The Woman Who Saved Skid Row : ALICE CALLAGHAN HAS FOUGHT CITY HALL AND DOWNTOWN DEVELOPERS TO PRESERVE HOUSING FOR THE POOREST OF THE POOR.
COMING UPON SKID ROW FOR THE FIRST TIME along 7th Street, a visitor is struck by the trash and blight. Many of the old storefronts and hotels are scarred and crumbling or boarded shut. Some doorways are covered not with boards but with sleeping people; others are blocked by locked grates, with garment workers seemingly caged behind sewing machines inside. The sidewalks reek of urine and the area is eerily silent, except for one corner near a spruced-up hotel, which is buzzing with people in suits this Wednesday morning.
The hotel, a three-story brick building that’s recently been painted a muted green, has a yellow sign out front with black lettering that reads Prentice Hotel. Its pastel colors and sleek lines suggest a clean, scrubbed island--a safe zone. This is largely because of its developer, Alice Callaghan, a short, athletic-looking woman with a Buster Brown haircut and an in-your-face attitude.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Dec. 15, 1991 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 15, 1991 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 7 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
In “The Savior of Skid Row” (Nov. 10), Alice Callaghan’s role in the Prentice Hotel project was misstated. Chrysalis and the Los Angeles Community Design Center were the project developers. Callaghan helped provide seed money in the form of a predevelopment loan.
Dubbed “Father Alice” because she is both an Episcopal priest and a former nun, Callaghan is best known in City Hall circles for her politically savvy lobbying on behalf of the poorest of the poor. On the streets, she stands for the proposition that no matter how much the downtown businesses and bureaucrats want to sweep away the problem of homelessness with police intervention, it won’t disappear. At least not until permanent housing--not temporary shelters, not transitional programs--exists. By invoking her righteous rant--housing, housing, permanent housing--she has managed to dragoon city leaders into doing what no other American city has dared consider: saving Skid Row, not for speculators but for the people who live there.
Activist-turned-entrepreneur Callaghan is playing real-life Monopoly these days, albeit on Baltic Avenue rather than Park Place. It is a transition that seems to energize her, even though it has cost her some of her closest allies. Then again, Callaghan’s life has been defined by radical transformations. From rebellious surfer girl to nun. From Catholic nun to Episcopal priest. From Barry Goldwater supporter to Ronald Reagan naysayer. But her current metamorphosis into a radical real estate tycoon may be her most daring leap yet.
At a time when some luxury downtown hotels are going bankrupt, it is no small irony that Callaghan’s hotel business for low-income residents--single-room-occupancy hotels, or SROs--is booming on downtown’s eastern edge. Since 1989, her nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust has bought 15 SROs, 10 of which were on the city’s Slum Housing Task Force hit list, facing prosecution and possible condemnation. Three of them have been gutted and renovated with skylights, community kitchens and cheerful tile floors and are open to those barely scratching by on monthly general relief checks of $312--rent is between $234. Callaghan’s mission is to put the remaining 35 Skid Row SROs in the hands of nonprofits, at a cost of $300 million from corporate and public funds.
How Callaghan can work such magic is immediately apparent as she races down 7th Street from her storefront center for garment workers’ families, Las Familias del Pueblo (Families of the City), to the Prentice Hotel. At 44, round-faced and feisty, Callaghan wears her uniform--a perfectly pressed Oxford shirt (with the collar cut off), khaki skirt, hose and sneakers--and greets the transvestites, drug addicts and prostitutes wandering by, who call out to her by her first name. As the public has grown wary of the homeless, disgusted by those who seem unwilling to help themselves or who act like “predators,” Callaghan has taken the position that they are no different than anyone else, just poorer.
Suddenly, a Lincoln Town Car pulls up beside her. “Want a ride?” asks a man in a gray pin-striped suit who is sitting in the passenger seat. She jumps into the back seat. By straddling two levels of culture, the very rich and the very poor, Callaghan takes care of business.
“Remember,” she advises the driver as he swings in front of the hotel, where there is no parking because Mayor Tom Bradley and the media have just arrived en masse for the hotel’s opening day ceremonies, “it’s less of a ticket if you park on the sidewalk than in the red.” Not that such financial concerns would bother the car’s owner, Robert E. Wycoff, president and chief operating officer of ARCO and one of her closest advisers. But the chauffeur parks on the sidewalk.
