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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

An Oasis of Support in a World of Neglect

July 17, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

Like clockwork, even though few of them own wristwatches, the Wednesday Morning Ladies of Skid Row get together at the same time each week, just so they can compare notes on how things are going.

"How many of you have children?" asks Willie L. Jordan, who runs a mission where the women meet.

Most raise their hands.

"Do you know where they are?"

Some do, some don't.

"How many of you don't?"

Several hands stay up.

"Do any of you have kids in jail?"

Yes, several say.

"In prison?"

One woman's hand stands alone.

"My God, that must be the greatest heartache," Jordan says, and all around the room the women say amen.

*

A woman gets kicked out of a cardboard box.

She has been living in one at the corner of 1st and Alameda in downtown L.A., but there's a guy in a cardboard box next to hers who tells her one day, "If you come back here tonight, I'm gonna cut your throat."

This is the sort of story Willie Jordan hears day in, day out.

"What will you do?"

"Move," the woman says. "I ain't crazy."

No, she's destitute, not demented. There are a reported 223,000 homeless people in L.A. County each year. Sixty percent of those who stop by the Fred Jordan Mission at 5th and Towne are women.

Some sleep on the street as the temperature creeps toward 100.

The mission has been open since 1944. Willie Jordan's been running it for 10 years, since her husband died.

And she still hears stories that curl her hair.

"Imagine," she says, "getting evicted from a box."

The women who came by for a hot meal, or for clean clothing, or for a cool breeze from an electric fan, they began to understand that there was something else that most of them were lacking.

A support group.

They are sisters under the skin, women who need to be treated like homeless human beings, not like hideous creatures. If they could meet regularly, say a little prayer, then talk things over among themselves, maybe they could ease each other's sorrow.

Because every day's not a holiday.

At Thanksgiving, people remember the homeless. They donate food. At Christmas, they donate toys. And the mission has special occasions, like Mother's Day, when homeless women come for free facials and haircuts, or Back to School Day, when generous benefactors provide new shoes, shirts and lunch pails.

But daily life is harder.

It helps to get together. To sit and enjoy a little chitchat, as any social club might. Or to stand and give a progress report on a week, a month, a year of being clean and sober.

"Forty days!" a woman testifies.

"You look wonderful," Willie Jordan says.

"Thank you."

"Doesn't she look wonderful?"

A woman in the mission's kitchen sits with two children on her lap, her husband just having been sentenced to 12 years for selling dope. Another woman, whose kids were recently taken from her by the state, rests a head on Jordan's shoulder and cries like a baby.

At least they have each other.

With the women murmuring in assent, Jordan says, "God hates eyes that are arrogant, God hates a tongue that lies and God hates hands that murder the innocent. I've seen people killed on these streets. How many of you have seen people killed on these streets?"

Hands go up everywhere.

"Well, there's a worse kind of killing," she says, "and that's being killed by neglect."

*

A funny thing happened to Miki Jordan, Willie's daughter.

After years of volunteering her life to the mission--as a number of Willie's seven children and seven grandchildren do--Miki felt it was time to go someplace else.

So she answered an ad. The job interview was on Wilshire, far from downtown's despair. And she got hired to work for Para Los Ninos, a child care agency . . .

. . . downtown, a couple of blocks from the mission.

It isn't easy for a woman to get off skid row.

That's why Willie Jordan was so pleased that the ones who call skid row home decided to get organized and form their own weekly women's club.

"Ladies," one of the club members corrected her at the very first meeting. "We want to be treated like ladies."

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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