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Providing a Home for the Urban Poor : Pasadena Church, L.A. Temple Act to Preserve and Fix Up Skid Row Hotels for People Who Can't Afford Anything Else

January 08, 1989|EDMUND NEWTON, | Times Staff Writer

First, you have to work your way through the milling crowd on the corner. Two men, conducting a mock knife fight with real knives, step back obligingly to let you past, and someone whispers something about "smoke."

Now you're at the entrance to the Pershing Hotel in the heart of Los Angeles' Skid Row, at Main and Fifth streets. It's a battered three-story green building, built 100 years ago.

This is not your peaceful little cottage with a picket fence, of course, but for the Pershing's residents, it's home. "I'm a poor guy," says 61-year-old Hom Gay, who responded to a knock on the door to his little room with a startled expression. "I don't have the kind of money to live in a condominium."

For the past three years, Gay has occupied Room 12 in the 36-room hotel, a neat, lackluster space, with most of his possessions perched on a table and with a bathroom 50 feet down the hall. His experience with the hotel's management, he says, has been bloodlessly efficient: "They just go around collecting rents. That's all they care about."

But things are about to change drastically. The Pershing, along with the Hotel Roma next door, will soon undergo a major face lift under the sponsorship of a Pasadena church and a West Los Angeles temple. And half a block up Main Street, workers are putting the final touches on another church-temple project, the Pennsylvania Hotel, an airy 30-room building that smells of fresh paint.

The idea of the $7-million project, according to spokesmen for Pasadena's All Saints Episcopal Church, is to provide clean, comfortable lodging for low-income tenants while helping to protect downtown Los Angeles' single-room-occupancy hotels from the wrecker's ball.

"Giving people a place where they can live in dignity--that's half the strategy," said the Rev. Denis O'Pray, All Saints' associate rector. "The rest is to preserve Skid Row itself."

It seems an unusual strategy for a suburban church with 3,500 mostly upscale parishioners. But anyone familiar with All Saints, an imposing church with stone facade and crenelated tower in downtown Pasadena, knows that the dilemma of the urban poor is well within its chosen purview.

It's the moral thing to do, suggests the Rev. George Regas, rector of All Saints, which has joined forces in the project with the Leo Baeck Temple. "All Saints has a history of being involved in many issues far beyond its own borders," he says. "Where human suffering goes on, if we can do something to diminish it, we'll try."

During Regas' 22 years at the church, its efforts to diminish suffering have included operating the San Gabriel Valley's only soup kitchen, declaring the church a sanctuary for Central American refugees, co-founding the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race and establishing a "South African ministry" to press for the end of apartheid.

But the plight of the 8,000 or so residents of 65 Skid Row hotels requires emergency action, activists for the poor contend.

Single people living on Social Security benefits or welfare checks, the residents of the downtown flophouses (the "would-be homeless," one advocate called them) sit in the path of headlong commercial expansion. Skid Row, which is part of the 50-block Central City East, must compete for space nowadays with Little Tokyo developers, toy manufacturers and produce wholesalers.

'Hotels Have Been Lost'

"Look at what happened in other communities," said Ann Sewill, head of the Community Design Center, which helped All Saints and the Leo Baeck Temple put together the $7-million financing package. "Without intervention, either in the form of a moratorium on demolition or a purchasing effort by people not interested in speculative land ownership, these hotels have been lost."

After a dozen or so hotels were demolished and most of their tenants put on the streets, the Los Angeles City Council approved a demolition moratorium in 1987. It has since been extended to next March, but expansion-minded commercial interests are keeping the pressure on, says Sewill.

So a group of corporate philanthropists, civic leaders and church representatives have come up with the idea of a Skid Row Housing Trust to help nonprofit groups acquire hotels and keep them in the single-room-occupancy business. "Our goal is to have 10 hotels a year acquired, until the 65 within the boundaries of Skid Row have been taken over," said Robert Wycoff, president of Atlantic Richfield Corp., who has been active in the effort. "It's a lot cheaper than building from scratch."

Though the trust is not yet legally constituted as a nonprofit organization, its members have leaped in philanthropically on Skid Row. Led by Las Familias del Pueblo, a charitable organization that runs a downtown center for the homeless, the group has started putting together hotel projects. All Saints has worked with the organization on other projects.

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