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On Skid Row, A Glut of Good Will : Downtown Missions Welcome Yearly Outpouring of Gifts, but Some Feel Efforts Might Be Better Directed

December 02, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

Half-eaten hunks of pumpkin pie lay in the gutter beside "Night Time Express" bottles; Styrofoam plates caked with stuffing and cranberries littered the sidewalks; pigeons pecked at heaps of discarded turkey bones.

It was the day after Thanksgiving and the signs were everywhere--America's cornucopia had spilled some of its abundance on Skid Row.

"I was stuffed," said Bruce Young, a 32-year-old who lives in one of the low-rent hotels fronting 5th Street.

Moving from the annual turkey-with-all-the-trimming's feed outside the Fred Jordan Mission to the spread at the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Alcoholic Rehabilitation Center for Men, Young had wolfed down seven free Thanksgiving dinners.

"There were others going on too, but I was trying to digest," he explained with a pained grin.

Like wise men going to Bethlehem, churches, charities and individuals come to Los Angeles' Skid Row each holiday season, laden with food and gifts.

Celebrities Help Serve

This year actors Jeff Bridges, Rosey Grier, Jo Anne Worley, Earl Holliman, Katherine Helmond and Rose Marie, and the Los Angeles Kings hockey team were a few of the celebrities who helped serve Thanksgiving dinners at various Skid Row missions.

But as some of the people who work on Skid Row all year round see it, there's little wisdom behind the orgy of meals and presents that abruptly appears in this seedy downtown area on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

It's not that Southern California's underclass doesn't need help, they say, but rather that the outpouring of money and energy might better be spent in other ways, at other times, and in places other than Skid Row.

"Blind giving can cause crises," explained John Dillon, director of the Chrysalis Center, a Skid Row self-help organization.

Last Christmas season, for instance, a church group from the Westside loaded up a truck with the canned goods they'd collected, then drove to Skid Row, Dillon recalled.

They found the street corners crowded with eager recipients, and the church volunteers "got so excited, they cared so much, they were literally pelting these people with canned goods. . . . It was like getting hit with dollar bills, 'cause (the residents) could turn around and sell the cans," Dillon said.

By the time the truck worked its way down 5th Street, "a riot" had broken out. "We had to call the police to stop them," he said. "The ugliness of poverty came out."

Every holiday season, Clancy Imislund, director of the Midnight Mission on Los Angeles Street sees "well-intentioned people" pull up and pop open trunks filled with blankets or sweaters or food to give away. What they don't know is that "on the street, the strongest predators will get them, use what they need and sell the rest," Imislund said.

"Guys come down and pass out $20 bills," said Jill Halverson of the Downtown Women's Center. "As a result there are fights, altercations. The whole thing is so undignified. So intrusive. Whose needs are these people serving--their own or those of the poor? Those needs sometimes are in conflict."

Veterans of Skid Row charities go to great lengths to make sure they're not misunderstood: Without good-hearted people donating time and money the important work being done would stop. But many of them feel that people need to reexamine their motives for holiday giving as well as their methods.

"The toy thing is starting now," said Alice Callaghan, the director of Las Familias, a community center for families in the downtown area.

Each year, the center is visited by people such as the man who arrived a couple of years ago with a carload of stuffed animals. The problem was that he wanted to "come in and play Santa Claus--hand the toys to the children. He was more into the sentimentality of Christmas than the reality," Callaghan said. "He needed to see the gratitude on the children's faces. . . . We practically had to fight him off. He got really angry."

Other donors want to deliver the toys to the children's homes, and each year a few people will call and ask if they can take kids home with them for the holidays, she said. "Talk about insensitivity!"

Although such gestures are well-intended, Callaghan sees in them a threat to Las Familias' mission of helping poor families survive.

Undermining the Family

"Christmas is a jeopardy time for families," she said. And when poor children begin to associate Christmas not with their own home--however humble--but rather with a charity or a center somewhere, family cohesiveness is undermined, she believes.

"Christmas becomes something where you try to get in a line, get a ticket stamped. What possible gain can there be from that?"

So Las Familias asks donors to give inexpensive toys, which poor parents can then "win" in bingo games. "They wrap it, they give it," she said.

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