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New housing projects for homeless go beyond basic shelter

New apartment complexes in downtown L.A.'s skid row offer homes that feel safe, encourage healing and look good.

April 25, 2009|Craig Nakano

It's the day before the grand opening of the Abbey Apartments, where 113 formerly homeless men and women will try to rebuild 113 broken lives. Mike Alvidrez, executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, swings through the sunny courtyard, shows off the TV lounge, then climbs to the fifth floor sun deck where striped patio umbrellas sway in the afternoon breeze. In the distance: a panorama of the downtown L.A. skyline that would make most loft dwellers envious.

But the tour isn't over. Alvidrez moves to another vista point, this one overlooking the courtyard of the Downtown Drop-In Center next door. Dozens of people pack an asphalt lot. One man sleeps next to a bike, its handlebars weighted with belongings. Others sit by pushcarts overloaded with blankets and jackets. On the street beyond lies a woman with even less -- just a cardboard condo, a filthy box that shields her from flies and an even filthier sidewalk.

That distinction between basic shelter and genuine home is being made, eloquently, here on skid row, where some of the most compelling housing in the city is being built for those who have none. The Abbey, which held its grand opening April 16, and other recent projects attempt to move beyond the architecture of survival. They represent the architecture of ambition -- the desire to do better, despite the odds. Provide a bed and bathroom, sure, but also furnish residents with security, stability and, most important, hope.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, May 08, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Homeless: An article in the April 25 Home section on new building designs for formerly homeless residents in downtown Los Angeles incorrectly attributed the following quote: "I'm 63. This apartment isn't what I envisioned my later life to be." The quote was mistakenly attributed to Denise Drinkard, 48, but it should have been attributed to Pamela Parker.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 09, 2009 Home Edition Home Part E Page 6 Features Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Homeless: An April 25 article on new building designs for formerly homeless residents in downtown Los Angeles incorrectly attributed the following quote: "I'm 63. This apartment isn't what I envisioned my later life to be." The quote was mistakenly attributed to Denise Drinkard, 48, but it should have been attributed to Pamela Parker.

These buildings raise intriguing questions about the power of design to change lives. Can the placement of a lounge really foster social interaction among people who often have lived for years, sometimes decades, in emotional isolation? If the street outside is a vision of urban grit, do residents really want a window to that world? If you put a nurse, a psychiatrist and a social worker inside a home, will residents eventually see them as extended family worthy of trust?

For some initial answers, head to San Pedro Street and the new Abbey, designed by Santa Monica-based Koning Eizenberg Architecture, and the 2 1/2 -year-old Rainbow Apartments next door, by Los Angeles-based Michael Maltzan Architecture. Both are developments of the nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust, which operates under the philosophy that the most effective and least expensive solution to homelessness is more homes -- not a patchwork of shelters but permanent homes that feel safe, foster healing and, yes, look good.

Rainbow and the Abbey make an effort to have street appeal -- the former with angular orange window shades, the latter with the kind of colorful window graphics and sculpted concrete blocks on the facade that you'd expect to see outside a cafe or Pinkberry knockoff.

The message to the neighborhood: You deserve more than a budget-driven box.

Because most residents have at least two disabilities, and because substance abuse or mental health issues often caused or contributed to their homelessness, crucial services are provided in ground-floor offices. Residents can see a nurse, doctor, counselor or case manager in a setting that looks more residential than institutional. The Abbey's polished concrete floor, board-formed concrete walls, exposed ventilation ducts and splashes of chartreuse paint all feel more like a loft than a waiting room.

"A lot of these folks have been through the system and failed -- the education system, the foster care system, the mental health system," Alvidrez says.

Negative experiences prompt residents to distrust other people. But as they see the same faces day in and day out, they grow more comfortable with staff. They reach out for help, and the neighborhood where they once felt ignored by society becomes the place where they find a new family.

"This isn't just the community where lives fell apart," says Molly Rysman, Skid Row Housing Trust special projects director. "It's the community where they found recovery. This is where people come to start over."

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The Abbey and Rainbow perform a complex balancing act, allowing residents to stay connected to the outside world while trying to create a physical and psychological haven inside. Each building has a broad, open-air staircase that leads residents to a private second-story courtyard. The street may be just a few dozen steps away, but the heart of the complex feels calm and protected.

Rainbow residents have raised plywood beds where they're growing onions, peas, carrots and more. Built-in planters at the Abbey hold timber bamboo and ornamental grasses -- "more green for a concrete jungle," Alvidrez says.

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