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Giving / A weekly look at those who help

Prayer and Purpose

A Skid Row fixture for 50 years, the L.A. Mission tries to help the less fortunate with an approach that's equal parts religious and realistic.

April 06, 1999|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soon, the day people will come to stake out spots on the lobby benches and wait for breakfast. Most will neither read nor talk, just sit and look at nothing in particular.

It is 7 a.m. at the Los Angeles Mission, and about 200 men are gathered in the domed chapel. They are residents--members of the Fresh Start program. The men have signed on for 12 months, hoping to kick drugs or go straight or both, hoping when they leave here to have a job and a purpose.

Fresh Starter Roy McCalebb steps forward to share his news: His cancer-stricken wife, who's living in a downtown hotel, is in remission. He wants "to thank all the brothers and the sisters of the house" for their prayers.

Applause.

"We believe that God answers prayers," says Chaplain Jim Lewis, although some who find their way to the mission at 5th and Wall streets grumble about all the "amen-ing" that comes before the free food. But this is a Christian mission.

Today's message is about being born again. Her voice rising to a crescendo, Chaplain Luenetta Silas thunders, "You are not earthbound! You are glory bound!" A few men snooze. "Each man here is a treasure. If you can stand here, you can stand when you leave here."

And that is the philosophy of the mission, now marking its 50th year--that with help, you can turn your life around.

Once, says President Eric Foley, the typical client was "a 58-year-old white male curling up on the street with a bottle," usually port, and the mission was primarily a way station for those in crisis.

Today, the mission is neither a flophouse nor a refuge for winos and addicts. Fresh Start is its primary focus--a program that can accommodate 200 men and 27 women--who must commit to staying clean and sober. In return, they get a chance to start over, perhaps earn a high school diploma, learn a marketable skill and enter the mainstream. As Lewis put it, "Rehabilitation without preparation is like a bird with one wing."

The nonprofit mission still serves hard-core street people, but, Foley says, the client base is shifting to "the new homeless" and those "right on the boundaries of becoming homeless." The age range is predominantly 28 to 32, and the main problem is drugs--cocaine, usually, and heroin.

There are the residents, the day people--who come only for meals--and there are those who come for a warm bed for a few nights.

This day, Sheila Arma, 41, a single mother, is here with five of her eight children. They came by bus from Seattle to be near her troubled teenage son who is a ward of the county court. Now, "all the money for hotels run out." Her welfare check was somewhere between Seattle and Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Mission has no beds for transient women or children--and Arma knows finding an apartment will be tough. "My credit history just went to the moon," she says. The family's last home: a $185-a-week hotel room with a king-size bed.

She and her kids are waiting when the clothing room opens at the mission's Anne Douglas Women's Center. They sift through the shoes and pants and tops, then stuff their finds into big plastic bags. The rules: No trying on; take no more than allowed. But, Chaplain Marlene Ross says, "when they're new, we give them a little extra."

Women Tell of Hard Times

Upstairs, in the home-like women's residence, where Fresh Starters share pleasant two-, three- and four-bedroom units, residents take a break from cleaning chores to tell their stories--of domestic violence, drug addiction, petty crime, prostitution.

Lisa Glover, 42, who served time for drug possession and prostitution, grew up in a family of "educated alcoholics and educated addicts," and was molested as a child. But her world didn't crash, she says, until her husband walked out, taking their three sons. "It was very ugly."

She regained custody, but lost the boys because of her drug use. A month into Fresh Start, she's determined to stay clean and hone her job skills. "I'm going all the way."

Linda James, 42, came here eight months ago, having "messed up pretty badly." She had served two years for embezzlement and forgery. Beset with debt and "in a relationship with a lazy man," she started drinking, segued to drugs. "Instead of racing to God, I raced to the liquor store. Once you mess up your life, everything that can happen does."

But things are turning around for her. "My mother called me 'Baby' the other day. I got off the phone and cried. When I left home, that's not what she was calling me. I'd stolen from her, lied to her. When you have an addiction, you have no borders."

The women's program is 14 months long, and after graduating, she'll head for Utah and truck-driving school. But she'll keep reminding herself: "Tomorrow can hold some hidden corner, and you walk around it and all hell breaks loose."

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