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‘A Beautiful Day’ on Skid Row : Missionary Tries to Bring Light to Transients’ Lives

Times Staff Writer

Except for the ever-present transients, the sidewalk scene along 5th Street between Towne Avenue and Crocker Street in Skid Row is far from typical.

Flowers adorn neatly arranged tables and chairs. Artwork and poetry are displayed on homemade bulletin boards for homeless viewers. On the corner, a circular stage awaits homeless performers. A milk-crate library of books beckons homeless readers.

“It’s going to be a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” said one man, imitating television’s buoyant Mister Rogers. “Won’t you be my neighbor?” he chuckled to himself.

Each day at sunrise, the driving force behind this scene, Barbara Frost, gets up from her cardboard and blanket bed to begin a long day’s work at her makeshift desk, complete with a Rolodex, notebooks and shoe-box file cabinets.

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Missionary for 17 Years

A missionary in Central America for 17 years, Frost, 41, has willingly joined the transients living on 5th Street in hopes of sparking a Skid Row renaissance that will foster what she calls “bold, new, creative responses” to homelessness.

She has vowed to live there until the homeless have both shelter and jobs. For a visitor, one look at her fixed, blue-eyed stare is enough to show the passion behind her vow.

Her vision includes finding building owners who will provide subsidized housing throughout the area, locating business owners willing to “take a chance” on hiring the homeless, and recruiting volunteer counselors to make sure the homeless do not “fall through the cracks,” so they can make smooth transitions to meaningful lives.

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Her ideas are bold, indeed.

‘Beauty, Dignity’

With no budget, no resources and $1 in her pocket, Frost, with cooperation from some of the homeless, started The Way Home, a non-denominational street “mission,” in September to transform the squalid conditions of Skid Row into “a place of beauty and dignity.” Until housing can be provided for everyone, she says, conditions should be as civilized as possible.

The first project of Frost’s mission, an international gospel festival, began Tuesday. It will end Saturday with an ethnic banquet and multilingual worship services.

The festival, which Frost hopes will help the homeless regain dignity by using their talents, will feature a gospel choir, as well as a giant mural by a local artist, other artwork and poetry by the homeless.

Compelled to Help

She wants the festival to be an attention-getter so that people who attend will not be able to ignore the problems on Skid Row and will feel compelled to help.

She has contacted friends and church groups in the area to join in the festival, but has no means of spreading the news of the event except by word-of-mouth.

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Frost, twice divorced, moved to Los Angeles from Chicago in May to be near her children, Heather, 13, Timothy, 10, and Christopher, 8. They have lived with their father, her first husband, in Duarte since December while she worked on a play she is writing about what life would be like for Jesus Christ and his followers if he were alive today.

In Los Angeles, Frost had no job or income. At first, she stayed with friends, then rented a room in a Skid Row hotel with savings. When those funds ran out, she found herself on the street.

Back to the Street

With a loan from a friend, she rented a room in South-Central Los Angeles in July, and went back to her play. But in September, she rejoined the homeless.

“I couldn’t (finish the play) while people were on the street, or it wouldn’t make any sense,” Frost explained.

“I have more than three children--these (the homeless) are my children,” she said. “ My three children are sleeping in beds and cared for. . . . I know I’ll be with them again and, bless their hearts, they understand.”

“They were skeptical,” she said of her new neighbors who, because she is white, also “assumed I was middle class.”

Undaunted, she got a broom, a chair and a card table for a desk, and sat in her new “home” to plan.

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Spiritual Struggle

After getting permission from the owner, she asked a local artist, Henry Brown, to paint an approximately 8,000-square-foot mural depicting a surrealistic spiritual struggle on the side of the Trend Pacific manufacturing building facing 5th Street.

The focal point of the festival, the mural, scheduled to be completed Saturday, will have the message “Jesus is the Way Home” written in stylized graffiti in all of the languages spoken in Los Angeles. The idea is to show the universality of the Christian church, Frost explained.

The building’s owner, who did not want to be identified, was appreciative of Frost’s intentions, but he believes that the missionary’s efforts will ultimately be in vain.

“It’s hopeless,” he said, explaining that it will take much, much more than one person to battle the inhumane conditions of Skid Row. “It’s a federal problem.”

Similar Road

Frost’s road to, and vision for, Skid Row can be compared to that of Ted Hayes, the controversial activist who left his family to live with the homeless in his “Justiceville” compound. He has worked for the last five years to have the city approve a location for a shelter built and operated by the homeless--to which the City Council finally agreed in July.

But other homeless activists have said Hayes is a publicity-hungry opportunist, his views opposing permanent housing counterproductive, his plans for the shelter outlandish.

Although Frost is aware of the possible parallels, she says: “I can’t worry about that. I’ll leave the personal and public opinion in God’s hands.”

Though Frost is constantly reminded by friends and foes of the futility of her vision, she says her faith in God is keeping her going.

When her small group lacked the scaffolding needed to scrape and paint the 25-foot-high mural, when the water-blaster they scrimped to buy broke the same day, and when someone took off with the choir’s portable electric piano, Frost still had faith.

They weren’t able to fix the water-blaster, so they scraped the wall by hand, making extensions for their scrapers to reach higher areas, until a carpenter volunteered to build scaffolding for them. The piano was never replaced, so they are using a volunteer’s guitar.

In spite of her advocacy on their behalf, many transients have shown aloofness and skepticism, and some of the missions and businesses in the area have refused to cooperate.

Mission Refused Her

For example, the nearby Emmanuel Baptist Rescue Mission would not allow Frost to hold her festival outside their building, saying that the congregation of homeless would create problems.

“We can’t have (her here),” said a manager of Emmanuel, who runs the mission with her husband and did not want her name used. “We have our own ministry. . . . It’s hard for us to help out anybody else.”

Windell Watkins, a Skid Row resident, was pessimistic about Frost’s presence.

“What’s going to happen when this is over?” he asked. “We’ve heard this before and we haven’t seen any changes.”

Faith Into Action

But for Frost, change comes when people put faith into action. Some passers-by have volunteered to help with the festival. Others have stopped and offered job openings for her bulletin board. Early one morning, a man donated a bag of doughnuts. A woman has promised to get choir robes.

Frost acknowledges that the success of her mission depends mainly upon caring citizens contributing what services and resources they can to help end homelessness.

“It is impossible--unless people reach out and care. I don’t know what it’s going to take,” Frost admitted.

But she believes that God will provide the answers.

“Faith is holding on when you can’t see anything,” she said.


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