Of the first four women to move into the Downtown Women's Center Residence that opened officially last week, one was 75 years old and had been spending her nights at the all-night movies; one transferred from a Skid Row hotel where she had been living in terror ever since all her belongings, including her treasured television, were stolen, and two were essentially homeless, taking temporary shelter with friends.
Now home for them is a permanent place, safe, clean, dignified and--as visitors touring the 333 S. Los Angeles St. residence at the dedication last Thursday kept repeating in stunned admiration--not only pretty but elegant.
Muted mauves, pinks and soft yellows and framed floral prints are used throughout the halls, cozy lounges and kitchen areas. In each of the 48 rose-and-gray individual rooms there are pictures and bulletin boards on the walls, colored spreads on the wide, firm beds, floor-length mirrors on the closets, sinks and small refrigerators in the cupboard wall units. And, a porch light and mailbox just outside each door.
The residence is probably not "just like home" for many of those who will be living there, at least not any home they have lived in within recent memory. It is, however, decidedly homelike, combining basic features of boarding houses and single-room occupancy hotels.
Two years in the planning and making, the residence, like the 8-year-old daytime Downtown Women's Center next door, was founded by Jill Halverson for the women of Skid Row. Those women tend to be poor and homeless. The majority have histories of mental illness. Often they are disabled, aged, and malnourished. Some are ill enough to qualify for government assistance; others live more marginally. Either way, many of them have known the life of the loaded shopping cart, the furtive search for shelter in a doorway or parking lot, the increasing alienation that well-founded and imagined terrors bring.
For such people, moving into a haven like the residence may be desirable and the fulfillment of any number of prayers and dreams, but it is no easy thing.
The women have been moving in over the past two weeks, a few at a time, and, Halverson said, during the transition, habits and survival tactics from the old life style have come with them. Some have been sleeping on the floor beside their beds; sponge bathing and washing their hair at the sinks in their bedrooms rather than in the showers and tubs down the hall; using coffee cans as nighttime chamber pots rather than brave a common hallway.
And sleeping long hours. That was Halverson's first observation, she said. It was probably the first safe and undisturbed sleep some had had in years.
The last time Rose Arzula lived in an apartment or hotel was 1974. Since then, she said, "I've been outside."
Of all the new residents, she is Halverson's oldest friend, a woman whom she often credits as the inspiration for the center and residence. A strong, good-looking Mexican-American woman in her 50s, her life on the streets was difficult, but there was a familiar, and familial, pattern to it at times. She had her shopping carts and friends--Arturo, Woodie, Chino--gentlemen winos who hung out with her almost as a family unit. They offered protection at night; she offered food.
"Everybody went away," she shrugged the other day at the center, remembering that time before her friends died or disappeared and the streets became so dangerous.
And so, for the first time in 12 years she has a room of her own. For a month. The rents are monthly and that suits her fine. It may not be to her liking, and she is quick to point out, may not be to their liking--they being Halverson, the manager, Gerry Kirkessner, the young maintenance man, Dan Albrecht, and the other women. Better to keep it temporary.
Even at that, moving in was no small occasion. She stalled a little the day before her move-in date, sorting through the accumulations of several loaded shopping carts, figuring out how all that stuff would translate into dresser drawers, muttering a little glumly to Halverson at one point, "It's my last day to be normal."
She has, in short, done more than change the place where she puts her head down at night. She has committed herself, however temporarily, to a profoundly different life. For all her reservations, she likes it.
"It's better than to be outside all the time. It's a beautiful place. "
Last week Mayor Tom Bradley, City Council President Pat Russell and Gayle Wilson, wife of Sen. Pete Wilson, came to the opening and spoke of the love that went into the building. The Rev. Don Kribs, the Rev. Alice Callaghan and Rabbi Leonard Beerman, all friends of the center, delivered invocations. A banner designed by the future residents was unfurled--a house filled with hearts.