LAWNDALE — A year ago, city officials, merchants and neighbors were upset with the House of Yahweh, a privately run nondenominational soup kitchen located about 200 feet from City Hall.
They did not like the unkempt people it attracted to the civic center area. They were irritated when Sister Michele Morris, its outspoken executive director, accused city officials and merchants of conspiring to shut it down.
But now, despite a sizable increase--about 50 more people a day--in the number of homeless and hungry served by the House of Yahweh, the heat is off the kitchen and Sister Michele is working closely with the city administration.
"I think the relationship is sort of coming together," said City Manager Paul Philips.
Sister Michele of the Catholic order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet agrees. "We want the blessings of the city. That is the big breakthrough."
The new spirit of cooperation was evident when city officials allowed the House of Yahweh to hold its Christmas dinner--complete with turkey, dressing and candied yams--for 175 needy people at the Community Center.
"Now, isn't that a twist?" Sister Michele said.
Gains Another Victory
On Wednesday, the House of Yahweh gained another victory when the Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve a permit to renovate a small house that the soup kitchen recently bought.
The structure, one element of expansion plans for the House of Yahweh, is intended for use as a temporary shelter for eight homeless women.
Most important for the future, city officials are considering suggestions from Sister Michele that the city purchase surplus land from the state Department of Transportation and turn it over to the House of Yahweh, which has close ties with the parish of St. Catherine Labore Catholic Church in nearby Torrance.
Councilman Dan McKenzie, a critic-turned-supporter, took Morris on a tour of the city several months ago, showing her all the plots that Caltrans owned. The land could be used to relocate the soup kitchen near the San Diego Freeway and 190th Street, away from the civic center.
One possibility would be a major expansion of House of Yahweh operations through the construction of a permanent shelter for homeless people who are working or actively looking for work.
"It's a viable idea," said Councilman Terry Birdsall, adding that Sister Michele must flesh out her relocation and expansion plans before the city can make any commitment.
"None of us have any problem with what she is trying to do," Birdsall said. "These people have to be fed."
A number of factors have contributed to the improved relations.
Councilman Jim Ramsey, who was one of the soup kitchen's severest critics, lost in an attempt to unseat Mayor Sarann Kruse last spring and left the council.
The Lawndale Chamber of Commerce, which had served as a channel for merchants' complaints, has been operating without an executive director to articulate its position since Oct. 31.
Merchants and neighbors are complaining less about homeless clients of the House of Yahweh sleeping on the civic center lawn, loitering nearby or soiling public places with body wastes, said Philips.
A case in point is Everett Bowman, a retired service station dealer who complained before the City Council last year on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce. Bowman said he spent a sleepless night after his appearance before the council and then had a change of heart about the House of Yahweh and Sister Michele.
"If it wasn't for her, what would happen to these people? She is doing an outstanding job," he said. "I have guilt feelings as to having any part in the beginning. I hope that the business people and civic organizations could give her a hand in getting some housing for these people."
Inspected Soup Kitchen
He said he had subsequently inspected the soup kitchen and was impressed by "the businesslike manner in which it is run."
Philips attributed the decrease in complaints to increased police and security presence ordered last fall near the civic center after a homeless man was arrested for menacing a woman in the area.
The city spent $9,000 for private foot patrols at the civic center area and on Hawthorne Boulevard for three months, and the Sheriff's Department beefed up its vehicle patrols. The private guard detail has since been limited to the civic center area.
But the city manager also praised House of Yahweh officials, who are getting the word out that they refuse to serve intoxicated people. "They have been doing a good job helping to regulate their clients," he said.
Sister Michele, who regularly accused city officials of conspiring with merchants to shut her down, has toned down her approach and says she will meet with merchants to find out how she can respond to their concerns.
Before reawakened concern for the homeless generated by cold weather dissipates, Sister Michele said she plans to meet with area ministers and rabbis to develop plans to avert crises.