Callaghan’s intimate understanding of the municipal code stems from time she’s spent in jail. Over the years, she has gained some notoriety by getting arrested for acts of conscience--protesting the Vietnam War, the treatment of farm workers, the government’s policy of deporting illegal Latino immigrants. In 1987, when the city’s Department of Public Works was scooping homeless people off the sidewalks with skip-loaders, she was arrested for blocking a driveway. To protest the 1989 police sweeps of Skid Row, she held a sit-in outside the mayor’s office--"we get good coverage there,” she says, smiling.
But on this day, she’s on her good behavior. When the mayor takes the microphone beneath helium balloons, Bradley marvels at the hotel’s renewal. “I used to work this area as a police officer,” he remembers, “and I cannot believe it could have been done.” Then, Wycoff announces ARCO’s intention to contribute $1 million this year to the California Equity Fund, earmarked for Skid Row housing (for which ARCO will receive a state and federal tax credit). Callaghan stands off to the side, her arms folded and mouth shut for a change.
The crush of business and government leaders at the hotel is more evidence that Alice Callaghan’s moment has arrived. After a decade of working as a housing activist, a time when commercial and industrial developers sought to disperse the Skid Row population, Callaghan has watched her agenda of saving and developing low-income housing become the city’s agenda. Recently, she has seen major victories: the City Council imposed a five-year moratorium on demolition of SRO hotels on Skid Row, the toughest ordinance of its kind in the nation, and the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, after years of delays and promises, renewed its commitment to buy and refurbish 15 SROs. The CRA also recently announced that Callaghan’s Skid Row Housing Trust would receive more than $7.6 million to not only renovate four hotels but to also build a new one, the first in decades.
“More than anyone,” says Mike Bodakin, the mayor’s housing coordinator, “she’s demonstrated that with a clear focus and a clear goal, you can get things done in this city.” Says Councilman Mike Woo, whom Callaghan tapped to sponsor the demolition moratorium: “Alice has set a real national precedent. For many cities, it’s too late--they lost their SROs and will never get them back. In this case, we’re fortunate that Alice is here to sound the trumpet and let us know we still have time to take this constructive action in our city.” “Alice has turned into quite the developer,” adds CRA chairman Jim Wood, whom Callaghan has frequently criticized in the past.
While her critics--and there are many--denounce her abrasive style and controlling manner, her supporters prefer to think of her as the Mother Teresa of Skid Row. Callaghan bristles at such comparisons, not because she doesn’t measure up but because she’s disgusted with Teresa of Calcutta: “I find it unforgivable she’s never addressed the systemic problems of poverty,” she says. “She talked about Ronald Reagan as a good Christian--the very person who’s destroyed programs for poor people. I cannot imagine what her theology is. I just can’t.”
But there is more at stake here than the recognition of a sharp-tongued do-gooder slaying the dragons of poverty. During the past decade, Los Angeles has become the capital of homelessness in the United States, with estimates hovering between 100,000 and 160,000. Although Skid Row may be considered an enclave of the homeless, with a population of about 11,000, including the largest concentration of mentally ill residents in the county, Callaghan prefers to think of it as an “endangered low-income residential community.” At least 75% of that community suffers from mental disorders or drug and alcohol abuse, sometimes both. On any given night, 8,000 men and women live in the SROs, and 2,000 spend the night in the emergency beds and chairs provided by half a dozen missions and shelters; 1,000 people sleep on the sidewalks and in back alleys.
At the same time, Skid Row--or Central City East, as the 326 acres on the east side of downtown are called--remains the last undeveloped chunk of downtown real estate. As Little Tokyo commercial interests encroach on the area, determining how the fish-processing, toy-manufacturing and cold-storage industries can coexist with the low-income residents is a political hot potato. Many have begun to wonder how these two pieces of a schizophrenic puzzle will fit together. Alice Callaghan may well be part of the answer.
CALLAGHAN CAME TO SKID ROW IN 1981. SHE WAS 34 AND HAD SPENT THE previous eight years in Pasadena running a community center called Union Station, through All Saints Episcopal Church. Now, 10 years later, she is, if anything, more determined to make a difference in the 55 square blocks bordered by Main and Alameda streets and between 3rd and 7th streets--one of the nation’s most devastated, drug-ridden inner-city neighborhoods.
