Church, Temple Join Forces : Project Taking the Bugs Out of Fleabag Hotels

Times Staff Writer

First you have to work your way through the milling crowd on the corner. Two men, conducting a mock knife fight with real knives, step back obligingly to let you pass, and someone whispers something about “smoke.”

Now you’re at the entrance to the Pershing Hotel in the heart of Los Angeles’ Skid Row, at Main and 5th streets. It’s a battered three-story green building, built 100 years ago.

This is not your peaceful little cottage with a picket fence, of course, but for the Pershing’s residents, it’s home. “I’m a poor guy,” says 61-year-old Hom Gay, who responded to a knock on the door to his little room with a startled expression. “I don’t have the kind of money to live in a condominium.”

For the past three years, Gay has occupied Room 12 in the 36-room hotel, a neat, lackluster space, with most of his possessions perched on a table and with a bathroom 50 feet down the hall. His experience with the hotel’s management, he says, has been bloodlessly efficient: “They just go around collecting rents. That’s all they care about.”


But things are about to change drastically. The Pershing, along with the Hotel Roma next door, will soon undergo a major face lift under the sponsorship of a Pasadena church and a West Los Angeles temple. And half a block up Main Street, workers are putting the final touches on another church-temple project, the Pennsylvania Hotel, an airy 30-room building that smells of fresh paint.

$7-Million Project

The idea of the $7-million project, according to spokesmen for All Saints Episcopal Church, is to provide clean, comfortable lodging for low-income tenants while helping to protect downtown Los Angeles’ single-room-occupancy hotels from the wrecking ball.

“Giving people a place where they can live in dignity--that’s half the strategy,” said the Rev. Denis O’Pray, All Saints’ associate rector. “The rest is to preserve Skid Row itself.”

It seems an unusual strategy for a suburban church with 3,500 mostly upscale parishioners. But anyone familiar with All Saints, an imposing church with stone facade and crenelated tower in downtown Pasadena, knows that the dilemma of the urban poor is well within its chosen purview.

It’s the moral thing to do, said the Rev. George Regas, rector of All Saints, which has joined forces in the project with Leo Baeck Temple. “All Saints has a history of being involved in many issues far beyond its own borders,” he said. “Where human suffering goes on, if we can do something to diminish it, we’ll try.”

Emergency Action

During Regas’ 22 years at the church, its efforts to diminish suffering have included operating the San Gabriel Valley’s only soup kitchen, declaring the church a sanctuary for Central American refugees, co-founding the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race and establishing a “South African ministry” to press for the end of apartheid.

But the plight of the 8,000 or so residents of 65 Skid Row hotels requires emergency action, activists for the poor contend.

Single people living on Social Security benefits or welfare checks, the residents of the downtown flophouses (the “would-be homeless,” one advocate called them) sit in the path of headlong commercial expansion. Skid Row, which is part of the 50-block Central City East, must compete for space nowadays with Little Tokyo developers, toy manufacturers and produce wholesalers.

‘Hotels Have Been Lost’

“Look at what happened in other communities,” said Ann Sewill, head of the Community Design Center, which helped All Saints and the temple put together the $7-million financing package. “Without intervention, either in the form of a moratorium on demolition or a purchasing effort by people not interested in speculative land ownership, these hotels have been lost.”

After a dozen or so hotels were demolished and most of their tenants put on the streets, the Los Angeles City Council approved a demolition moratorium in 1987. It has since been extended to March, but expansion-minded commercial interests are keeping the pressure on, Sewill said.

So a group of corporate philanthropists, civic leaders and church representatives has come up with the idea of a Skid Row Housing Trust to help nonprofit groups acquire hotels and keep them in the single-room-occupancy business.

“Our goal is to have 10 hotels a year acquired, until the 65 within the boundaries of Skid Row have been taken over,” said Robert Wycoff, president of Atlantic Richfield Corp., who has been active in the effort. “It’s a lot cheaper than building from scratch.”

Although the trust is not yet legally constituted as a nonprofit organization, its members have leaped in philanthropically on Skid Row. Led by Las Familias del Pueblo, a charitable organization that runs a downtown center for the homeless, the group has started putting together hotel projects. All Saints has worked with the organization on other projects.

Housing for 100 People

The Pennsylvania, with 30 freshly painted rooms, will be the first completed project. The Pershing and the Roma, which will eventually be combined into one building, will be done by the end of this year. Together, the three hotels will provide low-cost housing for about 100 people.

Rehabilitation money is available from a variety of sources, says Sewill, formerly head of housing for the city of Santa Monica. The church-temple project got start-up money from the James Irvine Foundation and the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, then negotiated loans from First Nationwide Bank and Citicorp. The state Department of Housing and Community Development and the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which is purchasing Skid Row hotels itself, chipped in long-term loans, and corporate donors invested funds in return for tax write-offs.

Commercial rents from stores on the hotels’ ground floors will pay off the loans, while residential rents will pay for operating expenses, including the salaries of on-site staff.

Eventually, Sewill said, the housing trust will have a revolving fund--a “pre-development pool"--to help would-be sponsors with their initial expenses. “Maybe they really want to help, but they’re a little scared about marching into a $7-million project on their own,” she said.

‘Social Service Component’

The idea of buying three hotels goes a lot further than providing new ownership, said Bill Lane Doulos, manager of the three hotels on Main Street. “We’re not just renting rooms and picking up the trash,” said Doulos, who also heads the Union Station soup kitchen in Pasadena, another All Saints project. “We’ll be providing a social service component.”

Residents will be able to go to one of three hotel managers--Doulos himself will live in the Pershing--for help with welfare or legal problems. “We hope to make it a real warm, human place,” Doulos said.

In most cases, rents will be even lower than the private owners charge, project directors say. Residents of the Pennsylvania will pay between $185 and $225 a month, depending on the size of the room and its location.

The layout of the Pennsylvania is much the same as in its former incarnation as a fleabag hotel, where “you’d literally step between people making drug deals and couples leaving their rooms,” according to Doulos.

No More ‘Gang Showers’

Individual rooms face a long hallway, with an office near the front. But now there is a sitting area, lit by a skylight, and a communal kitchen. There are also individual bathrooms with showers, instead of what Doulos calls “gang showers,” a large room with half a dozen showers in a row.

Parishioners and temple members have gone further than just approving the project, Doulos said. Some have contributed furniture and building supplies. “The nice thing about having two congregations like that is that there are a lot of people who know people who have things,” he said. “The guy who gave us the paint, for example. He didn’t go out and buy it; he had it in his warehouse.”

The two congregations have also organized painting parties, with as many as 120 people traveling to Skid Row to pitch in at the Pennsylvania. “You had your choice of coming Saturday or Sunday,” Doulos said, laughing. “The rabbi said you could choose which Sabbath you’d desecrate.”

The whole process has been gratifying, said Russel Kully, an All Saints parishioner and vice chairman of the board that oversees the three-hotel project. “It’s in the Judeo-Christian tradition,” he said.