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One Man's Simple Gifts

Never Heard of Harold Edelstein? Most People Hadn't, Until He Bequeathed $20 Million to a Foundation That Provides the Most Basic and Needed Services to the Poor and Homeless. By Carol Lynn Mithers Photograph by Shelly Strazis

January 04, 2004|Carol Lynn Mithers | Carol Lynn Mithers is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her last piece for the magazine was an essay about her father's former office in downtown L.A.

In winter, L.A.'s skid row is 50 blocks of pure misery. homeless men and women huddle in tents or under tattered cardboard awnings, dreading the storms that mean long nights spent in wet clothes, shivering and chilled to the bone. In 65 grim single-room occupancy hotels, those who can afford a cheap room head out to look for work each morning without even the solace of a cup of hot coffee. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, the streets are empty of outsiders, unspeakably bleak and lonely, because free holiday meals are often served a day or two early so that volunteers can spend time with their own families.

Improvements here are measured in small mercies, and this year there are some. Staff and volunteers at Las Familias del Pueblo community center are handing out 1,500 blue tarps that can be tied to fences to keep the rain out, and waterproof drawstring bags to shield possessions. Women turned away from the Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women and Children for lack of room get sleeping bags, jackets and mittens. In six hotels, lobbies offer pots of free hot coffee. On Thanksgiving, in the 18 hotels operated by the nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust, residents gathered to prepare and share a donated meal.

A sign in the hotel lobbies said: "Harold's Coffee Pot." The tarps, sleeping bags and jackets all carried the same cloth tag: "A gift from Harold."

Who is Harold? The short answer is that he's Harold Edelstein, a rich man who died four years ago, benefactor of the Harold Edelstein Foundation. The full answer, set at the unlikely intersection of compassion and notoriety, is more complex. It is the story of how an old man's generous instincts, and his attorneys' convictions that their client deserved to be remembered, has created one of this city's quirkiest, sweetest and--among those who work with the poor--most beloved charities.

Harold Edelstein passed through life nearly as unnoticed as the men and women his money now helps. He was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1909, came to Los Angeles with his family about 10 years later and grew up in the mid-city. He earned a degree in engineering from UCLA and served in the South Pacific during World War II. Engineering jobs were largely closed to Jews back then, so he became a land surveyor. Judging by photos and the recollections of friends, he was an attractive man, short and slight, with thick brown hair that silvered perfectly as he aged. He also was intelligent, charming and a ready conversationalist. But he was a loner, not particularly close to his brothers and their children, a hard-core bachelor who didn't marry until he was 80--and then only briefly. He lived in a small apartment in Brentwood's Barrington Towers and dressed casually. His luxuries were eating big steaks at The Palm and driving a Cadillac; his social concerns were overpopulation, hunger and homelessness. At Thanksgiving, he sometimes volunteered at one of the downtown missions.

In late 1999, when he was 90, he had a fender bender, left the scene and lost his driver's license. He was devastated. Friends arranged for a home-care evaluation to see if he needed help in his daily life. During the nurse's first visit, he began making a cup of tea for her--"I'm perfectly fine," he assured the woman--then dropped to the floor. It was a stroke; he died two weeks later and was interred beside his mother at Home of Peace, the old Jewish cemetery in Boyle Heights. "Sweet" and "decent" are how longtime business associates who became friends describe him. You also hear "unpretentious," "gentlemanly" and "ordinary ... just a regular, ordinary guy."

Except in one way. Through Harold Edelstein's many years as a surveyor, he regularly bought property that he found at foreclosures and tax sales, bargain parcels in barren parts of Arizona, Nevada and the California desert. Eventually, suburban sprawl caught up. By the time he died in December 1999, he was worth more than $20 million.

"Harold and I first set up a charitable foundation in 1986, and I encouraged him to have the pleasure of giving money away himself," says attorney Fred Simmons, who with Marvin Burns, also a lawyer, and financial advisor Marvin Rothenberg make up the Edelstein Foundation's board of directors, officers and staff. "He did fund a few small projects. But even wealthy people are nervous about giving while they're still alive. They want to be sure that as long as they're around, the money's there."

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