It’s 7:30 a.m. and Angelina Ortiz is getting makeup done. Lips stained fire-engine red, eyes glamorously smoky, hair covered with a bright pink wig. While the makeup artist dabs and smudges, Ortiz tells her story: Six years on meth. Prostitution. Rape. Homelessness and hopelessness. The transgender 24-year-old woman has already seen more than most people do in a lifetime.
But today’s not about that. Today is Help-Portrait day, an international event where photographers donate their talents to people who wouldn’t normally have access to them. In Las Vegas, photographer Al Powers and life coach Denise Marshall have brought the event to the Shannon West Homeless Youth Center for the last four years, teaming with makeup artists, hair stylists and photographers to create rock star-worthy portraits for the center’s residents.
The kids here could use a little fantasy. Kelly Robson, chief social services officer for HELP of Southern Nevada, says Shannon West takes the hardest cases, “throwaway kids that no one else wants to deal with.” Some are on drugs. Some are on parole. Others have been abandoned or kicked out by family. All have been failed in some way by the adults in their lives. “Piece by piece, we put the puzzle together again until they’re ready to go back and become productive members of society,” Robson says.
Ortiz is on her way. She has been at the center since July—getting sober and working toward her forklift license. She bats a pair of lush fake eyelashes. “I used to [get makeovers] because I would need to prostitute,” she says. Then she flashes a smile. “This is a much better cause.”