Mollie Lowery dies at 70; served as a friend of and advocate for people living on L.A.'s sidewalks

Mollie Lowery, a pioneer in efforts to help people suffering from poverty, addiction and mental illness move out of tents and cardboard boxes on Los Angeles’ sidewalks and into supportive housing, died at her home in Highland Park early Monday. She was 70. 

Lowery was a fierce advocate for and friend of those she worked to help. In 1985, she founded Los Angeles Men’s Place, a skid row drop-in center for people with mental illness, and later helped expand it to Lamp Community, which provided permanent supportive housing that included counseling and other social services.

Lowery served as director of programs and then executive director of Housing Works, another homeless services organization, from 2006 to 2015, and continued as a consultant to the nonprofit until a few weeks before she died.

Mike Neely, chair of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Commission, said that Lowery “was one of the first people that said that homeless mentally ill people don’t have to be condemned to life on the street.”

Lowery was born Mollie Ellen Raddatz on Aug. 2, 1945, in Van Nuys.

Growing up, she spent summers at Bass Lake Summer Camp outside of Yosemite, and said the experience fostered a lifelong love of hiking and the outdoors.

Tall and rail-thin, she enrolled at Bishop Alemany High School because of its strong basketball team, said Celina Alvarez, a friend and the current executive director of Housing Works. She went on to study at the University of Portland and received a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from USC. 

Lowery attended a convent in Philadelphia for a year but decided that the nun’s life wasn’t for her. She began learning about working with people living on the streets at the nonprofit Ocean Park Community Center in Santa Monica and became the nonprofit’s director.

Lowery had watched the emptying of California’s mental hospitals in the 1970s. The migration to skid row that followed is what motivated Lowery to move on from Ocean Park Community Center in 1984, said Alvarez, who had been a protegee of Lowery.  

“She realized that there was a whole population of human beings that were being pushed into the far margins of skid row,” Alvarez said, “and so she ventured into those margins alongside those folks.

“As harsh as the streets could be, this woman could walk down the streets of skid row, and everybody would just come out from every tent and every corner and … tell her they loved her.”

Lowery and philanthropist Frank Rice founded Lamp in 1985. The organization broke new ground by offering people living on the streets services without pre-conditions, unlike other nonprofit organizations and government agencies, said colleagues who knew her at the time.

“Lamp was really user friendly and really street sensitive,” said Alice Callaghan, director of Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center on skid row. Where other organizations might require lots of paperwork, sobriety or certain forms of identification, “Lamp helped people where they were,” Callaghan said.

That is particularly important for people with mental illness, who often need to change their lives slowly, Callaghan said.  

Lowery and Lamp’s “housing first” approach was bold. 

The “pretty radical idea” that “housing wasn’t a reward, it was a right, and ... the single most stabilizing factor in a homeless person’s life,” was controversial and, ultimately, revolutionary, said John Maceri, executive director of Ocean Park Community Center, which is in the process of merging with Lamp.

Now, largely because of Lowery’s work, service providers take the importance of housing as a truism, he said, and have finally “caught up to where Lamp was decades ago.”“She really believed in the dignity and the worth of every individual,” Maceri said. “I think that was at her core.”

For many years while she was at Lamp and after she semi-retired, Lowery maintained a small ranch high in the foothills of the eastern Sierra Nevada above Bishop. The serenity she found in forests and icy streams was a balm for the most troubled of psyches, and she said she saw hiking and working on the land soothe people she brought there from the urine-scented streets of Los Angeles.  

”It was the most freeing experience, because she taught us that when you’re up in the mountains you’re depending on just the simplest things...” said Lowery’s friend  Jimmy “Seamus” Kenny, who worked with her at Lamp and became her hiking partner on trips through the Eastern Sierra, Nepal and, in the days just before her passing, Griffith Park. “She just loved the beauty.”

Lowery’s friends and colleagues often marveled at her extraordinary patience and determination to respect the realities perceived by the people with schizophrenia or psychosis she knew without encouraging their distorted thinking. Not everyone understood that approach. 

Her brother, Mark Raddatz, who called his sister “the bravest person I have ever known,”  remembered a conversation he had with a professor who was in awe of Lowery’s technique, which he characterized as:  “Yes, the nuts do run the asylum and what of it?”

Lowery is survived by Mark and four other brothers and sisters.

Details for a memorial service have not yet been finalized.

nina.agrawal@latimes.com

Twitter: @agrawalnina

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