A stack of vivid paintings lean against the walls of a South Bay storage facility.
Portraits of women draped in pastel, geometric outfits. Psychedelic landscapes of city life. Surrealistic animals that seem to have jumped from a dream to the canvas. In all, nearly 100 paintings left alone in storage for more than a decade.
Leon Washington has nowhere else to put them. He also has no easel or paint. A sketchbook, with him always, is his only outlet for his artistic expression.
That’s because the 71-year-old has no permanent home.
Washington, in a way, is a case study for how mental illness and homelessness — two often-intertwined issues, with the former contributing to a statewide crisis of the latter — can undercut potential.
In 1990, Washington was diagnosed with acute depression, schizophrenia and paranoia, according to his website — artbyleon.com — which features his artwork. His mental illnesses have made finding steady work and staying in a home difficult. Instead, the artist has been homeless, on and off, for the better part of three decades. Much of that time, he said, he’s been on the streets or trying to find shelter in the small town of Lomita and elsewhere in the South Bay.
But he’s hardly alone.
While Los Angeles County did not conduct its annual survey of the homeless population last month, because of the coronavirus pandemic, its 2020 point-in-time count tallied 66,436 folks without permanent housing — a 16% increase compared to the previous year. And 54% of those, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, are considered chronically homeless, defined as living more than a year without permanent shelter and a having “disabling condition.”
About one-quarter of those surveyed in 2020, according to LAHSA data, self-reported having at least one serious mental illness.
While various government agencies have tried to solve the homeless crisis, much of the work of helping individuals living on the streets has often fallen to nonprofits and smaller shelters — and, in some cases, well-meaning regular folk. And there, too, Washington’s experience is instructive:
That’s because, thanks to the generosity of a local woman, her daughter and an online fundraising campaign, Washington recently moved into a Torrance hotel with the hope of eventually finding a permanent apartment — where his artistic talents can flourish.
Because, on the street, it’s not easy being creative.
“It’s scary because you’re always thinking about how many more days you have,” Washington said. “So, if I was to tell you that I could sketch what I feel, and if I feel happy about something, I could do a really good job.
“But if I really wanted to think about my situation, I get distracted, I couldn’t do it,” he added. “I can’t do it.”
Developing his art
Washington’s art and his bouts with homelessness developed together.
He had no artistic training through much of his life, Washington said. But then Washington was admitted to the Downey Community Health Center in 1990, the same year he received his various diagnoses. At the time, he was in his early 40s.
He soon started taking art therapy classes through the Downey Unified School District’s Adult School.
“He asked me for paper, paints and brushes,” a teacher named Lillian Ashton, who ran the therapy classes, said in a 1993 feature on Washington. “And just started working.”
The Downey Art Museum featured him in a one-man show in the summer of 1992, and Washington drew positive reviews from art teachers and critics.
Washington’s mother, Ann Boseman, was quoted in the article a year later as saying she was “proud and surprised” about his talent because it “just came out of the blue.”
Yet, while Washington’s talent revealed itself in his 40s, his mental health issues developed much earlier.
Washington grew up as a happy childhood in Los Angeles’s Crenshaw District, his mother said in that 1993 article, and had a passion for sports. But he injured his back and became “depressed,” Boseman said.
What followed were years of instability, marked, Boseman said, by a failed marriage and “recurring treatments and hospitalizations.”
Those struggles had consequences for his family.
Washington’s son, Hawaii resident and mental health specialist Stacey Leon Washington, said in a phone conversation recently that his relationship with his father has been turbulent.
The younger Washington, who has three children himself, said his career choice was a “conscious effort” because he saw firsthand the struggles people with mental health issues, as well as their families, have to endure.
“When he’s medicated,” the younger Washington said, “and he’s in a safe environment, our relationship is really good.
“But when he’s not, when he’s not on his meds and his living situation is kind of bad,” he added, “then we go up and down.”
That’s evident by the Hawaii resident realizing later than others how talented his father is. It wasn’t until around a decade ago, the younger Washington said, that his father showed him some of his paintings.
“At first I thought somebody else had done it,” the son said. “I was really impressed, like, wow, dad.”
But homelessness can be isolating.
And when the elder Washington would move around, his son would lose contact with him, the younger Washington said. Finding things to talk about, when they did see each other, was challenging.
So when they had nothing to say, the elder Washington would doodle.
“He doesn’t have anybody to relate to on a regular basis,” his son said. “I am so fortunate that there is something in him that made him start to draw and create because he’s a different person when he’s allowed to draw.
“It makes me smile to hear my dad’s voice on the phone and I can tell when he’s happy,” the son added, “so I’m really happy he has this for himself.”
The younger Washington said he plans to reconnect with his father when he returns to the South Bay in the spring.
The elder Washington, meanwhile, has spent decades dealing with challenges common to those living on the street: Finding shelter during bad weather, getting a warm meal, having his cell phone stolen — which only makes contacting his family harder.
And being a present grandfather is not possible.
“I can’t bring my kids to the bus stop,” Washington said, “have a happy day, a bad day, or just a holiday.”
