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A Light and a Laundry for Skid Row : Behavior: This is no ordinary business. The 15 ‘guest employees’ all suffer from serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or manic-depressive psychosis.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s mid-morning at the LAMP Village Linen Service on Skid Row and workers already have tackled several loads of linens and towels from nearby hotels.

Clad in royal blue smocks, the employees work in a series of cavernous, light, airy rooms with shiny new equipment. Fifty-pound washers and dryers whir away, and several brown plastic bags stand on a table, filled with laundered blankets ready for pick up by a Hollywood shelter.

Colorful, homemade artwork adorns the walls and little signs honor the Worker of the Week for attendance, neatness and efficiency.

With a radio tuned to soft rock and disco beats, the laundry workers--manager Charlyne Sanford among them--fall in with the rhythm, engaging in little conversation except for good-natured one-liners and Sanford’s occasional gentle directions.

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Open since September, this is a commercial, competitive business. But it is no ordinary laundry.

Workers here are called “guest employees” and all of them suffer from serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or manic-depressive psychosis.

“It’s really neat,” Mollie Lowery, LAMP’s founder and director, says of what has been happening. The employees come from a population where not too long ago, “they were standing out on the street wearing 13 layers of clothes and staring at a lamp pole. Now they’re working and making money, and they love it.”

The laundry is one of four small enterprises LAMP is opening, thanks to a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Besides the commercial laundry, there already is a coin-operated Laundromat--the only one in the area--and public toilets and showers. (The toilets are free; a five-minute shower costs 25 cents). A convenience store is targeted to open this spring.

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The goal is for the businesses to become self-supporting.

The Village Linen Service currently has 11 contracts, mainly with shelters or hotels operated by social-service agencies. SRO Housing Inc., which owns a number of Skid Row hotels, initially contracted with the laundry for two hotels and as of this week has contracted for two more.

Depending on the customer, the laundry either rents clean sheets and towels or washes linens that belong to the client.

About 15 Villagers work as guest employees, earning the $4.25-per-hour minimum wage, with the possibility of rising to $7 per hour. SSI recipients (people with chronic or permanent disabilities receiving supplemental security income from state and federal governments) are allowed to earn from $65 to $85 per month; for every dollar above that amount, the SSI payment is reduced by 50 cents. Workers negotiate their hours with LAMP.

Priscilla Barber has trained for the past two weeks, working earnestly and closely concentrating on her tasks. She meets any advice or comment with a quick, “Thank you very much,” and on a rare occasion when a pillowcase slips out of her grasp, an “I’m sorry, I apologize” is out of her mouth before the case floats to the floor.

Terrence Bartholomew is better known around the laundry as Bart-- President Bart at times, for his energetic, take-charge manner.

A Vietnam vet in his mid-40s, he is something of a performer, and his sense of fun is contagious; why be dull and just say hello when you can sweep off your cap, click your heels and bow low in a grandiose gesture instead?

Upon returning from a delivery with staffer Jackie Collins, he does just that, announcing “signed, sealed and delivered.”

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Another man stands quietly working the label press, applying the “LAMP” label to a set of towels, clamping the hot metal press down on it and setting a timer.

Talking quietly while he works, he won’t give his name, explaining only half-jokingly, “I’m trying to be the invisible man.”

He has been treated for drug, alcohol and psychological problems over the years and says, “I feel like I’m a composite. I’m probably a combination burrito.”

A one-time photographer, he is a thoughtful man who keeps up with the news, discussing the Gulf war and hoping for a quick end to it. Of his work at the laundry, he says:

“This is good. At the end of the day I have the feeling I accomplished something. Maybe not much, but it’s something. I don’t feel the need to take a drink.”

Originally the Los Angeles Men’s Place, but now accepting women as well, LAMP started out as a drop-in day center and crisis program in 1985. The crisis center, with an 18-bed temporary shelter upstairs, is several blocks from the Village. Drop-ins are screened there for serious mental illness and accompanying problems, Lowery says, explaining that at least half of the clients also have serious drug or alcohol problems. Those who become part of LAMP are provided with services, opportunities and attention.

The hope is the individual will decide “to seek out mental health care,” including medication, stabilize and start to reconnect socially.

Living under street conditions, Lowery says, is not conducive to seeking such help: “But when you make friends, and have a sense of ownership or belonging to a place, you start to want to keep your room neat, go places, have some money. You aren’t so inclined to return to old habits. The sense of a community is a strength. The community makes it work.”

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She says the idea of providing something more for people who had gone through the crisis center and were transitional or ready for something closer to independent living, came to LAMP in 1987.

After three years, $2.5 million in construction and renovation costs, and a zoning battle, LAMP Village opened last June.

Housed in a former city garage, the Village is a vast one-story building that extends from Crocker to San Pedro streets, between 5th and 6th streets. At the Crocker end is a 48-bed transitional residence where guests--up to 38 men and 10 women, can stay for a temporary, but indefinite time.

Rather than private rooms, there are separate cubicles with reading lights, electrical outlets and lockable drawers. Residents, most of whom receive SSI checks, pay $200 a month. Three meals and snacks are provided, and a full program of services is offered, ranging from alcoholism and drug recovery programs, to workshops on living with mental illness, grooming and hygiene, work, personal growth, art classes and field trips.

During an afternoon break at the laundry, Keith Jackson, Alonzo Houston (“as in Texas,” he says) and Kenny Provonzantan relax together.

Jackson, 26, has a somewhat bashful manner, but when he talks, he moves like lightning between past, present and future until they seem interchangeable.

He’d been interested in journalism, he says, “and I wanted to be the first black President.” Grinning at that, Jackson explains his motivation: “I wanted to be a part of society at that level.”

For now, he is happy to work at the laundry, and says that he had never dreamed he would have such an experience: “I love it. I love every minute of it.”

Provonzantan, an older, more guarded man who has not had a job since 1973, has done well at the laundry. He likes it, too, but qualifies praise with distaste for the mandatory workshops: “They make you go to those classes.”

“Go on,” Edna Williams calls out over the music, “dance with those sheets.”

But there’s no need for the program director to say it. That’s exactly how the workers at LAMP Village Linen Service are ending their workday: Teams of two snake in and out as they fold sheets, snapping pillowcases to the beat. And having the time of their lives.


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