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The Woman Who Saved Skid Row : ALICE CALLAGHAN HAS FOUGHT CITY HALL AND DOWNTOWN DEVELOPERS TO PRESERVE HOUSING FOR THE POOREST OF THE POOR.

November 10, 1991|Joy Horowitz | Joy Horowitz's last story for this magazine was "The Defender."

COMING UPON SKID ROW FOR THE FIRST TIME along 7th Street, a visitor is struck by the trash and blight. Many of the old storefronts and hotels are scarred and crumbling or boarded shut. Some doorways are covered not with boards but with sleeping people; others are blocked by locked grates, with garment workers seemingly caged behind sewing machines inside. The sidewalks reek of urine and the area is eerily silent, except for one corner near a spruced-up hotel, which is buzzing with people in suits this Wednesday morning.

The hotel, a three-story brick building that's recently been painted a muted green, has a yellow sign out front with black lettering that reads Prentice Hotel. Its pastel colors and sleek lines suggest a clean, scrubbed island--a safe zone. This is largely because of its developer, Alice Callaghan, a short, athletic-looking woman with a Buster Brown haircut and an in-your-face attitude.

Dubbed "Father Alice" because she is both an Episcopal priest and a former nun, Callaghan is best known in City Hall circles for her politically savvy lobbying on behalf of the poorest of the poor. On the streets, she stands for the proposition that no matter how much the downtown businesses and bureaucrats want to sweep away the problem of homelessness with police intervention, it won't disappear. At least not until permanent housing--not temporary shelters, not transitional programs--exists. By invoking her righteous rant--housing, housing, permanent housing--she has managed to dragoon city leaders into doing what no other American city has dared consider: saving Skid Row, not for speculators but for the people who live there.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 15, 1991 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 7 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
In "The Savior of Skid Row" (Nov. 10), Alice Callaghan's role in the Prentice Hotel project was misstated. Chrysalis and the Los Angeles Community Design Center were the project developers. Callaghan helped provide seed money in the form of a predevelopment loan.

Activist-turned-entrepreneur Callaghan is playing real-life Monopoly these days, albeit on Baltic Avenue rather than Park Place. It is a transition that seems to energize her, even though it has cost her some of her closest allies. Then again, Callaghan's life has been defined by radical transformations. From rebellious surfer girl to nun. From Catholic nun to Episcopal priest. From Barry Goldwater supporter to Ronald Reagan naysayer. But her current metamorphosis into a radical real estate tycoon may be her most daring leap yet.

At a time when some luxury downtown hotels are going bankrupt, it is no small irony that Callaghan's hotel business for low-income residents--single-room-occupancy hotels, or SROs--is booming on downtown's eastern edge. Since 1989, her nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust has bought 15 SROs, 10 of which were on the city's Slum Housing Task Force hit list, facing prosecution and possible condemnation. Three of them have been gutted and renovated with skylights, community kitchens and cheerful tile floors and are open to those barely scratching by on monthly general relief checks of $312--rent is between $234. Callaghan's mission is to put the remaining 35 Skid Row SROs in the hands of nonprofits, at a cost of $300 million from corporate and public funds.

How Callaghan can work such magic is immediately apparent as she races down 7th Street from her storefront center for garment workers' families, Las Familias del Pueblo (Families of the City), to the Prentice Hotel. At 44, round-faced and feisty, Callaghan wears her uniform--a perfectly pressed Oxford shirt (with the collar cut off), khaki skirt, hose and sneakers--and greets the transvestites, drug addicts and prostitutes wandering by, who call out to her by her first name. As the public has grown wary of the homeless, disgusted by those who seem unwilling to help themselves or who act like "predators," Callaghan has taken the position that they are no different than anyone else, just poorer.

Suddenly, a Lincoln Town Car pulls up beside her. "Want a ride?" asks a man in a gray pin-striped suit who is sitting in the passenger seat. She jumps into the back seat. By straddling two levels of culture, the very rich and the very poor, Callaghan takes care of business.

"Remember," she advises the driver as he swings in front of the hotel, where there is no parking because Mayor Tom Bradley and the media have just arrived en masse for the hotel's opening day ceremonies, "it's less of a ticket if you park on the sidewalk than in the red." Not that such financial concerns would bother the car's owner, Robert E. Wycoff, president and chief operating officer of ARCO and one of her closest advisers. But the chauffeur parks on the sidewalk.

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