LAWNDALE — In this working-class city, the struggle is not so much between the rich and the poor as it is between those who don't have all that much and those who have nothing at all.
The particular battleground is the House of Yahweh, one of only two soup kitchens in the South Bay, an institution that in its three-year history has been as successful in attracting the homeless and hungry as it has been in drawing fire from neighbors, businessmen and officials who see it as a threat to their way of life, livelihoods and city image.
Amid clamor from critics to shut it down and from supporters to keep it open, the City Council voted on Feb. 3 to require soup kitchens to obtain a special business license. When that ordinance goes into effect on Wednesday, the House of Yahweh, which has been operating under a general business license, will be forced to undergo a city review of its operations.
Sister Michele Morris, executive director of the House of Yahweh, says she fears that the outcome of the review has already been determined, and that the ordinance is only a precursor to efforts to shut down her operation.
"I know they (city officials) don't want us here," she said in a recent interview. "There is no doubt about it. We have been a thorn in their side ever since we got here three years ago.
"What are you going to do with the poor? Shoot them?"
She said the House of Yahweh feeds anyone who comes through the door and asks for food, requiring no proof of poverty.
She and her supporters have begun to gather signatures for a ballot measure to overturn the ordinance.
She labeled as "harassment" a Feb. 11 letter from the city's senior building engineering inspector citing the House of Yahweh for eight code violations including failure to post maximum occupancy signs and electrical wiring deficiencies.
However, City Manager Paul Philips denied that the city is harassing the House of Yahweh and that it has already made up its mind about the operation. He contends that House of Yahweh supporters unfairly dismiss critics as "right wingers," and said they should spend their time dealing with the problems of the operation.
Under the new ordinance, the House of Yahweh may continue operating while it applies for the special license, a process that could take some weeks. The city can reject the application or issue a conditional license if the council determines that the "public peace, health, safety or welfare" are in any way harmed by the operation, said Deputy City Manager Paula Cone. City officials have not indicated how the operation should be modified, if at all, and the ordinance requires no specific qualifications for the special permit.
Emotions over the soup kitchen, which draws about 75 homeless and hungry people into Lawndale each day, have run high since the Feb. 3 vote, and the motivations of each side--sanctity of home and hearth versus the biblical injunction to feed the hungry--appear to leave little room for compromise.
"I am afraid to walk the streets of Lawndale," said Kathleen Brown, who lives near the House of Yahweh. "When we moved into the neighborhood, it was so nice. . . . But it is not any longer."
Her neighbor, Norma Morrow, agrees.
"You have someone going to the bathroom across the street in the alley. I had two laying (asleep) in my neighbor's driveway. This happens. This is not just talk. This is scary ."
But feelings run equally strong in those who defend the House of Yahweh.
"I'm fortunate. You're fortunate," longtime Lawndale resident and House of Yahweh volunteer Mildred Donahue told the council recently. "You have a roof over your head. You have a place to sleep, food, but some of these people don't have any of that. Some of them don't have any clothes. Please, let's help them. In God's name. They're hungry . They need help. They are our own, Lawndale's."
Despite the differences between the two sides, an effort at reconciliation advanced two weeks ago when the City Council agreed to a round-table discussion that will include city officials, residents, businessmen and representatives from the House of Yahweh. The meeting will be scheduled sometime this month, officials say.
The problems of the several thousand homeless in the South Bay are not unique. Nor are they necessarily any more severe than those of the estimated 30,000 homeless elsewhere in Los Angeles County.
But there is a bitter poignancy in sending the homeless and hungry to this crowded, economically weak city, where many who do have homes are barely able to make ends meet.
Lawndale is the most densely populated municipality in the South Bay, with an estimated 13,315 people living in each square mile--twice the population density of the area as a whole. It is also one of the poorest cities in the region, with a per-capita income ($10,475 in 1985) that lags 10% behind that of Los Angeles County and 23% behind the average for South Bay cities.