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PALM LATITUDES

Close-up

October 20, 1991|Martin Booe | EDITED BY MARY McNAMARA

What could a tube of lipstick possibly mean to a woman on Skid Row--especially when chances are good that she can barely feed the kids? In the hands of missionary Willie Jordan, 58, that lipstick can be a powerful weapon for restoring what many down-and-out women need most: self-esteem.

More than 40 years ago, when Jordan's late husband, Fred, founded the Fred Jordan Mission on Towne Street, Skid Row was haunted almost exclusively by men--the unemployed, the alcoholic, the mentally ill. But women and children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population; 60% of the half-million people the mission serves each year are women. "Mothers and children are more fragile," says Jordan, who now runs the mission. "When a mother is left with children, it is virtually impossible for her to work. The mission tries to be their family."

Her way of being family is nothing if not creative. There's the annual "Mother's Day Makeover" that began in 1989--hundreds of Skid Row women gather at the mission to receive facials, manicures and haircuts by professionals. At the annual back-to-school event, thousands of children get new shoes, clothes and lunch boxes, donated by merchants. Jordan plans to start a grade-incentive system to inspire the kids in the mission's afternoon study hall. "I paid my own kids $5 for an A," she says. "I'm going to pay these kids in points. If they get enough, we'll take them to Disneyland."

It's not all lipstick and lunch boxes. The mission still maintains a comprehensive shelter for men and outpatient programs for the drug-addicted. Jordan is seeking private donations to implement "Refuge for Kids and Moms," a recovery center for those struggling to overcome substance abuse and domestic violence. She works almost nonstop from early morning until late at night. But, she says: "We have such a good time doing what we do, the question of burnout doesn't really come up." Her efforts, however, sometimes arouse anger. One man called to grouse that such niceties would spawn dissatisfaction. "That's exactly what I hope it does," Jordan told the man. "I'm in the business of making them feel dissatisfied. They need to be shown that there's a better life out there, and that they deserve it."

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