Community Opposition to Lawndale Charity


Sister Michele Morris is in the middle of a phone call when Angie, an Inglewood widow suffering from diabetes, comes in with her latest problem.

The 52-year-old woman, who cannot read or write, has just received notice that her Social Security check has been cut by more than $100 a month. She also has a cold but no money to buy cough syrup.

Sister Michele gives her $20 for some medicine, and runs next door to ask a co-worker to get in touch with social welfare officials about the reduction in Angie's benefits.

On her way back to the office, Sister Michele meets a homeless youth whose car will not start and an elderly man who was mugged last week and needs help getting new identification.

"My entire life is an interruption," says Sister Michele, the executive director of House of Yahweh, a private, nonprofit social service agency in Lawndale that provides free meals, clothing, groceries, furniture and referrals for the poor and homeless.

"The minute I stick my head out the door, I'm always besieged," she says, breezing into the cramped cubbyhole of an office she shares with two other people. "There's always someone who needs something. . . . Sometimes it's fine but sometimes it wears me out."

By any standard, it's an emotionally draining occupation, but one for which the 57-year-old South Gate woman has four decades of training as a member of the Catholic order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a religious sisterhood devoted to performing acts of mercy.

The most demanding part of her job, however, encompasses something far removed from the human dramas that daily cross her doorstep. The biggest challenge she faces today is winning political and community support for the two-story building she wants to erect next to the agency's soup kitchen and thrift shop at 4430 W. 147th Street.

Set in the heart of the Lawndale Civic Center, the 9-year-old agency is just steps from City Hall, a public library that is slated for expansion and a local shuttle stop. The area is considered a prime target for redevelopment.

Sister Michele says the Mediterranean-style building she has proposed was designed to fit in with the city's vision for the neighborhood. It would also provide badly needed storage space on her 9,600-square-foot corner lot and would include bathrooms and showers for the homeless men and women she serves.

But the planned improvements have mired the House of Yahweh in controversy for months.

The charity, which weathered a series of public hearings before winning approval to build the new facility, finally celebrated a groundbreaking ceremony in April, 1990. But just days after workers had begun to dig trenches to lay the foundation, construction was halted when city planning officials discovered they mistakenly had overlooked landscaping and setback requirements.

Despite a loss of more than $35,000, House of Yahweh was forced to start over and submit new plans, which were approved by the Planning Commission. Neighbors, however, appealed the decision, and the matter is scheduled for a hearing before the City Council today.

Residents opposed to the project contend that the showers and bathrooms would draw more street people to the agency, which feeds between 125 and 200 people six days a week. And nearby business owners say customers are afraid to come in when scruffy-looking people--some smelling of alcohol or appearing to be on drugs or mentally ill--loiter in front of their shops.

While some neighbors say the new building would be a welcome alternative to the dusty, open-air patio where Sister Michele now stores old refrigerators and sofas under tarps, others say the agency would be more suitably situated in an industrial area, out of the path of the children and elderly people who use the nearby community center.

A native of South Dakota who moved with her parents to Los Angeles when she was 8, Sister Michele says she was drawn to the religious life as a teen-ager because she "loved being around happy people (and) you can't find a happier group of people than priests and nuns."

Although she felt "called" to join a convent in the seventh grade, she says, she tried to ignore the impulse through most of her teens. But by her 18th birthday, four years after her only sister was killed in a bicycle accident, she was ready to dedicate her life to religion.

She became a novitiate in the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a Catholic community with about 2,000 members worldwide. In 1959, after vowing a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, she became a full member of the order.

For the first 20 years of her career, Sister Michele worked as a teacher at Catholic elementary schools. But in 1982, while working as a parish coordinator at St. Catherine Laboure Catholic Church in Torrance, Sister Michele was deeply moved by the plight of a homeless couple that had sought shelter at the church during a rainstorm. She soon had another calling: to open a neighborhood agency for the poor.

At the time, the idea was almost revolutionary for the sisterhood, whose members rarely ventured beyond the nursing and teaching professions. At first, Sister Michele tried to find support for the agency from other Catholic charities, but to her surprise, she met resistance. "You wouldn't believe sometimes you have more trouble with your own than with strangers," she said.

Eventually, she decided to found an agency on her own. She called it House of Yahweh, an ancient Hebrew name for God. Its symbol would be a seed.

Convinced that parishioners at St. Catherine Laboure would support a nondenominational agency that would serve people of any faith, Sister Michele promised the pastor that if she didn't raise $30,000 in two weeks, she would give all the money back.

As it turned out, she raised only $15,000, but when she offered to return the money, "95% of them said to keep it" and House of Yahweh, a nonprofit agency with a five-member board of directors, was born.

The agency is one of six major providers for the homeless and poor in the South Bay. Advocates for the homeless estimate that between 1,800 and 2,500 people in the South Bay and Long Beach area live on the streets, some finding occasional shelter with family or friends.

At first, Lawndale city officials heralded House of Yahweh for its good works, and then-Mayor Sarann Kruse presented Sister Michele with a statue made of Jerusalem olive wood at a City Council meeting. But the soup kitchen soon came under fire from neighbors who complained that transients were congregating in doorways and urinating in residents' yards.

In a move clearly designed to put House of Yahweh out of business, the City Council in February, 1986, passed an ordinance requiring special permits for all soup kitchens and job agencies. But after receiving a petition that had been signed by nearly 1,000 House of Yahweh supporters, the council repealed the law the following month.

The council, which held a public hearing that drew a standing-room-only crowd last month, wants to review reports on crime and parking before making its final decision on the agency. In recent interviews, at least three of the council members have said they believe that the city would be better off if House of Yahweh performed its charitable acts elsewhere.

"Several years ago, I told (Sister Michele) that she was doing God's work but that unfortunately, she was doing it in the wrong place," said Councilwoman Carol Norman. "If I had my druthers, it wouldn't be there. The way I vote, though, may depend on the legality of other issues."

Councilman Larry Rudolph, who asked for the crime report, said in an interview last week: "I want to know what's going on around there. We hired a special officer just to patrol that area. If it (House of Yahweh) is causing crime, then maybe it's not the best thing for the community."

But Sister Michele is confident the police report will show House of Yahweh is not responsible for neighborhood crime.

"It's a political issue," Sister Michele said. "We can't give them (city officials) tax money. They're not making money off us. Yet, indirectly, they're making hundreds of thousands of dollars off us because we're doing what they should be doing."

At the public hearing last month, several residents who live in the area blamed House of Yahweh for everything from neighborhood crime and men urinating on people's lawns to lower property values. One woman said that two years ago her daughter saw a girl being sexually molested by a man who was later seen standing in line outside the soup kitchen. The Sheriff's Department, however, was unable to find any record of the incident.

Although Sister Michele acknowledges that problems occasionally come up, Sister Michele remains convinced that most of the neighbors' complaints reflect simple prejudice against the poor and people "whose only crime is not looking good or smelling good."

"I think the poor are sort of like the lepers we read about in Scripture," she said. "The lepers had to wear bells around their neck and if they came near the city, they had to shout, 'Unclean, unclean!' "

"We don't have any bells hanging around people's necks today, but we have the same condition," she said. "People don't want the poor around."

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