To Latino families living in run-down buildings near the heart of downtown Los Angeles, "Sister Kathy" is a familiar figure, a soft-voiced woman who walks unafraid down long dark corridors, dispensing no-nonsense advice.
Housing activists know Kathy Wood as one of only a handful of tenant organizers in Los Angeles. Her efforts have led to two lawsuits resulting in the largest payments ever made to slum tenants in Los Angeles--a total of nearly $5 million over the last three years.
A tall, thin, unassuming woman, Sister Kathy has been a member of the Roman Catholic Order of Franciscans for 24 years, most of them spent among the poor.
During five years as head of the St. Francis Center in the heart of the downtown garment district, the 47-year-old became familiar with the problems faced by large families crowded into the one-room units common in Central City slums, where cockroaches crawl the floors and walls and where she still claims, "Rats are as big as dogs."
Concern over slum conditions was a logical extension of her work for the center, where since 1984 she has helped provide free food, clothing and other services.
"Once you work with the poor you cannot just see one aspect," she said. "They have so many different needs. Each need seems to lead to another need."
After noticing that people in the area had "no access to medical care," Wood, who had training as a psychiatric nurse, went back to school for two years to obtain a nurse practitioner's license.
She gave up her job running St. Francis to work as a nurse practitioner in a clinic that the UCLA School of Nursing set up this year at the center.
Wood spends most days at the clinic, which sees more than two dozen patients a day, and she makes home visits.
On one recent afternoon, Sister Kathy walked down the halls of one Main Street building where she had helped organize tenants who eventually won a favorable settlement of a lawsuit over slum conditions. Dressed in a simple skirt, blouse and comfortable shoes, with graying hair in a short, simple cut, Wood knocked on doors and asked questions in gentle, low-toned Spanish. When she stood still, cockroaches scuttled across the floor making circles around her feet.
The women behind the doors recognized her, smiled and answered in rapid, high-pitched voices. One told her that roaches were causing rashes on the babies. Another said her son was afraid of gangs and had been punched in the face by three street toughs. A third complained that the landlord was trying to get rid of people who pay the lowest rents.
Years ago, when she wanted to know who lived in the area served by St. Francis Center, Wood said she started out by knocking on doors just like these and found 800 families, "by and large all working, and very poor."
Her goal became "to give them the skills, the resources for them to sustain themselves," whether that meant attending literacy classes at the center, bringing their children to preschool "learning readiness" sessions, or just helping them apply for food stamps. "There is always something they can do," she said.
She applied the same theory to housing conditions, telling tenants who complained that they had no hot water or that rats were biting children, "You have to organize to take advantage of the system."
But the slums were unlike the previous areas where she had worked in Sacramento and East Los Angeles. "This wasn't a community. These were buildings," Wood said. "So we tried to set up a sense of community."
She did it with cheese. In past years when the federal government gave away free cheese, Wood appointed "captains" on each floor to help distribute the food. "They had responsibility, they developed leadership and they met their neighbors," Wood said.
The captain system became the key to tenant organizing. "We would say, if you want to make a difference in your building, you must come together," Wood said. "So people would bring us petitions, with everyone in the building signing and documenting the conditions. Then we would try to contact the lawyers."
Wood would call the city attorney's office, where Stephanie Sautner, head of the slum housing task force, recently recalled that Wood brought four buildings to the attention of city officials. In each case, the landlords were prosecuted.
"She is very knowledgeable about slum conditions," said Sautner. "My only problem with her was she would call all the time."
Kathy Wood also was persistent in her complaints to the Legal Aid Foundation and public interest attorneys at the Los Angeles firm of Litt & Stormer. Legal Aid and the private firm together sued Milton Avol, a slumlord prosecuted many times by the city attorney, on behalf of tenants in two Main Street buildings. In 1988, in an out-of-court settlement, they won $2.5 million on behalf of 70 families.
Michael Bodaken, a former Legal Aid attorney who is now Mayor Tom Bradley's housing coordinator, recalled that while much of the tenant organizing on Main Street was done by the late housing activist, Dino Hirsch, the tenants wanted Wood to speak for them.
"The tenants often went to Sister Kathy," he said, "and they saw her as kind of their voice. A lot of the information we got came through her."
The floor-captain system proved critical in a subsequent legal action involving a tenement at 106 E. Washington Blvd., according to Mercedes Marquez, an attorney with Litt & Stormer. A suit the firm filed against its owners was resolved this summer in a $2.4 million settlement shared by 65 families.
Marquez described Wood as a "tireless advocate" who has brought five more buildings to the firm's attention. Attorneys have filed a lawsuit on one and have two more in preparation, she added.
Wood, who was born in Oakland and raised in Sacramento, came to St. Francis after working in crisis intervention at County-USC Medical Center. After studying Spanish in Mexico, she worked with the poor in East Los Angeles.
St. Francis Center is one of the few agencies outside Skid Row providing services to the downtown poor, and is the only one in the garment district area. Now headed by former Franciscan sister Maria de Los Angeles Menendez, it serves close to 4,000 people a month and operates with a staff of nine on a $250,000 annual budget, raised from donations.
As for Sister Kathy, working as a nurse practitioner has led her to identify even other needs. "I see a lot of preschool toddlers, " she said. "I've been picking up speech problems. I saw a 5-year-old today who can hardly speak. We need to develop a program."