Para Los Ninos’ Tull Takes On a New Challenge : Founder of Skid Row Agency Shifts Sights to Homeless

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

It was Friday afternoon and a farewell party was under way at Para Los Ninos on the edge of Skid Row without the guest of honor, founder-executive director Tanya Tull. Tull, a formidable fund-raiser whose Thursday night dinner at the Sheraton Grande had netted $100,000 for the organization, was outlining for an interviewer her goal of building “200 units of low-cost family housing within the next two years” for the homeless of the city.

Gladys Cabrera, who takes over today as executive director of Para Los Ninos, a nonprofit social service agency helping the families that call downtown home, was equally unruffled when called away from the party to be interviewed. Cabrera laughed and said, “This is the way we operate here. We just go with whatever comes.”

“Whatever comes” might be a battered wife living in her car with her three children, or a frightened child left alone all day in a hotel where the other guests include prostitutes and drug dealers.


Para Los Ninos (For The Children) was founded by Tull in 1979 in response to a newspaper story describing the plight of children who lived on Skid Row, that underbelly of the city that stretches from 3rd to 7th Streets, from Main to Alameda.

Within six weeks, Tull, a former social worker who says with perhaps a bit of understatement that she is “a motivator, an optimist who really believes that we can effect change,” had incorporated Para Los Ninos and had $5,000 from the Atlantic Richfield Foundation to lease a Skid Row warehouse to be converted to a day-care center.

Today, the agency whose administration is being turned over to Cabrera, has a staff of 50 and an annual operating budget of $900,000, half of which is raised in the private sector, and owns two renovated and converted warehouses on East 6th Street and provides programs ranging from family crisis counseling to emergency food and shelter.

And Tanya Tull, who now becomes executive director of L.A. Family Housing Corp., an agency she co-founded almost three years ago, takes on full-time her crusade to build homes for the homeless with what she describes as a “whaddaya mean” philosophy. First, she explained, she lets people tell why something can’t be done, how a situation is hopeless, and then she says, “Now what? Let’s fix it.”

Still, going on 43, Tull is ready to admit, “There’s no such thing as Superwoman.” The last six years, she said, were “once in a lifetime. I had to do it. And it has transformed my life. It humbles you a little.”

Just a year ago, Tull’s husband died of cancer after a two-year illness, and the strain of those years, she said, took their toll--"I think that’s part of my need for a break from the day-to-day,” the administrative duties at Para Los Ninos. She will continue with the organization as president and a member of the board, which means she will be a principal spokesperson and fund-raiser.

“Para Los Ninos has grown up now,” said Tull. “It is a bona fide professional social service agency and it’s important for that agency now to have an administrator more than an entrepreneur.”

As executive director of L.A. Family Housing Corp., Tull will be working out of donated office space in the Arco Towers, primarily “meeting people (including potential donors) and putting people and housing and projects together. The day-to-day operations, others will do.” The housing agency’s co-founder, Arnold Stalk, is the full-time housing development director.

“Our initial projects,” she said, “are geared to moving families out of hotel rooms around the Central City area.” Some families moved late last year into the eight-unit Casa Familia town-house development at Adams Boulevard and San Pedro Street, where they pay $300 a month rent for two bedrooms and two baths. The nonprofit housing agency, which had a $50,000 start-up grant from the Weingart Foundation, built the units with a $600,000 loan from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

The housing program, Tull said, is “geared to the working poor,” people earning minimum wage which, in Los Angeles, means they cannot afford an “inexpensive” apartment at $500 a month.

There will be ancillary support services, she said: “We’re going to help people who have potential get better jobs. And there’s going to be on-site day care,” with agency-trained tenants, perhaps, as the day care providers.

“This is really an evolution of my work at Para Los Ninos,” Tull said. “What I learned there is that with a little bit of help people can break the poverty cycle and become independent.”

Downtown, Tull said, “You have families with four and five children, working families, living in a single room. These people are working. That’s what’s outrageous.” Residents of the Adams Boulevard project include single-parent welfare mothers who, through the VISTA program, are now working at Para Los Ninos.

‘Give Them a Ladder’

“Most people want to go up,” Tull said, “so you have to give them a ladder to climb, and maybe a hand. And then if they fall, well, OK, but at least you give them an opportunity to start climbing.

“The homeless, the near-homeless and the transient population fall through with no safety net when economics get tough. The bottom line with them is housing. Most of them are very functional.”

Families are living in poverty in downtown hotels, Tull said, in part because of cutbacks in publicly funded social welfare programs. And she asked, “What do they (government budget cutters) think they’re doing?

“Transient families are growing. They may have shelters but that’s not a home and they can’t raise a family that way. Think of the generation growing up. . . .”

In the next few months, Tull will be talking to everyone who will listen, talking about the plight of the homeless. “People know,” she said, “but they need to hear it again.”

Gladys Cabrera, 42, the new executive director of Para Los Ninos, was attracted to the job partly because of her background--she and her husband came to this country from Cuba in 1967, having decided that life under the Fidel Castro government was “not our cup of tea .”

For five years, while working to overcome what she calls the “language problem,” she worked in the accounting department of Pacific Telephone. Then, in 1972, Cabrera became a social worker for the county, working her way up to supervisor and, most recently, to deputy administrator, East Los Angeles Division, Children’s Services Department. Along the way she earned a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling and became a state-licensed counselor. Her job with the county included three years working out of a Skid Row unit and her clients included abused and neglected children. She knew of Para Los Ninos, and the services the agency provides, and, she said, “When you work for the county there are limits to what you can do for the family.”

The family as a unit, and the preservation of that unit, is a priority with Cabrera. She would like to see Para Los Ninos expand its family services.

And she would like to subsidize training for mothers in client families so that they can become licensed child care providers. “I’m a mama myself,” she said, “and I know (about) not having a place I could leave my two kids when I went to work.”

Tanya Tull’s legacy as she leaves Para Los Ninos is an agency with six major programs serving the people of the downtown area:

--A child care and development center, providing care for children from six weeks through five years of age who have been abused or neglected.

--A school-age child care center to provide after-school care for children up to the age of nine.

--The Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Project for “high risk” families.

--The Youth Services-Latchkey Program, operating at 9th Street Elementary School in collaboration with the Salvation Army Day Care Center, serving kindergartners through sixth graders.

--The Youth Services-Juvenile Intervention Program, an early intervention project for youngsters 13 through 17 who are considered at high risk for entering the juvenile justice system.

--The Family Crisis Center, whose services include both crisis intervention and counseling in areas ranging from drug abuse to money management.