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Roofless Refuge on Skid Row

Aid: Foldaway beds in a parking lot lure many from doorways. 'It does point out the absence of other options,' says one grateful man.

September 26, 2002|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the corner of 4th and Los Angeles streets downtown, homeless people begin lining up at 8:30 a.m. for a chance to sleep that night in skid row's newest shelter.

But rather than swapping cold sidewalks for a bed inside, the early birds are waiting much of the day for a bunk under the stars.

For about a week, the Midnight Mission has been using its parking lot as an overnight refuge--with 60 fold-away beds, three portable toilets, heat lamps and security--for homeless people who would otherwise sleep on the streets.

The bivouac--erected each afternoon in the narrow lot and taken down in the morning--was scheduled to be formally dedicated this evening in ceremonies attended by city officials.

Called Project Safe Sleep, it is being applauded for providing a sanctuary for people with nowhere else to go and by business owners pleased by the prospect that fewer homeless people will seek shelter in their doorways.

But it is also lamented by many advocates for the homeless as a reflection of skid row's sorry conditions; that beds exposed to the elements have become an acceptable alternative for the 11,000 people experts estimate live on the streets or in other temporary shelters or hotels in downtown Los Angeles.

The new program has served nearly 500 people since it began and turns away about 30 people each night, said Midnight Mission President Larry L. Adamson.

It is funded by a $25,000 neighborhood block grant from the city of Los Angeles and about $15,000 of the mission's own funds. The program may expand to more parking lots.

"If somebody can come to us and we can give them a bed rather than sleep on the sidewalk or in a cardboard box--it's small dent but it's a start," said Adamson.

The Midnight Mission, an institution downtown for nearly 90 years, has other programs that house and feed homeless people, helping them to overcome addictions. But those occupying the 172 beds inside the mission's skid row headquarters can't come and go as they please and must follow a much stricter regimen than those in the parking lot.

On a recent evening, dozens of homeless people filed into the 44-foot by 108-foot lot, registering at the gate and being assigned cots, which are lined up in five rows with crisp white bedding and orange blankets.

Men's and women's beds are on opposite sides of the lot. Residents are allowed to bring a bag of personal belongings to the bed and a storage shed provides space for other articles.

One of the portable toilets is equipped for those with handicaps and another has a sink for washing up. There are trash bins and the mission provides books to read before the floodlights--attached to the side of the building--go out at 10 p.m.

Frequently, evening snacks are available and the mission cooks breakfast before residents must head out by 6 a.m. In anticipation of winter, the mission hopes to construct an awning to shelter people from rain, said program director Carrie E. Gatlin.

Many of the residents get to their beds and quickly fall asleep, but others chat. Darrell Carter, 37, who has been homeless for a few years, was bunking next to newfound friend Stan Watson, 41, who was newly homeless after staying with relatives. Both had spent several nights at the facility since it opened.

"It's cool, because you can come get in line and get a bed without going through hoops or having connections," said Carter, who has stayed in traditional shelters and camped next to the Los Angeles River while trying to overcome drug addiction. "I feel comfortable here. I don't mind being outside; I can smoke. But it does point out the absence of other options. There are not nearly enough shelter beds or SRO's [single room occupancy hotels]."

Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, said the open-air facility made him uneasy.

"On one level it's a decent thing to do to provide a safe space for people, because the homeless are far more often the victims of violence," he said. "But it's sad that this is acceptable."

Adamson, of the Midnight Mission, acknowledged that the outdoor beds could be perceived negatively. But cost constraints and lack of space in his program and other programs downtown hinder more ambitious plans, he said.

Many homeless people suffer from mental illnesses and alcohol and drug addictions and often resist entering traditional indoor shelters with more rules, said service providers. The new camp prohibits drinking and violent behavior but its popularity, said mission officials, shows that this difficult population may eventually be coaxed into accepting other services.

Getting homeless people off the streets is essential for the business community and for new residents in downtown lofts who have complained about conditions, said City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. He has asked business owners to identify other parking lots where the program might expand, he said, and some have indicated a willingness to help pay the cost.

"It is not a cure, nor is it the ultimate answer," he conceded. "But it does offer them added amenities and hopefully a window of opportunity to get to a place where they do have a roof over their head and dignity."

LAPD Capt. Jim Rubert, whose territory includes skid row, said his Central Division office has received no negative reports about the facility. Officers drive past each evening and provide the mission with a telephone line to the watch commander in case of trouble.

"This is another alternative we can give to people, especially those who are shelter-resistant and don't like going inside," said Rubert.

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