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HEARTS of the CITY

Home Maker

Tanya Tull has taken hundreds of families off the streets with social service agencies she has founded. 'We are not here alone,' she says.

June 26, 1996|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tanya Tull remembers the letter as if it were etched in her memory, a reminder of what her life's work is all about.

A 13-year-old girl who was living with her mother and five brothers and sisters in an abandoned apartment complex put together a Christmas list. It was a last-ditch cry for help from a teenager who learned young that clean blankets, toys and a home were luxuries her family could not afford.

"I like me some clothes," the girl wrote in a letter to Tull years ago. "I also would like a Monopoly set. . . . And would also like a place to sleep, a warm place to sleep."

A few days later, Tull moved the girl and her family into a three-bedroom apartment, with a rent lower than most one-room efficiencies in downtown Los Angeles.

Over the last decade, Tull, 53, has assisted more than 800 such families in finding housing in an effort to break their fall into the depths of poverty.

A mother of three and a former Los Angeles County social worker, Tull has built a vital network of support for the poor in Los Angeles, and she has gained international recognition along the way. In April, she received a national award for her efforts, and earlier this month she was part of a delegation representing the United States at a United Nations conference on homelessness.

"There's no question about it," said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness. "Tanya has found permanent housing for hundreds and hundreds of families that would still be out on the streets."

She has established four nonprofit agencies--including the highly acclaimed Para Los Ninos and Beyond Shelter programs--dramatically changing the scope of homeless services in Los Angeles.

"That spiral downward just keeps going," Tull said. "You bottom out and no one is there to help you get back up. . . . The middle class can call a therapist and daddy. What we are trying to do is create an individualized support to give the poor hope."

Tull is sensitive to those she helps, but demanding of those who work for her. Her staff likes to joke that they hide under their desks when she walks into the office because she is constantly coming up with new ideas that she wants executed--immediately.

Having spent a year at an Israeli kibbutz years ago, Tull said she appreciates what it means to give back to the community.

"We are not here alone," she said. "We cannot ignore the sadness and the struggle and the despair in this world."

She has seen mothers with babies living in their cars and malnourished children with their families standing in soup lines. Once, her staff found a family living in a filthy chicken coop just to have a roof over their heads.

"I can tell you, I work in Third World America," she said. "It's no different than Third World anywhere else."

In the 1960s, Tull worked as a Los Angeles County social worker, but quit to raise her children. Then one day in 1979, she read an article about children living in run-down hotels in downtown Los Angeles. She was moved to act.

"I got to the point I couldn't turn away and go do my own life," Tull said. "I feel better doing this."

With the zeal of a missionary, she went down to skid row and within months had established Para Los Ninos--an emergency shelter and child-care center--in an old warehouse on 6th Street.

As Tull's efforts to find grants and donations started to pay off, she expanded the operation, eventually converting three warehouses. The organization, with a staff of 60 and an annual budget of $3.5 million, serves more than 1,000 impoverished families a year.

Wanting to do more, Tull in 1988 co-founded Beyond Shelter, a nonprofit agency dedicated to helping homeless families make the transition from shelters into permanent housing.

"What we came up with was an idea," Tull said. "It was so simple but so real: How about just getting families into housing and then provide them with the support, a real budget, a real neighborhood. It's integrating them back into society as quickly as possible by helping them make that crucial first step."

The agency helps families come up with first and last month's rent and negotiates with landlords to lower their rents. The group also offers job training, child care and other support services, and is operating a number of multifamily housing projects in central and southern Los Angeles.

The latest project, set to open in September on Carondelet Street near MacArthur Park, will offer 18 low-rent units.

Tull also co-founded L.A. Family Housing Corp., a group that is similar to Beyond Shelter, and a Community of Friends, a nonprofit housing development corporation that supports permanent housing for the homeless and mentally ill.

Lately, Tull's efforts have received a lot of national recognition.

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