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The Reweaver of L.A.'s Skid Row Safety Net : Redevelopment Chief at the Center of Hotel Controversy

November 16, 1986|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

In a small park in the heart of Los Angeles' Skid Row, a man sidles up to Andy Raubeson. It's the kind of move that usually brings a red-alert response in this part of town--eyes narrowing, muscles tensing.

But Raubeson seems unconcerned. As the man extends a hand with fingers folded, Raubeson reaches out, too.

It's an awkward handshake. But it gets the job done.

With that stealthy move and a muttered "thanks," the man slips $20 to Raubeson, repaying him in a way that will prevent a run on the "bank" from the dozens of others who are packed into the patch of grass and palm trees at the corner of 5th and San Julian streets, the so-called Thieves' Corner.

'It's Usually Five'

"Twenty dollars is the maximum. It's usually five," Raubeson says as he walks to his van, adding, "and I have to be pretty sure I'll get it back."

Andy Raubeson is not a loan shark. In fact, such modest out-of-pocket loans--which Raubeson says he makes only if he's convinced the money won't go for alcohol or drugs--are not part of his official duties at all.

Raubeson is head of the multimillion-dollar Single Room Occupancy Housing Corp. (SRO), a nonprofit organization set up by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. Raubeson and SRO are charged with reweaving the lowest web of this city's social safety net--the frequently filthy, often roach- and rat-infested hotels that for many are last, desperate stops on the descent into homelessness.

In his nearly three years here, Raubeson, a chunky, gray-bearded former cop with a penchant for opera and theater, has accumulated a lot of fans with gestures such as his impromptu loans. Such acts, backers say, show why Raubeson was picked for the $65,000-a-year job and how skilled he is at putting a human face on what could be a bureaucratic nightmare.

Yet the cheers now are mixed with raspberries as passions over Raubeson run high.

When he arrived in early 1984, Raubeson, veteran of a similar project in Portland, Ore., was touted as an experienced, savvy heavyweight who would help transform the 50-square-block downtown area that spawns cardboard encampments at sundown and fear and violence around the clock.

That opinion still holds for many. But Raubeson's critics, mainly veteran Skid Row activists who say they still support the concept of SRO, are clearly disenchanted with the agency's performance under Raubeson's leadership.

Among other things, they charge that SRO has made conditions worse on Skid Row by buying hotels and shutting them down, reducing the area's already overburdened housing capacity. Moreover, they say, the nonprofit corporation--which has spent or been allocated nearly $15 million in public funds for hotel improvements--has completely renovated only one hotel, a job that was much more expensive than projected and was finished more than four months behind schedule. (The 60-room Florence Hotel at 310 East 5th St. was purchased in January, 1985, for $375,000 and had an appraised value of $550,000. Renovation costs, estimated at $770,000, amounted to more than $1 million when the hotel opened in August.)

"This resource (SRO) that we were all incredibly excited about, pushed for its development and anticipated for a long time isn't performing," said Alice Callaghan, who founded Las Familias del Pueblo to work with immigrant families and children on Skid Row. "If you're not ready to do a hotel, don't buy it. If he (Raubeson) did buy a hotel, he should have fixed it up right away. This is not somebody who's learning the job. He was supposed to know what he was doing. . . . We suspect he just doesn't know what he's doing."

Comments such as this reflect not only rancor with SRO but also a conflict of philosophies over how to blunt the sharp-edged realities of Skid Row, where by one estimate 12,000 of Los Angeles 30,000 homeless live. Stripped of obscuring details, the conflict seems to be between those who believe more services are needed immediately and those who believe that progress takes time.

The controversy over Raubeson and SRO is taking place against a complicated and emotional background, including the fact that public, private and commercial interests are elbowing for stakes on Skid Row. Some businesses and real estate people have been attracted to the area because of its low rents and proximity to the downtown financial district. Recent changes already have brought striking contrasts to the area. The bright new products of toy importers, wholesalers and retailers share sidewalks with people in need of food, clothing and shelter. On side streets, refrigerated trucks deliver and haul away seafood processed by the row's burgeoning fish processing industry.

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