Here there exists a violent poverty beyond what Americans have previously defined as poverty. Part of the problem is crack cocaine, part is social indifference. One of the first questions people asked me when I arrived was where I parked my car--tailpipes are often hacked off and used as crack pipes. The crime rate in the area is the highest in the city. If a new web of support can take hold here, it can be woven anywhere.
“You can always do something,” Callaghan says in a voice so strong and resonant it’s hard not to believe her. “We’ve done more to clean up the neighborhood by providing safe housing than any other city agency. We can buy up the hotels. We can save housing for 8,000 people. There’s no question, we can do it.”
We are walking on the northern edge of Skid Row, between 3rd and 4th, next to a huge building, Little Tokyo Investment. Callaghan is looking for Shorty, a prostitute who just got out of jail. When they last spoke by phone, the prostitute asked the priest for a cake in honor of her getting out of jail and off the streets. Callaghan has obliged by buying a big, white sheet cake from Vickman’s with gloppy, red flowers and the words, “Welcome Home.” She stops to ask anyone she passes if they’ve seen Shorty.
Although she wants to encourage Shorty to stay off the streets, Callaghan doesn’t expect much. “People on the row aren’t going anywhere,” she says, sounding a common refrain. “There isn’t anywhere for them to go. They’re not the working poor, and they won’t be. They’re much more marginalized. They’re truly the poorest of the city. And they’re accorded almost no respect by anyone.
“People always want to ferret out the deserving poor as opposed to the undeserving poor. It’s a constant debate.” She is not naive about the harshness of life on the row: “There are plenty of people on the sidewalk that would just as soon knife you as ask you to move out of the way.”
As she passes the hustlers and their hangers-on and the street encampments of the homeless, she is like a walking encyclopedia of the neighborhood. She exudes a no-nonsense, almost brusque manner, perhaps an armor she’s developed to survive on Skid Row. “The homeless are disproportionately black because 10,000 housing units were lost last year in South-Central L.A.,” she says. “People say the welfare system is teaching people to depend on it. But we are culpable in our ignorance.” Her attitude about the homeless is simple: Until you can offer people a reasonable place to go, you cannot order them off the sidewalk.
She stops for a moment. “Look at,” she says, pointing to the New Otani Hotel, City Hall in the distance, the Ronald Reagan State Office building. “The crunch on our borders is incredible.” She is hostile to anything that brings in the “uptowners,” who, she says, are the “big complainers” about Skid Row residents. Taking in this snapshot of skyscrapers and commercial development, I wonder aloud if it isn’t just a matter of time until Skid Row is squeezed out by economic interests. “Nope,” she replies, folding her arms across her chest and smiling broadly, “ ‘cause we’re gonna own it.
“That is exactly what we’re about. Over the next five years, we’re literally trying to save every single hotel on Skid Row. Build new ones.
“It will be the first time in the history of the United States anyone has saved a Skid Row. New York didn’t save its Bowery in time, and now they’re sleeping more than 1,000 people in the armories. And they can’t get people out of the armories because they tore down the housing people could have moved to.
“Now, we have an opportunity to stop that from happening in Los Angeles.”
AT FIRST, WHEN CALLAGHAN OPENED HER STOREFRONT EMERGENCY CENTER, Las Familias del Pueblo, she oversaw the relocation of 400 newly arrived immigrant families out of Skid Row, an accomplishment that many city leaders believe helped prevent the creation of a new slum population. Callaghan mostly credits her loyal cadre of pro bono attorneys, who threatened legal action against hotel owners if they continued to rent to more than one person per room. In fact, her most potent weapon seems to be her prestigious army of volunteer lawyers and corporate executives --Ron L. Olson of Munger, Tolles & Olson, Robert E. Carlson of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Arthur Alarcon, Robert B. Egelston, chairman of the Capital Group--who are also on her board of directors. “All of us have been caught in Alice’s web and never been released,” Warren L. Ettinger of Hufstedler, Kaus & Ettinger says with much affection.
