Had Lance Applewhite been asked his opinion of rescue missions two years ago, he would have said that people who frequent them should go out and get jobs.
But that was two years ago.
Since then, Applewhite says, his wife divorced him, sending his life into a tailspin. He slacked off at work, and in February he lost his job as a machine tooler for McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach. And last month, Applewhite says, just as he had his "head screwed on right," a gang of thieves jumped him, stole his money, beat him up and left him for dead.
So Lance Applewhite, 45, late of the Beacon Light Mission in Wilmington, has a message for those who oppose what has become a controversial plan to expand the mission building:
"If they could be exposed to the true life here, rather than what they've been told . . . I feel like we'd be much further along. In the overall picture, there's a lot of people getting a lot of help here."
But most Wilmington residents are expected to oppose the expansion when it gets its first public hearing today before a city zoning administrator, who will rule on a request for a variance. The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce's board has voted to oppose it, saying it would hurt downtown businesses. The Banning Park Neighborhood Assn. is also against the proposal.
The opponents worry that a bigger mission will attract more homeless people to a community that is struggling to spruce itself up after years--in the words of more than one resident--of getting "dumped on."
They contend that the variance, which would permit the mission to operate with less than the legal number of parking spots, would violate a proposed community plan that the city is considering. And they complain that Wilmington, with two other missions that feed the poor and several hotels that house them through a county program, already has been generous in taking care of the needy while nearby communities thumb their noses at the problem.
Jo Ann Wysocki, Wilmington Home Owners vice president, who is circulating a petition against the plan, said: "There is a feeling in Wilmington that we would rather the mission not be here, period." As of Tuesday morning, Wysocki said 80% of those she approached were opposed to the mission. She would not say how many signed the petition, which is not sponsored by the association.
Won't Attract Homeless
Mission administrators counter that the expanded facility will not attract more homeless to Wilmington. What it will do, they say, is enable the Beacon Light Mission to better provide for those it already serves.
They note that their rules permit men to stay only seven days every three months to encourage residents to get established in permanent homes. And they argue that the parking issue is moot--the homeless, they say, don't have cars.
They also say the expansion will enable them to better organize their kitchen facilities, which they say are too small. They store some food in a shed.
"We're not going to be feeding more people than we have been," said Harold Holstein, chairman of the mission's board of trustees. "We're going to set it up so that we can more easily handle the ones we get."
The proposal calls for a 2,700-square-foot, second-story addition to the existing 3,840-square-foot mission building at 525 N. Broad Ave. in downtown Wilmington. It would enable the mission to increase its number of beds from 26 to 40; its dining room seats from 40 to 80, and its auditorium capacity from 60 to 100. (The auditorium doubles as a chapel for nightly services.)
Few Turned Away
The mission, which was founded in San Pedro in 1903 and moved to Wilmington in 1972, provided beds 3,557 times during the six months ending Aug. 31. According to Executive Director Gene McCann, very few men have been turned away in recent months. But, he said, he expects the numbers to increase in the winter, when the weather gets cold elsewhere.
Holstein, the board president, said many residents were up in arms when they read in an initial report that the capacity of the mission would increase from 126 to 220--the number of people the mission could hold if all three facilities were in use at the same time.
But, he said, that would never occur because the same men who attend religious services then move into the dining room to eat, and later into the dormitory to sleep. (The mission feeds but does not house women.) And because the mission already feeds more than its capacity, Holstein feels the only true expansion will be the 14 new beds.
Because the addition would be built on the mission's parking lot, the building would have only five parking spaces, instead of the required 35. Although mission administrators say they don't need the parking, Wysocki disagrees.
'Probably Need More'
"Although they're homeless, they're not vehicle-less," she said. "A lot of them live in cars. So I thought even with what they have now, they probably need more."