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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."

Acting like a conscience, however, requires distinguishing between right and wrong and seeing the world in terms of black and white, friend or foe. Many accuse her of oversimplifying a range of issues by wearing a mantle of moral superiority as she bangs her housing drum and ignores the need for other social services.

"It sounds sexy, it sounds ideal--if we build enough housing the people of Skid Row will be off the streets," says Mike Neely, director of the Homeless Outreach Program. "But that's bullshit. No drug addict will stay in an SRO. You cannot pay the dope man and the landlord at the same time. Something gets screwed up in the translation." Callaghan counters that housing is only the first step that will enable other services to take root.

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.

But when Alice Callaghan became a Christian zealot with a mission to change the world, she didn't also become an easy person to get along with. A very effective activist with an unswerving devotion and drive, certainly, but on a personal level, many say she can be selfish, pushy, aloof, power-hungry and sometimes downright mean to those who oppose her agenda. Feelings have been hurt along the way.

Says Martha Brown Hicks, who runs Transition House on Skid Row: "I think she does good work, but I also think she's a witch. She's not a nice lady." Adds Andy Raubeson: "I have felt Alice adopted the attitude that for them to grow, they have to tear us down. I've just never understood the degree of animosity I've felt directed against me by Alice."

Some of the conflict is purely ideological. Hicks, for example, believes that homelessness shouldn't be concentrated in the neighborhood, that Skid Row is a place to leave, not to preserve. Callaghan, on the other hand, views Skid Row as a community of last resort. She is filled with righteous venom for those who want to impose a "bootstrap ethic" on its population and has nothing but sarcasm for anyone trying to "transition" people out of the area.

Callaghan is also vociferous in her criticism of local missions for their "pimping of children" to raise money. She has a strict policy that prohibits families of the children she works with from being referred to social services on Skid Row. "We will put them on the bus and send them to East L.A. for something (medical services, counseling) that might exist a block from us, but we won't send a woman and child walking through Skid Row. It's just too dangerous."

She goes on: "There are very few families left on the row, but there's a popular perception that there are thousands of children on Skid Row. And that is fueled in large part by some of the service agencies on the row, principally the missions. At holiday times, they invite the press to film the thousands of Skid Row families they're serving.

"But on the day of any of those events, I stand on 7th Street and watch all these families exiting the row after the event. They get on the buses and drive their cars out. It's called pimping your children. It's easier to raise money if you serve children. So people want to serve children. And it's a constant battle to stop the missions from housing homeless women and children on Skid Row.

"If you want to house homeless families, I tell people to do it a block off the row or six blocks off the row. Anywhere but on the row."

Callaghan is equally forceful about SRO economics: No rent, no room. As she redefines her role as landlord, she has admittedly become a hardhearted businesswoman. Evictions are now a part of her life.

"People a month behind in paying rent we can't make excuses for," she says. "We're not a shelter. We need money for operational costs."

She softens. "We can work with people up to a certain point. Everything depends on why they didn't pay the rent. Sometimes I'll even give 'em the money myself. But if someone has received three relief checks and hasn't paid in three months--they're out."

Although she says she'll rent to drug dealers and prostitutes, she won't allow them to ply their trades at her hotels. Not surprisingly, Callaghan has had her share of management difficulties. At the Pershing Hotel, which has gone through five managers, tenants have gotten a restraining order against the current manager for racial epithets. Until recently, the hotel manager kept a list of tenants late with their rent posted in the lobby--a practice one tenant described as "a Gestapo approach" that has led to the formation of a tenants association.

"Management," Callaghan says, "is hell."

WHY CALLAGHAN DOES WHAT she does is a question she has difficulty with. On one day, she'll say she goes to work to be with the people she wants to be with, that it's her neighborhood more than the one she lives in. On another day, when pushed, she'll point to her radical Christian beliefs.

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