Part of Callaghan’s strategy has meant getting the city attorney’s office to enforce its laws prohibiting slum conditions. “Except for nonprofits, SRO owners--without exception--are slumlords,” explains Nancy Mintie, director of the Inner-City Law Center downtown. “Their buildings are in a shocking state of disrepair.” Just that day, Mintie had been dealing with a building so overrun with cockroaches that the bugs were crawling in children’s ears and had to be surgically removed.
Stephanie Sautner, supervisor of the city attorney’s Slum Housing Task Force uses the words of an old Jefferson Airplane song to explain her office’s relationship with Callaghan. “Go ask Alice--that’s our motto around here,” she says, laughing.
Sautner, a former New York City police detective, first met Callaghan about six years ago, when she was responsible for a building on Skid Row at 6th and Towne. “We had a health inspector who was a problem,” she recalls. “He’s since been fired. He was found to be doing business with defendants owning property.
“At the time, the inspector reported repairs were made. Then I got a call from somebody named Alice Callaghan about this building. I said that building’s been fixed. She said, ‘No way. This building’s a mess.’ Then I got calls from Alice’s lawyers. They said, ‘This building is a mess.’ I said, ‘My inspector tells me otherwise. But I’ll meet you out there.’
“I toured the building from top to bottom. I had seen a lot of slums in New York. I didn’t really believe L.A. buildings were as bad as New York buildings until I went into the Simone Hotel. We got the building shut down; Alice paid to relocate all the families. Then, through my prosecution of the owner, I got her reimbursed.”
It was a fateful first meeting. As the city attorney’s office continued to condemn buildings in the area, they were so devalued Callaghan eventually could afford to buy and then renovate them. For years, however, Callaghan resisted getting into the housing business. But she saw that the more families she relocated, the more hotels were lost. Hotel owners, rather than spending money to bring their buildings into compliance with new earthquake safety codes, demolished them and put in parking lots. Between 1969 and 1986, about 2,300 units were destroyed.
The conflict between upscale developers and advocates for low-income housing escalated. By 1986, Callaghan and other service providers were growing increasingly concerned about the CRA’s interest in promoting more commercial growth; it was backing off from its policy of saving and expanding Skid Row hotels. A 1976 Blue Ribbon Mayor’s Committee report that became part of the downtown redevelopment plan called for the creation of a safe residential area on Skid Row. But CRA board members were siding with business interests, wanting to disperse the Skid Row population.
Convinced that the only way to save the housing was to make an end run around City Hall, Callaghan hooked up with Jill Halverson, then director of the Downtown Women’s Center. Together, they lobbied Mayor Bradley to bring in outside consultants who might pressure the CRA to do more. Their gamble paid off. The result was a widely publicized 1987 report by a panel of the Urban Land Institute, a prestigious Washington, D.C.-based research organization, that favored preserving SROs and developing low-cost housing. The pressure was on.
Halverson and Callaghan, believing that suburban churches and synagogues had a stake in caring for Skid Row residents, in 1988 persuaded a group of parishioners from All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and Leo Baeck Temple in Bel-Air to incorporate and create an organization dedicated to saving Skid Row. The Church and Temple Housing Corp. became Callaghan’s organizational base from which to proceed. But the real cornerstone of her campaign was laid in 1989. Having recruited the help of a young attorney named Patricia Friedel, then an associate at O’Melveny & Myers, Callaghan lobbied City Hall for an ordinance prohibiting SRO demolitions or conversions for five years. A similar moratorium in New York had been overturned by a state appellate court because it prevented private owners from determining the use of their property, so Friedel was careful to draft the L.A. ordinance to sidestep constitutional challenges.
Callaghan relishes retelling the backroom strategy of that victory. “What really got it through was that the businesses were so preoccupied with the move of the Union Rescue Mission that nobody was paying attention to what we were doing,” she says. “But we also needed a unanimous vote. Getting (the late City Councilman) Gil Lindsay’s vote--he was always supportive of the business interests--was tricky.
“Well, the mayor’s office was great. They said, ‘When Lindsay gets to council, call us and we’ll tell him to vote for it.’ Just as the vote came up, Lindsay wandered in. If you’re in the room but don’t vote, your vote counts as a yes. So, everyone got him on the phone with the mayor about the issue at the exact moment the vote came up. He was recorded as a yes--and that’s how we got the demolition moratorium.
