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Super Shelter : Size of New Mission on Skid Row Draws Applause, Criticism

January 22, 1992|PENELOPE McMILLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The hulking structure that looms over 5th Street already has been nicknamed "Megamission" on Skid Row. The size of the new Los Angeles Mission, which opened its doors to the homeless Tuesday, seemed to surprise everyone.

"I wanted to see this," said 48-year-old Paula Dixon, the first homeless person to come through the gate, as she ran her eyes across the stark outer walls of the 156,000-square-foot building at 5th and Wall streets.

Even Mark Holsinger, the mission executive director who had the idea of replacing the 43-year-old facility, said, "It's mind-boggling to me. We didn't start with this size in mind."

The $25-million, four-story building has 306 beds, triple the number in the crumbling pre-1900 building on Los Angeles Street that has only 20,000 square feet. As the numbers of homeless grew in Los Angeles, so did the mission's plans. "We just got bigger and bigger," said Holsinger.

What has emerged is a view toward rehabilitation, away from the traditional bed-and-food service of the nondenominational Christian mission's work, and new amenities such as a computer teaching lab, instruction in English as a second language, exercise facilities and a women's center.

"The face of the homeless has changed," Holsinger said. "We must change too."

The area's population of older, white alcoholics has largely given way to legions of young men, he said, more than half of whom are minorities, many lacking jobs or even basic reading skills.

"Just feeding them and giving them a bed is not doing anything but letting them exist, like a vegetable," Holsinger said.

A thrift shop in the early plans has instead became a chapel for Latinos, whose numbers on Skid Row have increased dramatically in the last year, according to director Mike Edwards. Another room has been turned into a computer center, offering instruction from basic literacy on up to high school level learning. "We've had people come in with high school diplomas but fifth- to sixth-grade reading levels," Edwards said.

There is also a racquetball court, a weight room and even a gymnasium on the roof, aimed at younger people, he added. "It's good therapy, to relieve tension and stress."

While the new Los Angeles Mission is the largest of a half-dozen in the downtown area and claims to be the largest in the nation, an even larger one is being planned nearby. Before summer, Union Rescue Mission officials plan to start construction on an 800-bed, 235,000-square-foot facility.

Union Rescue Mission decided to move after the city Community Redevelopment Agency, with City Council approval, agreed to provide $6.5 million in relocation funds. City officials did not want the mission to remain near redevelopments on Main Street, including the new Ronald Reagan State Office Building.

The advent of large new missions has been criticized by other providers of services to the homeless on Skid Row as well as businessmen such as Charles Woo, president of the Central City East Assn., a group of about 70 toy wholesalers and fish processing and printing businesses.

"This area is already home to the largest concentration of homeless service shelters in Southern California," Woo said.

"All of us have concerns about what's happening to this area" because the city has allowed a large number of homeless services "without accompanying amenities," said Mike Neely, head of the Homeless Outreach Program. "What are they constructing, a holding pen?"

But Holsinger said the new facility is needed to teach the "life skills to re-enter society." And he does not expect the demand for services to lessen.

"We expect the numbers of homeless to grow," Holsinger said. "We know we'll have a job to do for many years to come."

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