The Heat's on the Kitchen : Critics Say Too Many Hungry Transients Flock to Lawndale's House of Yahweh

Times Staff Writer

In this working-class city, the struggle is not so much between the rich and the poor as it is between those who don't have all that much and those who have nothing at all.

The particular battleground is the House of Yahweh, one of only two soup kitchens in the South Bay, an institution that in its three-year history has been as successful in attracting the homeless and hungry as it has been in drawing fire from neighbors, businessmen and officials who see it as a threat to their way of life, livelihoods and city image.

Amid clamor from critics to shut it down and from supporters to keep it open, the City Council voted on Feb. 3 to require soup kitchens to obtain a special business license. When that ordinance goes into effect on Wednesday, the House of Yahweh, which has been operating under a general business license, will be forced to undergo a city review of its operations.

Outcome Determined

Sister Michele Morris, executive director of the House of Yahweh, says she fears that the outcome of the review has already been determined, and that the ordinance is only a precursor to efforts to shut down her operation.

"I know they (city officials) don't want us here," she said in a recent interview. "There is no doubt about it. We have been a thorn in their side ever since we got here three years ago.

"What are you going to do with the poor? Shoot them?"

She said the House of Yahweh feeds anyone who comes through the door and asks for food, requiring no proof of poverty.

She and her supporters have begun to gather signatures for a ballot measure to overturn the ordinance.

She labeled as "harassment" a Feb. 11 letter from the city's senior building engineering inspector citing the House of Yahweh for eight code violations including failure to post maximum occupancy signs and electrical wiring deficiencies.

However, City Manager Paul Philips denied that the city is harassing the House of Yahweh and that it has already made up its mind about the operation. He contends that House of Yahweh supporters unfairly dismiss critics as "right wingers," and said they should spend their time dealing with the problems of the operation.

Under the new ordinance, the House of Yahweh may continue operating while it applies for the special license, a process that could take some weeks. The city can reject the application or issue a conditional license if the council determines that the "public peace, health, safety or welfare" are in any way harmed by the operation, said Deputy City Manager Paula Cone. City officials have not indicated how the operation should be modified, if at all, and the ordinance requires no specific qualifications for the special permit.

Emotions over the soup kitchen, which draws about 75 homeless and hungry people into Lawndale each day, have run high since the Feb. 3 vote, and the motivations of each side--sanctity of home and hearth versus the biblical injunction to feed the hungry--appear to leave little room for compromise.

"I am afraid to walk the streets of Lawndale," said Kathleen Brown, who lives near the House of Yahweh. "When we moved into the neighborhood, it was so nice. . . . But it is not any longer."

Her neighbor, Norma Morrow, agrees.

"You have someone going to the bathroom across the street in the alley. I had two laying (asleep) in my neighbor's driveway. This happens. This is not just talk. This is scary ."

Strong Feelings

But feelings run equally strong in those who defend the House of Yahweh.

"I'm fortunate. You're fortunate," longtime Lawndale resident and House of Yahweh volunteer Mildred Donahue told the council recently. "You have a roof over your head. You have a place to sleep, food, but some of these people don't have any of that. Some of them don't have any clothes. Please, let's help them. In God's name. They're hungry . They need help. They are our own, Lawndale's."

Despite the differences between the two sides, an effort at reconciliation advanced two weeks ago when the City Council agreed to a round-table discussion that will include city officials, residents, businessmen and representatives from the House of Yahweh. The meeting will be scheduled sometime this month, officials say.

The problems of the several thousand homeless in the South Bay are not unique. Nor are they necessarily any more severe than those of the estimated 30,000 homeless elsewhere in Los Angeles County.

But there is a bitter poignancy in sending the homeless and hungry to this crowded, economically weak city, where many who do have homes are barely able to make ends meet.

Lawndale is the most densely populated municipality in the South Bay, with an estimated 13,315 people living in each square mile--twice the population density of the area as a whole. It is also one of the poorest cities in the region, with a per-capita income ($10,475 in 1985) that lags 10% behind that of Los Angeles County and 23% behind the average for South Bay cities.

Yet some of the more affluent South Bay cities, either unable or unwilling to provide meals for their less fortunate, send their homeless here--to the House of Yahweh.

According to Sarah Bertels, a member of the House of Yahweh's governing board, records show that the overwhelming majority of House of Yahweh clients come not from Lawndale, but from Hawthorne, Torrance, Gardena, Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Lennox, Lomita, Carson, Compton and nearby sections of Los Angeles.