“It was a fluke. A pure fluke--a combination of hard work and incredible luck.”
Still, Callaghan was growing increasingly critical of the redevelopment agency. Although the agency’s SRO Housing Corp. was buying up properties, delays in renovating them created the added irony of hotels standing vacant as the numbers of homeless people swelled.
“Their expectation was they would save all the hotels,” Callaghan says of the SRO Housing Corp., headed by Andy Raubeson. “But they were saving two a year and at that rate, we were going to lose them.” She formed the Skid Row Housing Trust and hired Candy Rupp, Santa Monica’s housing program manager, who secured financing for SROs from a variety of lenders--the CRA, the state and corporations that receive a tax break in return for their investments. And with financing from ARCO, Callaghan put together a slick videotape documenting her need for corporate support.
But there have been setbacks, too. Callaghan’s romance with the Church and Temple Housing Corp. was punctured last year when it withdrew as a managing partner of two of her hotels. Although Callaghan maintains that her board decided that the group lacked the sophistication necessary to manage the minutiae of running hotels, others say that the problem had more to do with a clash of egos between Callaghan and George F. Regas, rector of All Saints.
In either case, the schism occurred after Callaghan alienated her longtime friend and colleague, Bill Doulos, associate for urban ministry at All Saints, who had moved into the Genesis Hotel as a manager. While Doulos insisted that the tenants should be responsible for the upkeep of their building, Callaghan determined otherwise. Days before a group of potential hotel funders were to tour the hotel, Callaghan decided that the place was a mess. Not only did she begin painting the hotel, but she also got down on her hands and knees to scrub the floors. The episode was repeated before a visit by key lenders at another hotel, when, hours before their arrival, Callaghan was shoving a mop and bucket into a closet.
The lowest moment came at a meeting between the Church and Temple Housing board and Callaghan’s Skid Row Housing Trust. Callaghan’s very being seemed under attack. She was criticized for her insensitivity to the work of parishioners, for her ego, for being too headstrong, for her derisive comments about “uptowners” serving potluck dinners. Others suggested that her zeal to buy up properties was blinding her to the needs of the very people for whom she was working. She promptly resigned from the Pasadena church and transferred her membership to All Saints’ Beverly Hills.
Callaghan’s mission to save the Skid Row hotels was turning into a Pyrrhic victory. “What is at work is not just Alice’s commitment,” Regas says in a telephone interview. “A deeper part of it is Alice’s strong, unyielding, uncompromising self that is both her strength and her weakness. What is also at work is two people (Doulos and Regas) who loved her--and do love her--more than anybody around.”
Asked if a rapprochement is possible, Callaghan replies: “I’m still too mad.”
WE ARE SITTING IN THE CALIFORNIA Pizza Kitchen on South Hope Street in the Wells Fargo Bank Building. Callaghan is trying to keep the conversation on issues, issues, issues. Personal questions make her squirm, roll her eyes, hunch over her pasta. Her closest friends say she’s not the kind of person who’s interested in heart-to-hearts.
This has always been the ruling paradox of Callaghan’s darkened psyche, the fierce vision when she looks at the world around her, the most timid vision when she is forced to look at herself. As if to give me insight about her, she loans me a favorite book, “I Give You My Word,” by the French journalist Francoise Giroud. It reads: “Childhood is something so close, so special . . . . It’s something you ought to keep to yourself. The way you keep back tears.”
The third of four children, Alice Dale Callaghan was born in Canada and moved to Newport Beach when she was 10. Her father, who is deaf and now retired, was an engineer. When she speaks of her early years, it is with great reserve and some disdain, especially for her teen-age years. “I had a hard adolescence,” she says. “I hit it at 11, stayed enraged for years.” Her mother, Olga, concurs. “Anything that had the slightest bit of danger she loved,” she says by phone from her home in Greenville, Calif.
Callaghan says she first decided to become a nun in sixth grade as she walked out of church. It wasn’t an epiphany that called her so much as a vague desire “to do this commitment thing.” A good student, she became bored easily and was suspended from Newport Harbor High School for not going to class or not doing her homework. She surfed instead and read Nietzsche.
