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Handing out hope, a dollar at a time

November 30, 2003|By Steve Lopez | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Father Maurice Chase sits in his car on skid row in downtown Los Angeles, discreetly reaching into the sack of money at his feet while hundreds gather outside. He pulls out a solid block of bills, neatly bundled.

"This is a thousand dollars," he says.

Father Chase, 84, breaks the bundle and stuffs hundreds of $1 bills into his pockets. When he gets out of the car to give the money away at 6th and Towne streets, as he has every Sunday morning for 20 years, the line of people waiting for a greenback is a marvel.

Chase arranges them, women first, then the disabled, then the others. The line snakes more than halfway down the block, a parade of broken hearts and bad turns, of fallen prophets and the walking dead. Never does Father Chase feel so dignified as when he stands in their company.

"Good morning, Father," the first person in line, wheelchair-bound Andrita Crawford, says with great cheer. She says she has sickle cell anemia, a bum knee, a bad hip.

Chase is known to many as Father Dollar Bill, but he's an easy mark. He hands Crawford two crisp new bills and a blessing, then offers her husband Sammie $1.

"Say a prayer for me," he tells them as they leave, and everyone in line moves up one notch.

The retired Roman Catholic priest says it began when he was an assistant to the president of Loyola University and was asked to recruit scholarship money from the rich and famous. To bring some balance to the company he kept, his boss suggested he visit skid row and minister to the poor.

Chase was inspired by the spirit and endurance of those who'd fallen on hard times, and decided to tap some of the stars he knew for help. Among those who gladly donated to his Skid Row Charity Fund were Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, whose widows still send money.

In the first years, Chase gave away $500 every Sunday. But it soon grew to $1,000, then $2,000, then $3,000. Regular donors included Eli Broad, Jackie Autry, Bob Newhart, Vin Scully.

"It's up to between $4,000 and $5,000 a week now," says Chase. It takes a full 10 hours to give it away at two or three skid row locations. Sometimes they'll wait two hours for that one buck, Chase tells me just a few blocks from where glittering prosperity rises skyward.

Over the years, he's heard the whispers of critics who say a dollar won't change anyone's life down here -- won't begin to fix the problems that deliver the destitute and the deranged to these streets, where they live in shelters, in boxes, in doorways. At a banquet, one woman wagged a finger at him for feeding the habits of winos.

"She had just finished her second double Scotch," Chase says with a smile.

"I'm out here to tell people I love them and God loves them, and to give them hope. I met Mother Teresa in Mexico City once, and she told me to touch the poor. Do you hear that? 'Touch the poor.' "

That can be risky business, and Chase has discovered that neither good intentions nor the collar can serve as a shield. He doesn't like to talk about it, but he's fended off a knife attack and he's been punched in the gut.

"I was here one day when he was hit in the chest by a guy who cut in line," says Gregory Johnson, one of the skid row residents Chase hires to keep order and watch his back, along with the stash of $1 bills.

"You've got fugitives and prostitutes out here, drug addicts and nuts," Johnson continues. "Most of these people are decent folks, though, and there's a lot of other people in the world just one pink slip away from joining them out here."

On this Sunday, as all others, the line is endless.

One woman grabs her dollar, then reaches into her bag and changes clothes as a disguise, and gets in line again.

"I'm not good at names," Chase says, "but, fortunately, I remember faces." Those faces tell stories of haunted dreams and jangled nerves, of gathering demons and missed opportunity.

The disabled section alone is cause for national shame. Hobbled vets, palsy victims and amputees -- some of whom live without roofs over their heads -- creep forward in wheezes and gasps. You see wheelchairs, crutches, canes, walkers, oxygen tanks. It looks as if an entire hospital ward has been tossed into the street.

Chase gives $5 to a man with palsy, $20 to a woman in a wheelchair, $50 to a man with an amputated foot, an eye infection and a story about three kids waiting for breakfast.

"I want you to meet this man," Chase tells me as Felix Jones, 68, approaches in a wheelchair pushed by his son, Thomas, the two of them having made the trek from the Midnight Mission.

Jones, a diabetic, lost both legs to gangrene. They're chopped off crudely just below the knee, and dangle uncovered from the ends of torn pants. His right eye is a white smear, and he says he's next to blind. Yet he leans into this moment with disarming grace, spirit aloft.

"You're always so cheerful, you inspire me," Father Chase tells him.

"God's been good to me," Jones says.

I point out Mr. Jones' obvious problems and ask how he judges himself blessed.

"I feel good in my heart," he says.

Chase forgoes the ones. He reaches into his wallet and hands Felix Jones a $100 bill.

"Jesus said, 'When you have done it to the least of men, you have done it to me,' " Chase tells me. "When I get home, my body is sagging physically, but I'm glowing. I feel like I've shaken hands with the Lord 4,000 times."

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