Agency Scales Back Proposal for Youth Shelter in Hollywood

Times Staff Writer

Covenant House, a New York-based social service agency, has agreed to scale back plans for an emergency youth shelter in Hollywood. But the agreement, announced Tuesday by Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo, has failed to settle a turf fight over who will serve runaway and homeless youths in the community.

Although the agreement reduces the number of Covenant House beds from 100 to 60, it was immediately rejected by Gary Yates, the director of a rival youth program operated by Children’s Hospital.

Yates objected to the size of the shelter and its location in Hollywood, saying there is greater need in other areas of the county.

He also protested that he was not a party to the agreement between Woo and Covenant House. “When I was informed about it, it was a done deal,” he said. “There was no chance for feedback.”


$70-Million Budget

The competitive struggle among social service agencies began when Covenant House arrived on the Hollywood scene last year. With its $70-million annual budget, a professional public relations campaign and an aggressive fund-raising drive, Covenant House is seen by some existing agencies, including Children’s Hospital, as a threat. Founded by Father Bruce Ritter on the Lower East Side of New York City 20 years ago, Covenant House has grown into a social service powerhouse that operates shelters for runaway youths in six U.S. and Canadian cities and in four Central American countries.

Anne Donahue, Covenant House executive director, said her agency’s program is “very intimidating to other service providers.”

Woo said in an interview that he intervened because “a turf battle” was shaping up between competing agencies in his district. “I had a meeting with service providers who made it clear they did not welcome Covenant House coming into the area.”


Covenant House’s public relations campaigns and multimillion-dollar plans angered some existing agencies, Woo said. “They struck some people as acting like the General Motors of the nonprofits.”

The controversy forced cancellation of a January press conference in which Woo and Mayor Tom Bradley were to have welcomed Covenant House to Los Angeles.

After conferring with Woo, Covenant House agreed to open a smaller, 20-bed emergency shelter in Hollywood within three to six months that would grow to 60 beds in two years.

Originally, Covenant House had planned to include a 40-bed, long-term Rites of Passage program in the shelter. Under the agreement, that program, designed to provide job training and counseling, will be located outside of Hollywood.

Woo said Covenant House also agreed to establish a local board of directors, including representatives from Hollywood. The agency will work with Woo’s office to find an acceptable location for the emergency shelter, and Woo will review the design of the facility.

Size and Location

But Yates, who also is involved with other efforts to help runaway and homeless youths in Hollywood, said the agreement is unacceptable.

“The 60-bed shelter being in Hollywood is not a compromise at all,” Yates said. “It gives Covenant House exactly what it wanted all along--a 60-bed emergency shelter.”


Yates said he objects to both the size of Covenant House’s proposed shelter and its location in Hollywood. “It’s clear to me that the need is elsewhere,” Yates said.

He said studies have shown there is a far greater need for services in South-Central Los Angeles, Long Beach and in the San Gabriel Valley. He said he believes Covenant House wants its program in Hollywood for image and fund-raising reasons. “It’s the glitz of Hollywood,” he said.

Covenant House’s Donahue disputes Yates’ assertions.

“We still see a need in Hollywood,” Donahue said in an interview.

In the three months since Covenant House began working with the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce on a nightly van program to reach runaway youths on the streets of Hollywood, nearly 300 youths have sought assistance, Donahue said.

“We were immediately swamped in the Hollywood area. We were flooded with kids (who are) extremely receptive to getting help.

“Most of them are involved in prostitution, drug dealing, drug use, petty crimes--anything they can do to survive, anything they can do to get money for their next meal.”

Covenant House eventually hopes to establish 20-bed satellite centers elsewhere in the county but is concentrating its initial efforts in Hollywood, she said.


Donahue said she understands that “Covenant House by its nature and philosophy is threatening” to existing social service agencies. “There is no question they have felt threatened. There is little we can say to change that. We are not in competition with them.”

Yates said smaller social service agencies may be forced to compete with Covenant House in fund raising. Smaller programs for runaways in New Orleans and Houston folded within two years after Covenant House opened its own shelters in those cities, Yates said.

‘Big Guys Come In’

Donahue said Covenant House plans to spend $30 million to $35 million on its Hollywood program in the next five years. Yates said the budget for his program does not total $1 million a year.

“Certainly there are some fears about who will be left when the big guys come in,” Donahue said.

The two agencies also differ over the effectiveness of smaller versus larger shelters.

Yates said he believes “the smaller group home is more effective.”

But Donahue defended the Covenant House approach, saying a larger shelter is essential to support a battery of on-site experts, including psychological and medical staff, educational and vocational counselors, and child development specialists.

Donahue said Children’s Hospital was “completely supportive of our program” until the scope of her agency’s plans became known.

Woo said that “as soon as the number 100 (beds) started floating around, we started getting some flak from the community (of providers).”

The councilman said he wants to act as “kind of a broker” between the competing agencies.

In the meantime, Woo said, the streets are saturated with youths who need help.

“It is clear that there is a need for more services,” Woo said. “I cannot accept the concept that there already are enough services.”