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Homeless Win a Battle, Not the War

January 22, 1987|SCOTT HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

They had knocked and asked politely, pushed and hollered and got arrested and ultimately some had died hoping to get in from the cold. And so, when the homeless took over Los Angeles City Hall the other night, how did they celebrate their triumph?

They opened their bed rolls, lay down and slept. It was only a battle, after all, not the war.

About 100 homeless slept amid the marble columns and wooden benches of the City Council chamber Tuesday night--the first of a three-night trial using City Hall as emergency shelter for the homeless.

On Wednesday night, about the same number of homeless were allowed in. One of the early arrivals was Darlene Harris, who was accompanied by her sons, Nikita, 12; Bashir, 7, and Rodney, 14 months.

"I've been on the street, going from shelter to shelter, ever since Thanksgiving," she said. "Back then, we had an apartment and things weren't so bad, but the plumbing broke and flooded it, and the landlord wouldn't do anything so we left. We haven't been able to find any place for more than one night since then.

"I can't even get my welfare checks on time because we don't have an address to send them to. Living in City Hall is nice, for now. But we still need some place steady."

The City Council, alarmed by the hypothermia deaths of four street people in the recent cold spell, put aside liability concerns on Tuesday and voted to open City Hall doors. Hundreds sought refuge there and at a donated industrial building on South Alameda Street.

Among them was Sylvia Castro, 22, who came to find shelter for herself and her 3-month-old son but ended up being reunited with her mother, who saw her on television.

There was Maria August--broke, homeless and blind--who hopes to avoid the streets until her next government assistance check comes.

There was the young couple who held each other as they slept.

Mostly, there was the soft rumble of snores.

When dawn broke, activists for the homeless had delivered what they promised: a peaceful night indoors. As a safeguard against trouble, organizers allowed only about 100 people inside City Hall. All were searched for weapons.

Another 500 homeless were bused to a vacant new industrial building donated for two weeks by developer James Lucero. There too the night passed without major trouble.

While 600 people had found new shelter, many more street dwellers were seen in their usual places, huddling together in their blankets and boxes on the streets of Skid Row.

"You know what I think? I think it's mostly cosmetic," Charles Rollins, 38, said of the City Hall opening as he warmed himself near a fire in a metal trash can across from the Midnight Mission. "I think they mean well, but they're not getting at the core of the problem."

But homeless activists considered the night a milestone in their cause, following Tent City of the 1984 Christmas season, the 1985 "Justiceville" shantytown, 1986's Tent City II and recent skirmishes between police and squatters in city parking structures and pedestrian tunnels.

"Since when did a City Hall let homeless people sleep in its council chambers? " said Ted Hayes, leader of the homeless organizing group known as Justiceville after the shantytown. "The symbolism is powerful. It will have repercussions for years to come. . . . To go backwards now would be a travesty for the homeless and the city."

"What has happened this week is a miracle, really," said Bob Gay, deputy to Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, who presided over the 500 homeless sleeping on cots in the industrial building. "What the council's doing is only for three days. We still have to come up with a long-term plan."

While Hayes' group has maintained pressure on City Hall, Gay credited the city's clergy, some of whom opened their churches to provide shelter over the weekend, with "embarrassing the City Council into taking action."

Opened Building

The action by churches moved Lucero to open his new building, Gay said.

Lucero called Lindsay's office after reading a story in The Times about Rector Frank Madison Reid's decision to open his Ward African Methodist Episcopal Church to the homeless despite worries about liability. Reid said he opened the church after his father, also a minister, asked him: "What would Jesus do?"

At Lucero's building, three floors were covered by 500 people sleeping on cots provided by the Red Cross and covered by blankets provided by the Salvation Army. Buses had carried many there from City Hall or Skid Row.

"We've got women, children, whole families in there," Gay said. "They're white, black, Hispanic, Japanese. . . . There are some wild looking people and some clean-cut people. . . . There's a woman who reminds me of my mother. I met a guy I went to high school with in there. . . .

"You know the saying, 'There but for the grace of God. . . .' It really hits home."

First in Line

When the doors at City Hall opened to the homeless Tuesday night, Castro and her son, Thomas Ricardo, were the first in line, and the TV cameras zeroed in.

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