But then there are the challenges specific to a talented artist.
Creating art amid homelessness
Washington, like most creative people, has seen his art evolve over the years.
When he first started painting in Downey, Washington said, he would retrieve discarded National Geographic magazines or other publications from a dumpster behind a library.
“I figured that if I copied some of these pictures, and sold some of the National Geographic books that they would toss away, I could buy cigarettes,” Washington said. “I didn’t have much money, and this was a way that I could supplement my income by doing that.”
He began with acrylic watercolors before getting a hold of oil paints, a medium he said felt like “real art.”
Washington’s progression came naturally, he said, and his art became a way to earn a living.
“If you start riding a bike or skateboard or whatever, you just automatically get tired of going the same direction or doing it the same way,” Washington said, “and you’re doing something different each time.”
Washington created most of the paintings listed on his website between 2006 and 2009, he said. But his recurring bouts of homelessness, while also dealing with various physical health issues, has stunted his work.
For one, he has no permanent place to keep his paintings.
Much of his work, over the years, has been lost or destroyed. Other paintings remain in a storage facility. And painting in oils is not cheap.
The last time he created an oil painting, Washington said, was about nine years ago. So instead, he sketches.
Washington has recently been living primarily outside, in a car or on a covered bus bench, he said, and so he has predominantly done pencil or pen drawings — while what’s left of his life’s work is locked away.
To make ends meet, he takes a picture of someone and sketches them. If he’s lucky, the subject might give him a little money.
But recently, Washington has had reason to hope. Hope that a permanent place to live and paint is nearby.
Hope that wider attention could come to his art.
Hope that he could soon have a life free from the burdens of homelessness.
Washington was sitting on a Lomita bench one day about two years ago when Mackie Lauzon, a student at Azusa Pacific University, spotted him. She stopped to talk to him, to see if he needed a meal.
She then later introduced him to her mother, Torrance resident Debra Lauzon.
The trio developed a friendship.
“She’s a beautiful, wonderful person,” Washington said of the elder Lauzon. “She’s the best.”
Mother and daughter continued bringing Washington food. They’d sit and talk with him. They would pay for a hotel room once in a while — or help him with something else if he asked.
And they’d watch him sketch.
First, Debra and Mackie Lauzon would meet him in an alcove at the Vons in the Torrance Crossroads Center. Then, when the center enclosed the alcove, Washington would sit outside the Starbucks there, the elder Lauzon said.
“He would give us sketches he did of us,” Debra Lauzon said. “But with the (coronavirus) pandemic, all of that has been difficult, if not impossible.”
One day, while Lauzon was chatting with Washington, the artist told her he wanted “to be treated like a human being.”
That’s a common refrain among those living on the streets, and Lauzon considered writing a book about Washington. It would be called, she said, “My name is Leon Washington and I am a Human Being.”
But then, Lauzon learned that Washington’s talents went beyond sketches.
“I spent hours sitting at the bus stop with him, listening to stories,” Lauzon said. “I found out he had the paintings and realized that is a much better way to help him than a book.”
She decided to be more proactive in her help.
First, she wanted to get him off the street.
It was late last year and Lauzon said she couldn’t imagine Washington living on a bench before Christmas.
“I called every agency, I’ve called everywhere, and I (couldn’t) get any help,” she said. “So I just decided to do it myself.”
She put him up in a Torrance hotel for two weeks with the help of friends and family. Since then, they have been covering his stay at the hotel.
It’s the first time in a while, he said, that he has not had to lug around a heavy backpack or luggage — or find somewhere to take a shower or use a bathroom.
But he’s still nervous about one day being back on the street.
So recently, Debra and Mackie Lauzon reached out to friends and received donations to cover Washington’s stay there.
An online campaign will help him stay there longer, with the ultimate goal to find him an apartment in or near Lomita. The online campaign had raised about $6,000 of a $50,000 goal, as of Tuesday, March 2.
Washington needs to get on a waiting list for affordable housing in the area, the elder Lauzon said, but some are not taking names and others have a yearlong wait.
Lauzon, meanwhile, also wants to help Washington’s art get noticed.
To put a price on the paintings, Lauzon said, she contacted an artist friend who helped determine their value.
“About 12 years or more ago, (Washington) sold a couple of his pieces for $5,000 each,” Lauzon said. “I think the value is low, but we have not been able to find an art curator. We need one.
Once (the pandemic) is done,” she added, “we hope to have art shows for Leon at art galleries around California.”
Lauzon is also paying the monthly fee for Washington’s website.
But for Washington, his art is about more than making money.
Washington said he hopes people who view his art “get out of it what their eyes and inner soul gives to them.”
“I want them to get out of my art,” he said, “what they would get out of anything that makes them feel better than what they were feeling before.”
When Washington began his artistic journey decades ago, he said, he was trying to stay alive.
Now, though, his art has a chance to go further. To inspire others in their lives.
And to let Washington not just survive — but live. Not with a sketchpad, but with a canvas.
Not on the street, but in a home.