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Investing on the inside too

After learning that interior design on the cheap had drawbacks, Skid Row trust turned to a real pro. Now the place feels modern and more like a community.

May 22, 2010|Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times

Ruben Reyes is making himself at home in his new apartment on San Pedro Street in downtown L.A., setting out his phone and his CDs, planning to shop for food and cleaning supplies.

After years on the streets — including San Pedro — as well as in shelters and in prison, and after just one night in the Charles Cobb Apartments, Reyes, 31, says he "feels like a king."

"It's nice, it's gorgeous," he said, sitting on the bed — a bed designed, along with the nightstand and dresser, to fit the small apartment and to be durable, but also to be as appealing furniture designed for people with money to spend. The pieces are a warm gray steel, with vinyl insets.

Across the room is a square, patterned stainless-steel café table. The chairs are from CB2. Blue trim and closet doors are meant to bring the sky or the sea to mind.

"The building is contemporary, so we wanted to keep the furniture contemporary," said Suzanne Furst, the interior designer responsible for the look of the 76 apartments and the common spaces at the Cobb. She designed the bedroom furniture, which was manufactured by Pacific Hospitality Design in Commerce.

"It was a lady?" Reyes asked with a grin when told about the designer. "That's why it's blue and white."

The Charles Cobb, designed by the Pasadena architecture firm Kivotos Montenegro Partners Inc., opened in early April to provide apartments for chronically homeless and disabled people. It was built by the Skid Row Housing Trust for $13.1 million and includes first-floor offices for healthcare, case management and other services — a combination known as supportive housing. Residents pay 30% of their income in rent.

Over two decades, the trust has built or renovated 21 buildings providing permanent homes for about 1,300 homeless people. But frequently the money runs out before much attention can be paid to the interiors, said Robert Nieto, a spokesman for the trust.

This time was different. Skid Row hired Furst, who stretched the budget by hunting for bargains and finding suppliers willing to donate.

It had become clear that decorating on the cheap often turned out penny wise and pound foolish, said Cristian Ahumada, the housing development director at Skid Row Housing Trust. It would take just months for furniture to start breaking or wearing out.

So the trust, for the first time, turned to an interior designer, someone with "the Rolodex and the connections," he said.

"It's been an evolution for us and for the industry as a whole," said Molly Rysman, director of special projects for the trust. "We always knew the people we served deserved well-designed housing, but we didn't always know how critical a role it plays in healing."

She described many of the trust's clients as having very complex diseases and disabilities physical and mental, often involving substance abuse. They're isolated, made to feel they are not a part of the human race.

When an apartment doesn't look much different from hospitals, jails or foster care settings, it can seem to its occupant like "just one more place I'm going to fail," Rysman says.

By contrast, a well-designed home can start to break through some of the isolation, and nudge people into communicating with their neighbors.

The Skid Row Housing Trust and others have tackled some of those issues by including community kitchens and laundry rooms, gardens, courtyards and other places that encourage people to spend time with their neighbors and form a community.

Furst went further.

The blue chairs in the community kitchen are from Kartell, designed by Piero Lissoni. Artists painted palm tree murals on the walls.

"Because it's a community room, we want people to feel a sense of positive energy. We wanted to bring in a lot of positive colors," said muralist Marlaina Faye.

Off the kitchen, the patio's teak and stainless chairs came from Caluco. Along with big blue canvas umbrellas and the rest of the furniture and plants, the impression is of a boutique hotel courtyard.

Furst said her requests were welcomed in the furniture and design world.

Aaron Gochman, Caluco's founder, called the Cobb apartments "a great cause, when you can change the mindset by surrounding people with good things."

Ruben Reyes said he's thrilled with the good things around him, even the luxury of washing machines in the building. No more walking down the street with a laundry basket, "and cars everywhere. You gotta take this thing up over the curb."

Reyes came to the Cobb from the New Image shelter just a few miles from the Cobb; a friend there, Patricia Garnett, moved into the Cobb a day after he did. Garnett, 61 and a grandmother of six, began her path to homelessness when she left an abusive husband. She has repeatedly applied to permanent housing programs without success until now, she said.

Garnett uses a wheelchair and said it's hard to get up and down. For her, trading the shelter cot in an open room for a bed in her own apartment is a "blessing," she said. "I feel like I have a lot of living ahead of me."

mary.macvean@latimes.com

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