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Plight of the Hotel Children

Crime is just one of the problems facing young tenants along L.A.'s skid row. 'A lot of people want to mess with you,' says one teenage girl.

September 07, 2004|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

In a cramped room of the Ford Hotel the Arburtha children one by one rouse themselves for another day of school.

At 5:45 a.m., 16-year-old Jamaica is escorted through the dawn darkness by her mother, Grace, past the barred and gated lobby to a bus stop a block away.

Later, sister Ankara, 14, sleepy-eyed brother Franklin, 13, and sister Egypt, 11, take the small elevator from the family's fifth-floor quarters. Once on the sidewalk, they pass people in bed rolls, corner drug dealers, prostitutes and mentally unbalanced denizens of one of the nation's most densely populated enclaves of the homeless.

The Arburtha youngsters are among more than 800 children who live in Los Angeles skid row hotels and missions, according to recent studies. Families with four or five children frequently occupy a single room, with a hot plate or microwave for cooking and shared community bathrooms.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 10, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Child's death -- An article in Tuesday's Section A about children living in Los Angeles skid row hotels said a mother threw her 9-year-old daughter from the sixth floor of the Ford Hotel and then jumped to her own death in 1999. The dead child was 9 months old.

Before she moved to the Ford on East 7th Street, Jamaica said, "I had never seen people who were crazy." Now the tall, athletic girl said she often saw people who took off their clothes on the street -- and had even witnessed a murder.

"A lot of people want to mess with you," she said.

About 400 to 500 children inhabit the half a dozen hotels clustered in the heart of skid row, an area with an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 homeless people, according to a study by USC researchers. Surveys counted more than 140 children living in the Ford Hotel, 112 in the Frontier Hotel on 5th Street and about 70 at the Huntington Hotel on Main.

The USC team found that children living in the hotels and shelters were frequently ill-fed and were more likely than other children to suffer chronic illnesses, asthma, depression, behavioral problems and learning disabilities.

"The entire community, the city and the county need to take responsibility and ownership to help address this crisis," said Grace Dyrness, associate director of USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Crime data paint a troubling portrait at the hotels. At the Ford alone in the last 19 months, police took 111 crime reports and made 21 arrests for offenses such as drug sales, domestic violence, shoplifting, robbery and murder. They removed four bodies. The city attorney's office recently started a task force to track convicted sex offenders in the hotels.

The plight of the hotel children "concerns us tremendously," said Mitchell Netburn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the city-county agency that coordinates homeless issues. "While it is better than being on the street, the conditions in these hotels are marginal at best."

The Ford, a gloomy-looking six-story tan structure with 295 rooms and nearly 500 residents, is in a commercial zone dotted with garment and printing shops, seafood processors and wholesale produce markets.

The sidewalks around the Ford routinely fill with transients looking for day work, people pushing shopping carts, tattered men curled up in bedding pitched dangerously close to curbs and mothers moving quickly, holding tight to their children.

Inside the Ford, the narrow hallways echo with laughter, angry shouts and crying babies. The blue walls and painted green concrete floors are reminiscent of an aging hospital or prison. In the lobby, a desk clerk behind a barred window receives residents and visitors.

A bank of video screens monitors cameras trained on the building's hallways and exterior. Guests are closely screened and must provide photo identification and a $20 deposit to visit a resident, measures taken to increase security. A locked, gated door in the lobby controls access to rooms.

The Arburthas have lived at the Ford two years. Grace Arburtha pays about $340 monthly for two connecting rooms the size of large walk-in closets. She and her five children -- Jamaica, Ankara, Franklin, Egypt and 3-year-old Joel -- sleep on two sets of bunk beds. She purchased a tiny refrigerator and has a microwave oven. When funds run low, they sometimes go to a mission or soup kitchen to eat.

The family was living a fairly comfortable life in Pomona when the children's father was sent to prison for robbery, Arburtha said. Her job as a caretaker to an elderly woman did not pay enough to keep up rent payments on the house, and after about a year they moved and stayed with friends.

Feeling they had overstayed their welcome, they moved again and lived on the street in Pomona briefly before migrating to downtown Los Angeles' Union Rescue Mission. But boys older than 10 must sleep in different quarters from the rest of the family at the mission, and the others did not want to be separated from Franklin. Arburtha heard of the Ford and checked in.

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