"They are a very good operation. We send people to them," said Dr. Frank Benest, the human services director for the City of Gardena.

The City of Hawthorne also refers people to the House of Yahweh, according to Carol Norman, a Hawthorne housing official who lives in Lawndale and who is chairman of the Lawndale Planning Commission.

Officials from Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Inglewood and Torrance say the homeless are not much of a problem in their cities, and that when they are encountered, they are steered to any number of agencies.

"We have a list of agencies we consult. But I'm not familiar with the House of Yahweh," said Lt. Jeff Cameron of the Redondo Beach Police Department.

The House of Yahweh opened in Lawndale in November, 1982, when it rented a storefront less than 100 feet from City Hall, half a block from the library, in the middle of a small commercial strip on 147th Street between Burin Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard.

The guiding force behind it was Sister Michele, a member of the Catholic order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet. She said her work at the St. Catherine Laboure Catholic Church in nearby Torrance convinced her that there was a great need for a place in the South Bay where people could be fed. Otherwise, they would have to go more than 12 miles, either to Venice or San Pedro.

Sister Michele said Lawndale was selected because of its central location, the availability of buildings and its proximity to St. Catherine Laboure, which provided a core group of volunteers.

So that it would remain open to all, the House of Yahweh ("Yahweh" is an English transliteration from the Hebrew of an Old Testament name for God) was set up as a nondenominational organization.

From 75 to 100 volunteers from all over the South Bay rotate as cooks and servers, Sister Michele said. The operation gets by on a budget of $5,000 a month, most of which comes from donations. Volunteers raise the rest with bake sales, benefits and a thrift shop.

House of Yahweh records document a rapid rise in its services.

In 1983, the House of Yahweh, which is open from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, dispensed 11,801 servings (including 1,279 second helpings), Bertels said. The next year, the number of servings more than doubled to 25,553. Last year, the organization dished out 29,749 servings. It currently serves about 76 people a day, and 40% of those go back for seconds, Bertels said.

In addition, the organization gave away 34,996 parcels of canned or dry food in 1985 and many also were given free clothing, Bertels said.

But as the number of homeless and hungry who were served rose, so did the complaints.

"Many of the complaints have to do with people urinating or defecating on or about public places and private residences" when the soup kitchen is not open, said Lt. Herb Pettus, operations lieutenant of the Sheriff Department's Lennox Station, which patrols Lawndale.

Other complaints involve less tangible disturbances: the uneasiness the presence of the homeless engenders in those more fortunate; the fear that the city's image will be harmed; the anxiety that the homeless will drive customers away from neighborhood businesses.

Still others complain that when clients leave the House of Yahweh, they loiter nearby in areas they have staked out on the streets, or in public buildings.

Lawndale librarian Nancy Yuan said that 8 to 10 people a day come into the small library after they eat at House of Yahweh and occupy most of the chairs in the lounge area.

Yuan says the library's doors are open to all. "The library is a public place. We welcome anyone," she said.

But others who use the library object, she said.

To some, the mere presence of the homeless is disturbing. Others object to their behavior. "Sometimes they snore and we have to wake them up. Pretty soon, they go to sleep again, and then we wake them up again," she said.

And apart from their behavior, "the smell is terrible. How do I describe it? Just people not having taken a bath for months and wearing the same outfit day after day. The library is so small and the presence of 8 or 10 of them . . . Can you imagine?"

Who are the homeless? And how did they get into this predicament?

"These are people who have some basic impediment, be it physical, or mental or emotional or vocational," said Dr. Rodger K. Farr, the chief of Medical and Psychiatric Consultation Services for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, an expert on the problems of the homeless and an outspoken advocate of improving their plight.

"Something happens when they are homeless for six months or more. They lose all heart or spirit. They feel discarded, like a piece of trash."

Farr cited studies that estimate that 30% to 40% of the homeless are chronically mentally ill.

"It doesn't take a psychiatrist to see that a large group of the homeless are mentally ill," he said. Most of them have been released from state institutions, refuse further counseling and stop taking medications that keep them on an even keel, he said.

A large number of the homeless are workers whose skills are no longer in demand, because of technological advances or wage competition from abroad, Farr said.

Divorcees without job skills are also finding themselves on the streets, he said. Surveys have also shown that many of the homeless are chronic alcoholics or drug abusers, and that about 30% of them in Los Angeles are Vietnam veterans unable to find their place in society.