Following the lead of her parents, who are conservative Republicans, Callaghan became a staunch Goldwater supporter. “Then I developed a mind of my own,” she says caustically. “My home life was a bad influence.” After other high schools expelled her, she ended up graduating from Cornelia Connelly High School, a Catholic school in Anaheim and one of the few schools in the area that would have her.
Her first day in a habit was sort of like “Gidget Goes to the Convent.” Callaghan surfed in the morning in her bikini and drove in the family station wagon to the convent in Pasadena, sunburned. The drive to the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, a teaching order in Pasadena, was a memorable one. “My father felt it probably would be much better if I would just jump off a cliff,” she says.
Ten years later, when it came time to make her final vows, she opted not to be a nun. Why? “I didn’t want to live the vow of celibacy,” she says.
Had she fallen in love? “It was an attraction but not an involvement, " she says. “It made me realize I wanted that possibility.”
Having worked as a nun at All Saint’s anti-war center, Callaghan chose to become ordained in the Episcopal Church, a process that requires a master’s in theology. She headed off to Claremont School of Theology. She flirted with the idea of becoming a lawyer, but after her first year at USC Law School, the dean asked her to leave because she wasn’t attending classes.
In 1981, to protest atrocities in El Salvador, she interrupted a speech by the ambassador to El Salvador at a World Affairs Council luncheon by silently unfurling a huge photograph of the bloodshed there. But Episcopal bishop Robert Rusack, who was also in the audience and a member of the council’s board, was not amused. He promptly sent her to London, where Callaghan hooked up with a radical priest working with the homeless. When she returned to Los Angeles six months later, she applied her newfound knowledge to Skid Row after her friend Jeff Dietrich, who runs the Catholic Worker soup kitchen, suggested she work with the families there.
Callaghan’s hatred of indulgence has always been an important element of her appeal and is a big part of her current image. Many of her admirers comment, for example, that she doesn’t have a bed in her small South Pasadena apartment. At times her asceticism has assumed the level of caricature. When she was awarded an honorary plaque from city leaders, it was inscribed to Callaghan “with her sneakers on.”
Though it is true that Callaghan lives a Spartan existence--she earns a paltry $26,400 a year, a sum that her board members say they have to force on her--there are tears in the scrim. True, she sleeps on a futon, which she rolls up every day. But she buys her clothes at Robinson’s, not Kmart, and she lives off of Trader Joe’s take-out department. Friends tell of her love for fine restaurants, wine and travel to weird places. One of her favorite vacation spots, for example, is South Yemen. As for Sundays, these days she’s hiking in the hills, not sitting in church.
IT’S 6:30 A.M. WHEN CALLAGHAN swings her red Volvo station wagon into her parking space across from the bus terminal and behind the Chinese take-out restaurant. She unlocks the front gate, then rushes beneath the red awnings, past a Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe poster with little Christmas lights attached, into her office at Las Familias to check her fax machine and catch up on some paper work.
As she defies City Hall, so Callaghan’s environs defy the grotesque realities of the streets outside. Her storefront center looks like a suburban day-care center, with its play equipment and tables covered with puzzles and crayons . But there are also sewing machines for job-training classes, a large blackboard for English classes, a makeshift area where legal-aid lawyers can counsel garment workers and, on the other side of the room, there is Callaghan’s “office"--a black-topped desk and swivel stool, a phone, a fax machine and a cappuccino maker.
During her 14-hour workday, Callaghan devotes much of her time to the children of garment workers. “We don’t do day care,” she says. “We do riot control.” Never married and childless, Callaghan says she has no regrets about not having children of her own. “I couldn’t do what I do now and have kids,” she says. “Knowing as many kids as I do, I’m better as an aunt. Every mothering instinct I ever had has been worked out of me.”
Just the same, it becomes clear that Callaghan’s work life has a decidedly domestic flavor. “Oh, no!” she moans a few hours later as a band of 4-year-olds flicks on a cassette tape of Christmas music. “Not Christmas music again! Anything but Christmas music!”
Within a span of five minutes, she ties a Ninja Turtle mask around a 4-year-old’s face, wipes another child’s nose, disciplines one for slamming his buddy in the head, comforts an overtired 3-year-old and lays her down for a nap on a blue mat beneath her desk, and returns a phone call from Councilwoman Ruth Galanter while a gaggle of 5-year-old girls beside her sings and dances to a song in Spanish called “Chindolele.” With each chorus, they shake their hips, wave their arms in the air and wag their behinds.
