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An L.A. crusader on behalf of the needy

Rose Rios has a big heart, amazing energy and a boundless desire to help her neighbors. Faced with their misery, she said, 'I had to do something.'

August 21, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Rose Rios, 65, right, hugs Likisha Tatum, a single and unemployed mother of seven children. Rios provided Tatum with a truckload of donated furniture.
Rose Rios, 65, right, hugs Likisha Tatum, a single and unemployed mother… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

Her phone rings every hour:

"Ms. Rose, we need money for food, please."

"OK, honey, let me look into it."

"Ms. Rose, our gas is about to be shut off."

"OK, child, let me see what I can do."

Whatever they need, Rose Rios sets out to find it.

For 15 years, the 65-year-old grandmother of 10 has aided the poor in South-Central Los Angeles. She runs her nonprofit, Cover the Homeless Ministry, out of her dining room — without employees or large grants.

Audio slide show: A charitable soul

She relies on her own hustle instead, asking neighbors, churches and businesses for help.

Her caseload covers a shiny oak table like past-due homework — unemployed fathers, single mothers, hungry children — and donations fill most rooms of her Mid-Wilshire home. Cereal boxes and lotion sit in the kitchen, clothes and blankets wait in the guest room, dishes and freezers loaded with 40-pound bags of chicken occupy the garage. And her car? It's usually packed to the roof with canned goods and vegetables.

But Rios' giving never catches up with demand. Her weeks revolve around trips to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and calls to shelters and missions. Now and then, she likes to put an elected official on the spot.

"I tell them, straight out," Rios said. "Look, this man needs help. If he dies in your district and you didn't do anything about it, your name is gonna be splashed all over the place and it ain't gonna be pretty."

Among those Rios often calls for help is City Councilman Herb Wesson. She met his wife, Fabian, about six years ago in the community.

"I'll help her in any way I can," said Wesson, who oversees the 10th district, where Rios lives. "No job is too big or too small for Rose. She's like a whirlwind. She walks into a situation and boom! She gets going on it."

Her father was a preacher and her mother was a missionary, so Rios and her eight siblings, who grew up in South Los Angeles, were expected to contribute. But it wasn't until her children were all grown and she sat alone at her dining room table in 1996 that she felt the need to make giving a full-time job.

She saw a shirtless man digging for food through a trash can one afternoon and thought, "How many more are there just like him?"

"I had to do something," Rios said. "Something that was really going to make a difference."

With her home paid off (she bought it in 1971 for $25,000), she set out with a plan. First, she researched homelessness. She dug through trash cans and lived in a cardboard box in downtown's Skid Row for a month. Then she began to ask for donations from everyone she knew. She made herself known to outreach organizations and drove the streets looking for people to help. She handed out her cellphone number. Soon, the calls from needy people began to pour in from all over the county.

On a recent Thursday, Rios made her usual rounds. She stopped by the South Central Family Health Center, a clinic that sends its neediest cases so she can help with transportation, shelter and food.

They let her use a computer and a copy machine. Each time she shows up at the back door, the nurses and doctors greet her warmly.

"Mother Rose! How you doing today?"

"Mother Rose! It's great to see you."

Rios, never short on laughter or energy, moves from hallway to hallway, peeking into every room.

"Mmmm, mmmmm. What's going on in here? Anyone need help? Anything I can do for anybody?"

Not long ago, Genevieve Filmardirossian, the clinic's director, encouraged Rios to take computer classes so she could run her organization more efficiently.

"She's so busy all the time I never thought she'd take me seriously," Filmardirossian said. "But next thing I knew she was enrolled in a course and emailing everybody."

Once a month, Rios parks herself outside the clinic and hands out free food: loads of bacon, bananas and yogurt, which she collects from missions and the Food Bank.

"I try to get them the best stuff," she said. "The freshest, most beautiful stuff."

Some beneficiaries thank her and hug her. They take her hands and shower them with kisses. Others silently accept the goods with their eyes cast down in shame.

"No matter what, I know I'm taking care of a need," Rios said. "They don't have to be grateful. I just hope their situation gets better."

Not long ago, Rios was introduced to a single mother with seven children. The woman, Likisha Tatum, 32, is jobless and lives in a bare home with little food, in a gang-infested area. She had no beds, no couches, no dressers, no dining room table. Clothes and trash covered a filthy rug and the bedrooms reeked of urine. Rios showed up one recent morning with a truckload of donated furniture — two twin mattresses for the kids, a dining room set and some sofa cushions she took from a beat-up couch.

"Now isn't that the most perfect table you've ever seen!" Rios said, proudly pointing at the long wooden table that now filled the gap in the kitchen.

Tatum looked on from a distance, her face sour.

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