One of the homeless is Mary McLeod, 61, a woman whose sad face is framed with unruly locks of white hair. She eats at House of Yahweh six days a week, often having breakfast there and returning for lunch.

The rest of the time, McLeod says, she stays in her "barely working" green 1979 Ford or just walks around. "That's about it," she said.

Showers are a once-a-week luxury enjoyed mostly at friends' homes, she said. At night, she parks her car at Alondra Park, a well-known gathering spot for the homeless in a nearby section of unincorporated Los Angeles County.

McLeod's job was exported.

After nine years fastening wires to computer boards at Modular Devices Inc., a Torrance computer equipment manufacturing firm, she was laid off three years ago. The firm now has a plant in Mexico doing the same work.

McLeod said that when she was working, she made $5.95 an hour and lived in a three-room apartment in Hawthorne, paying rent of $175 a month.

She said she has not worked since she was laid off, and her unemployment benefits ran out long ago. She still tries to get work, she said, but when she applies for jobs, employers are put off "because of my age," she said. She gets $381 a month in Social Security benefits, and had to move when her landlord raised the rent.

She shares her car with her son, Tim, 26.

He, too, got caught in the cutbacks at Modular Devices, losing a job that paid $4.75 an hour. "I sort of got canceled," he said.

Tim McLeod dropped out of Hawthorne High School when he was in the 11th grade, and said that since he was laid off by Modular Devices, he has had only temporary jobs. His goal: "to find a job and hope it lasts more than a week."

Meanwhile, he eats at the House of Yahweh.

Michael Miller, 23, comes from a broken family. He grew up around the South Bay, where he started using drugs at about age 14. He said he started using when a date suggested he try "some of this funny white stuff." It was the street drug angel dust, or PCP, which he used almost continuously until he quit about three months ago, he said.

He said he once spent 22 days in the county jail for PCP intoxication, disturbing the peace and resisting arrest. And in October, he said, he lost a job, partly because of his drug use. "Angel dust, that is part of the reason I had to leave the job," he said. He was not able to keep up the required pace, he said.

Now he sleeps in a laundry room of an apartment building. "I'm going to get into a drug program as soon as I can," he said.

He, too, eats at House of Yahweh.

Although the problems of homeless strangers may strike some as too remote to worry about, Lawndale Councilman Dan McKenzie, who took the lead in pushing for the discussion session, said their plight hit home when he discovered, to his surprise, that he knew two of the people he saw during an inspection of Alondra Park.

"I know two former city employees living in the park, living in old beat-up cars," he said. "It kind of gets to you when you see people you know. We are going to have to team up and do something about it."

Other Lawndale officials appear less sympathetic.

Councilman Jim Ramsey expressed exasperation with supporters of the House of Yahweh who say the review process is intended to work against them.

"What I don't understand is that these people are claiming that everything they do is aboveboard and lawful, and (why would) anyone who is that positive object to being checked," he said.

Ramsey said he supports the review process because the facility needs to be regulated.

Ramsey said he doesn't think it is fair for other cities to send their homeless to Lawndale.

"All cities have problems," he said. "I suggest that more problems don't help. You send (homeless) people (here) and you have a greater problem."

Ramsey also criticized volunteers who come from other cities, including Torrance, Gardena, South Gate and Hawthorne, who work at the House of Yahweh "and then go back to their own communities."

Lawndale residents are "trying to bring themselves up and (these) people are jamming those people down our throats," he said.

City Manager Philips faults the House of Yahweh because it does not attempt to provide counseling or job training--activities that he thinks would enable people to break free from dependence on free meals.

Until the city passed the review ordinance, Philips said, Sister Michele had steadfastly rebuffed city efforts to modify the House of Yahweh's operations.

"We are not going to be called right-wingers just because we are critical of her program," Philips said. "It is very unfair of her to say we are trying to shut them down."

Sister Michele counters that she would like to offer food and shelter, as well as employment counseling and training, but her group lacks the resources to do so.

As for Sister Michele's effort toward a ballot measure, Philips says he doubts that she can muster enough support to overturn the review ordinance.

"I hope she is not stupid enough to go for a referendum because that will just polarize and she'll get killed," he said.

But, replies Sister Michele, "The referendum is a peaceable protection measure. I am not going to elaborate on other possibilities until I have to. Nothing the city manager can say can scare me. . . . I have great faith in the Lord."

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