwards, Tang told us that the Pretty Blonde was covered with lice and was spewing profanities. The young woman had been given pills, but she spit them out, and the medical staff finally sedated her by injection. She told the family, “You have a very sick daughter,” but told them there was no reason this case couldn’t end successfully.

Dr. Tang explained to us that the Pretty Blonde “would be admitted on a 48-hour hold, that would be extended to a 72-hour hold, which would become a two-week hold, and eventually a one-month hold. She would refer the parents to a public guardian to begin proceedings for the parents to be named their daughter’s conservator.

It was the first time I felt hope. We went to the parking lot, where her mother wept in my arms with relief. We were all crying.

The next day the family met Officer Redican (at their request) to thank him for what I told them had been a miraculous effort on his part. Rusty took them to their daughter’s encampment high in the Palisades bluffs.

Mom, dad and brother went through her belongings and picked out a few things they wanted to keep: an art book, some jewelry and a journal. Her dad was relieved when he saw where she lived. In his imagination, he must have feared something like Skid Row. Instead, he looked out at hillsides and the ocean.

After 10 days, the family was allowed at the hospital. The Pretty Blonde looked at them and said, “I haven’t seen any of them before.”

The doctor explained “it was her illness talking,” that “the medication was not working” and “we’ll try a different one.”

A week later, the family returned and this time she knew them immediately. There were warm hugs. Afterwards, her dad took “all of the angels” out to lunch to thank us for all we had done. He made a moving speech and I attempted to do the same, but my emotions got the best of me.

Our Pretty Blonde remained in the hospital for five weeks. At the end of that time, Harbor UCLA flew her and a UCLA doctor to her home country at its expense.

She is recovering and now is living with her parents at home. The Task Force still refers to her as Pretty Blonde to protect not only her privacy, but also her family’s and her child’s.

Perhaps I will get to meet her one day. If I do, I will tell her how happy all the people of the Palisades are that she is safe and with people who love her.

I saw clearly that we have a broken system in America. Members of the PPTFH and most Palisadians realized this woman was not well. When our own mental health units don’t view what a nonprofessional can see is clearly a critical condition, then we have a real situation on our hands.

It also means that other parents and siblings have come up against the system so many times and failed, that they give up. They don’t feel they can help the child or partner who is mentally ill.

One lesson the PPTFH has learned is that no matter how many people tell us we are facing unsurmountable hurdles, if we believe enough, and fight hard enough, we can move mountains.

According to the most recent homeless “count,” we have had a 50 percent decrease in the homeless population of Pacific Palisades. The Task Force continues to try to help all homeless, even those who face severe mental illness.

For more information, visit pptfh.org.

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