In 1995, Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas had begun appealing to motel owners on Figueroa to consider other uses for their property. By then, King and Pickett had seen enough. They invested their own money to renovate the Palms, and assembled a cabinet of supporters that included Ridley-Thomas, attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. and Magic Johnson, whose HIV infection forced his retirement from the Lakers.
The Palms opened with $76,195 in federal AIDS housing funds administered by the city, and $10,000 each from Home Savings and the Magic Johnson Foundation. The motel owners also received a $400,000 grant from the county, which administers federal Ryan White-Care funds. Before reopening, they had to refurbish and equip the motel to meet earthquake and state care licensing standards.
Carl Ragland was the Palms' first resident. He is a lean, cocoa-colored man, a crooner who can make his voice sound like Bobby Womack's, a skillful artist whose sketches hang on the wall of his room.
But Ragland, a 45-year-old grandfather, struggles with drugs.
Seeing the World Through Sober Eyes
Pickett persuaded him to enter a detox program. When Ragland finished, Pickett drove out to pick him up.
"I was mad at you at first," Ragland said on the ride back, marveling at the world from the passenger seat of Pickett's car with newly sober eyes.
"But I know you did the right thing for me, man," he continued. "I'm grateful to you, man, I really am. From the bottom of my heart, brother."
They pull into the Palms and Ragland is welcomed by the other men. Later, in his room, Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" is playing on the radio. Ragland stops his cleaning long enough to dance a few playful steps. He smiles as he moves, an imaginary partner before him, and for a moment it seems as if all is well.
Months later, Ragland moves out of the Palms. Pickett stays in touch, but he says Ragland continues to struggle for sobriety and the encouragement to fight he found at the Palms.
Ramon, a 24-year-old with AIDS, sits outside the laundry room at the Palms, remembering the early days after he was diagnosed.
"I spent nights just thinking how to do it," he said, "how to kill myself."
Ramon was still a teenager when he left Jalisco, Mexico, and came to the United States. He worked in hamburger joints, at a produce company and in restaurants. Then he became sick. Holding a regular job became difficult and sending money home to his family became impossible.
After years of being the one his relatives turned to for help, Ramon became dependent on others--on family members who he said understood little about the illness and the side effects of the medicine. Nor did they understand his life as a gay man.
"They want me to stop being that, but that's impossible," he said.
If he returned to Jalisco, he would have no access to the medicine he needs. Besides, his elderly mother does not know about his illness. He is afraid to tell her.
"Sometimes, I just ask God to take her first, then me," he said, "so she don't have to go with the pain of losing me."
Each morning Ramon and other residents visit one of the Palms' nursing assistants. They record each man's weight, blood pressure and temperature and hand out envelopes with each man's morning dose of medicine. Some residents take more than 40 medications a day, including self-injections.
The nursing assistants also listen to complaints about roommates, new aches and moodiness brought on by the medications or the illness.
The Palms has yet to have a resident die. The sickest have outlived doctor's predictions, and none is bedridden. Men who were told they would live only months are around a year later, with a story to tell about making death wait.
Ramon was hospitalized four times before moving to the Palms.
"Each one of the times they told me they don't count on me no more; this is it," he said. "But I say, 'No.' Doctors don't have the right to tell you when to die. God does."
The fact that there are so few places like the Palms is getting attention on Capitol Hill.
"We all are aware that the face of the epidemic is changing," said Fred Karnas, deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which distributes the funding for AIDS housing.
But the service infrastructure that evolved through the epidemic's early phases may be slow to adapt to this change, he said. HUD does not tell cities where to spend the money.
Ferd Eggan, the city of Los Angeles' AIDS coordinator, acknowledged that more needs to be done. "We can't just let people be out there at the whims of the housing market," he said. "People have to have a place to live if they are going to survive on this medication."
The focus of facilities such as the Palms is helping those already infected. But health authorities and advocates say prevention methods also must reach into long neglected African American and Latino communities.