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Downtown women's center has new home

December 09, 2010|By Kate Linthicum | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Lisa Watson, left, chief executive of the Downtown Women's Center, hugs Sofia Russell, 67, in Russell's room at the new, 67,000-square-foot skid row facility.
Lisa Watson, left, chief executive of the Downtown Women's Center,…

Sofia Russell opened the door to Apartment 404 and stepped inside. Sunlight cascaded through two large windows, and the walls gleamed with a fresh coat of soft yellow paint.

Russell, 67, took one glance around, nodded and asked, "May I move in tomorrow?"

Not quite. But soon.

Next week, Russell and dozens of other once-homeless women who live in permanent supportive housing at the Downtown Women's Center will relocate to the center's new home: a beautifully renovated former shoe factory in the heart of skid row.

At 67,000 square feet, the new facility on South San Pedro Street is twice the size of the original location a few blocks away. It has 71 studio apartments, with private bathrooms and kitchenettes, as well as a rooftop garden, a daytime drop-in center and skid row's first medical and mental health clinic specifically for women.

The new facility opens at a time when many advocates for the homeless are calling for the decentralization of services away from skid row. When the Union Rescue Mission opened its first shelter for women in 2007, it did so at a former retirement community in North Hollywood.

But the directors of the nonprofit Downtown Women's Center say they believe the best way to get help to those who need it is to go to where they are living.

"You have a community of people for whom this is their home," said Lisa Watson, chief executive of the center, funded through government grants and by donations. "This is where they'll spend the rest of their life."

Over the last year, as crews built walls and restored floors in the $26-million renovation, Watson and her staff worked to prepare residents for the big move. People who were once homeless have a habit of accumulating a lot of things, Watson said, and some of the women are wary of change.

To get them engaged and excited, the staff asked the women to draw up a set of house rules. They decided that the choice of television programs should be determined by a sign-up sheet and that the TV should be turned off at 9 p.m. Pet cats, fish and turtles will be welcome. Dogs will not.

The staff also let the women choose their new rooms and their wall colors.

Russell, a devout Muslim who wears a hijab, opted for what a team of volunteer interior designers referred to as the "traditional" palette.

"I love it," she said of the yellow walls. "These are my colors."

Russell became homeless in 1997 after her husband died and she lost her Joshua Tree home in a foreclosure. She still remembers the torture of hunger, and days when her only meal was an imaginary one.

"Instead of eating, I would fantasize about hamburgers and watermelon," she said.

She moved into the Downtown Women's Center 11 years ago.

The average age of the women living at the center is 55, and 80% have mental illness to some degree. Rent costs the women one-third of their income, which in most cases is only a welfare or disability check.

The apartments in the center's original facility had shared bathrooms and no kitchens. While touring her new place this week, Russell pretended to be cooking on the stove.

"I feel like the Beverly Hillbillies moving from the country up to Beverly Hills!" she said. "Now I can cook and look out the window."

From her fourth-floor studio, Russell can see Little Tokyo and the top of City Hall. Her view includes dozens of industrial buildings that have been converted into lofts or retail space -- emblems of the gentrification that has swept downtown in recent years.

Skid row's population has also changed markedly since the missions first opened a century ago to serve poor, transient workers who arrived in town at the nearby train station.

From the start, the missions offered many services for men. But by the 1970s, a growing number of women were living on skid row. Jill Halverson, a social worker, was inspired to create the Downtown Women's Center after she met one such woman, Rose Arzola, who slept between two shopping carts in a parking lot.

Today, women are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. On any given night, nearly 14,000 women without permanent homes are sleeping on the streets in L.A. County, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

To help the Downtown Women's Center expand, the city granted it the Gothic Revival building on San Pedro for $1. Watson expects thousands of women annually to stop by the day center for a meal, a warm shower and maybe a few hours of rest in a quiet room of daybeds.

They'll also be able to come to the state-of-the-art health clinic.

Paul Gregerson, chief medical officer at the JWCH Institute, which has partnered with the clinic, said chronic diseases such as diabetes, schizophrenia and HIV often go untreated among skid row's women.

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