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Time Running Out for East L.A. Fixture : Cleland House May Have to Close With Loss of United Way Funding

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From its beginning in 1922 as a Presbyterian Church settlement house to its blossoming as a Latino social service agency with a $500,000 annual budget, the Cleland House on Dozier Street provided counseling, job training, child care and sports programs to thousands in East Los Angeles.

Called in times past “the jewel in East Los Angeles” and “the heart of the community,” the agency was the first in the East Side to open a kindergarten, library and medical clinic for mothers and babies.

In the 1970s, gang members cut a peacekeeping truce at the Cleland House that some say was responsible for a dramatic reduction in gang killings. Later, it served as a symbolic backdrop when former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed a package of anti-gang bills.

But those glory days are over.

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The 68-year-old Cleland House soon may close its doors for lack of money.

Citing a three-year reign of fiscal mismanagement and poorly run programs, United Way in February cut off its annual $163,000 allocation--almost all of the agency’s operating budget.

Despite an appeal, the decision is expected to become final at today’s meeting of the United Way Metropolitan Regional Board.

Since United Way’s action, politicians, corporate donors and city and state agencies have turned a cold shoulder to Cleland House, said board member Richard Martinez.

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“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Martinez said. “When United Way defunds, it sends a very clear message to other potential (donors) that this organization is not viable.”

The center is struggling to keep open, but executive director David Perez admits that unless the Cleland House receives money before July, the long-established agency may go out of existence this summer.

Only Perez and two other staff members remain, unpaid for the past 2 1/2 months. The center is closed during the day to save money. It opens at 4 p.m. for a couple of hours to let teen-agers play basketball, lift weights and work out in the boxing ring.

Teens also wield mops, scrub toilets and pull weeds because the agency can’t pay a maintenance crew. And the pool sits unused most of the week, its water turning green for lack of money to buy pool chemicals.

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“When they pulled back their funding, (United Way) knew they were removing the last net to the Cleland House’s survival,” Martinez said.

Despite the lack of money, Cleland House officials said 200 teen-agers and about 75 senior citizens still use the center daily. When school ends, they expect up to 500 youths. However, United Way officials said the agency has failed to document the number of residents it serves and how its money is being spent.

The Cleland House has struggled through hard times before. After a 1969 arson destroyed the old center--a rambling two-story wooden home at 4360 E. Dozier St.--it teetered on the verge of closing throughout the 1970s. But it rose Phoenix-like from the ashes after securing $3.5 million in corporate donations to rebuild. Legal title to the land came from the Southern California synod of the United Presbyterian Church. The new center opened in 1984, with a half-dozen programs and staffing to accompany them.

“The neighborhood was all excited, the center was actually functioning and it was great,” said longtime volunteer Lucille Perez, the current director’s sister.

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But the euphoria was short-lived.

In 1987, the agency’s board of directors discovered that the center was $485,000 in debt and dismissed then-executive director Carlos Venegas, Perez said. The Internal Revenue Service placed a lien on the center for unpaid employee payroll taxes. The county and state similarly demanded money for unpaid fees, she said, as did installers of the center’s alarm, telephone and computer systems.

Although investigators from the state attorney general’s office examined the agency’s financial records, criminal charges were never filed, said an attorney general’s spokesman.

United Way placed the Cleland House on “contingency status,” with a committee monitoring the agency monthly before providing additional support. United Way also paid about $10,000 for a consultant to devise a plan of reorganization and debt repayment, said Christina Alvarado, United Way director of planning and allocations in Los Angeles.

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But progress was hampered by political infighting on the Cleland House Board of Directors and its inability to retain a permanent executive director, she said. At least eight directors were hired and fired in the past three years, Alvarado said.

Inevitably, programs suffered, she said. This year, United Way found programs run at the center without adult supervision or with only one adult providing youths a key to unlock the doors.

“That’s not really acceptable; they should have a more structured program,” Alvarado said. “Why do they need $160,000 a year to open up the gates and say, ‘Come on in and play basketball.’ ”

Director Perez, while acknowledging that problems have persisted at the center for some time, insists that progress has been made. The center’s debt was reduced to $70,000. The unstructured programs criticized by United Way were all the agency could afford, he said.

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With no money expected from Cleland House’s eight-member, “working class” board of directors, board member Martinez said the agency hopes to form a partnership with other social service agencies to keep its doors open.

Should Cleland House close, a clause in the mortgage deed given years ago by the Presbyterian Church requires that the land revert to the church. Synod spokesman Al Garrison said if that occurs, the church would likely look to another agency to provide services on the Cleland House grounds.

Since Cleland House opened, a number of social services agencies have sprung up on the East Side. United Way officials say the $163,000 that had been allocated to Cleland House will be given to one or more of these organizations.

Meanwhile, the youths who still use the Cleland House don’t know the details of the center troubles. They know only how it will affect them.

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Said 15-year-old Manuel Herrera, arrested last year after police accused him of carrying a gun: “If they close it down, we’re just going to be on the street, doing something stupid or stealing something.”


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