For the past few weeks, some guests at the Warner Center Hilton and Towers in Woodland Hills have been registering under assumed names and not paying for their rooms.
The non-paying guests are battered and abused women and children who are taking part in a new program that utilizes empty Hilton Hotel rooms for overnight shelter. Jose Montilla, general manager of the hotel, began the program in early September.
The arrangement, which appears to be unique in the state, was set up through Montilla's one-man Make My Day Foundation and Haven Hills Inc., a center for the prevention of family violence in the West Valley. It is based on a similar program Montilla started in Phoenix, where he managed a hotel until April.
So far, a few Haven Hills guests--mostly women with children--have stayed at the Hilton, and only overnight. There has not been a need for extended stays. Five rooms a night are set aside for Haven Hills' use.
"I have four healthy sons, so I guess I'm just paying back God for having healthy kids. One night shortly after I arrived on this job, I got to talking with a police officer, and he confided that there are so many families having to spend the night at the police station for lack of any place better. Well, making a commitment of unbooked rooms was the least we could do for them," Montilla said.
The program is not affiliated with the Hilton, although officials at the company's corporate headquarters are aware of it, Montilla said. Individuals at Haven Hills with a drug problem are not accepted at the hotel, but that is the only stipulation on the rooms that are at Haven Hills' disposal. The hotel waives the $99 room rate.
Haven Hills plans to put the rooms to use. "When our facility is full, we often need to move quickly. Sometimes we have to get a family out of the house in the middle of the night. So we expect to be using the five sleeping rooms Mr. Montilla is offering us at least a few times each month," said Betty Fisher, program director of Haven Hills, the only domestic violence shelter in the Valley.
More than 300 people use the crisis residence annually, and more than two-thirds of them are children. "We can accommodate eight to 10 families at any given time and we usually stay full. We were delighted when Jose Montilla found us. It's the first invitation we received from a local hotel, and we're delighted," Fisher said.
Montilla, who lives at the hotel during weekdays and commutes weekends to his family residence in Phoenix, is available to Haven Hills 24 hours a day. When Haven Hills' beds are full, Montilla is called directly, sometimes at 3 a.m. The police escort the women and children from Haven Hills to the Hilton, or the Hilton sends transportation to pick them up.
Once the Haven Hills guests arrive, they are treated as any other Hilton guest, except they register under assumed names so they cannot be traced by relatives or family members.
"It's essential to put some distance between the family and the abusive person. Even at Haven Hills, we don't publish our address," Fisher said.
Montilla said: "We treat them like a regular guest and give them their privacy. In fact, I never even meet them. They have use of all food and beverage facilities and we pick up the tab."
Some regular Hilton guests have complained about the policy. "One fellow threatened to pull his business entirely," said Montilla, who has fielded a few negative phone calls, including from businesses in the Valley who use his hotel. He explains to them that the program is meant as something positive.
Montilla is frustrated that his colleagues in the hotel industry don't seem to share his philosophy of giving back to the community. "We had some press in one of the local papers and we've had no response from other hoteliers in the Valley, which really surprises me," he said.
Bill Howe, media director for the California Hotel Assn. in Sacramento, said: "It's not unusual for hotels and motels to get involved in community efforts. Things such as donating old bedding, blankets and food. A good example was the Oct. 13 earthquake in San Francisco, but I am not aware of any hotel in the state offering a hotel for battered wives."
Charitable causes are nothing new to Montilla, who in 1976 started a Phoenix branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants the wishes of terminally ill children. "The kids especially without our help don't have any future," he said.
With the Make-A-Wish program, he wanted "to make the kids' last days happy. I eventually had to quit, though, because it just became too hard not to get close to the children. And there was always a sad ending."
A new avenue for Montilla's generosity opened up on Christmas Eve in 1978 when a Phoenix police officer called him at home to tell him of the plight of a family traveling from Ohio to California. "A grandfather, granddaughter and baby were living in a shell of a house. Their bicycle and all their money had been stolen. I woke up my youngest son and had him come with me to help move them into the Fountain Suites Hotel where I was manager. The baby was being kept warm with candles lit all around him," Montilla said.
This initial kindness grew into the Make My Day Foundation in Phoenix, which was founded the following year. (Montilla chose the Make My Day name because the program makes someone's day happy.) He took the program to Los Angeles after accepting the general manager's position at the 327-room, 14-story Hilton.
He plans on incorporating Make My Day into a nonprofit organization with volunteers, a board of directors and the ability to solicit donations. Until the legal paperwork is completed, he is working alone as he tries to give Haven Hills more help by filling a wish list of needed items for the center, including sofa beds, towels and bedsheets, and such household items as toilet paper and laundry soup.
"During my first visit ever to a shelter for battered women, I remember how appalled I was by the mental condition of the kids there. They feel the problems are all their fault. They see themselves as monsters and devils. That first visit really inspired me to become a support system for those in need," Montilla said.
Montilla is confident that his actions at the Hilton will inspire others to do whatever they are capable of. "But I don't believe you can pressure others into doing their part. But it's such a great feeling to be responsible for a happy ending in somebody's life instead of a tragic ending. When it comes to kids, I can't say no. And when it comes to helping them, I won't take no for an answer."