The cacophony of squealing, crying, screaming children seems to propel Callaghan and even to delight her, as she tends to business on the telephone, sipping coffee and swiveling here and there on her stool. “Hey. Hey, cut it out!” she yells at two boys fighting over a toy. “Kill that child,” she mutters to her staff person, Nancy Berlin.
A familial bond is also apparent with the street people who filter in and out of the center to check their mail, drink a glass of water, use the phone or bathroom. There’s the schizophrenic woman with the Band-Aid atop her hair. “She’s always going out on job interviews,” Callaghan says, adding that the Band-Aid changes locations daily. Patricia, who washes windows and does some prostituting to get by, is also here to nap on the couch; she’s been up for four days, afraid to sleep on the street because people steal her belongings. And a woman emaciated from AIDS looks for an apple to eat.
Rebecca, a crack addict, comes in for a cup of beef stew. Both of Rebecca’s children, who have been taken away from her, were born withdrawing from drugs. Why does she stay here, living on the streets? “It’s cheap,” she says. “It’s about the only family I got.”
Drug and alcohol addiction are the worst problems of Skid Row, Callaghan says, but there’s not a single drug program in the neighborhood. “Until and unless we provide a safe and clean place for people to live,” she says, sounding her housing drumbeat, “we can’t deal with other programs.”
Callaghan’s motherly control is also evident in her fierce refusal to acknowledge the concerns of the area’s business interests, who formed the Central City East Assn. in 1985. The CCEA, in opposing additional housing and services for the area’s “undesirable element” and arguing that it already has its “fair share” of low-income residents, became an ogre that has served her well ever since. Her standard tactic is to stay polarized to keep her own agenda focused.
“We’re just looking for a way to coexist so everybody gets something and no one gets everything,” says CCEA president Charles Woo, owner of ABC Toys. “Alice’s vision--a ghetto concept--might be beneficial for most people but would demolish any business and economic development and would provide a place that offers no hope for people.”
Callaghan’s eyes flash fire. “Is Charlie Woo willing to help us move an SRO next to his house?” she asks. “Of course he’s not. In an ideal world, these people wouldn’t be living here like this. They’d be taken care of by family. They’d be taken care of by government. But they’re not.
“All I can do is work with what we have, and, realistically, the only option is to save the housing. If we lose the housing, the sidewalks are the only other place they’re going to be. Charlie Woo and others came to Skid Row because of cheap rents. And why were the rents cheap? Because it’s Skid Row. I’m not sympathetic to their complaints. If they don’t like it, go away.”
Kids are trailing her out the door like baby chicks as she escorts me to the play area outside. The kids run up, dozens of them reaching for her, grabbing, hugging her. She insists on walking me out to my car. She wants to make sure I get there safely.
A FEW DAYS LATER, CALLAGHAN, marching with her characteristic fast pace, leads me upstairs in the Senator Hotel, a dilapidated four-story brick building with broken windows at 726 S. Spring St. Technically, this is not part of Skid Row, but Callaghan is interested in scooping up properties that border it. Her Skid Row Housing Trust is in escrow on this hotel, which she plans to gut and remodel.
“This is the one where they dragged out a body this morning,” she cautions me. In fact, I later learn that the rundown hotel has been visited by police 87 times this year, with two homicides and one attempted murder. In September, a Los Angeles Superior Court fined the hotel’s owner, Young Kim of Hollywood, $24,000 after he pleaded no contest to eight violations of fire, health, building and safety codes, including cockroach infestation, crumbling plaster, broken plumbing and no heat. An injunction forbidding the owner to permit prostitution in the building was also issued.
Inside, it is dark and scary--room after room is boarded up with plywood. “People,” Callaghan says, sounding disgusted, “are living here.” The lights in the hallway do not work, the carpeting smells like urine. Up on the third floor, she stops to point out the bathroom, its sinks stuffed with toilet paper, its shower plugged up and its floors mired in excrement.
In the stairwell, two men and a woman are so zonked out on drugs that they barely notice us walking by. In one room, a man naps in a chair with the door wide open. Painted in large black letters on the wall behind him is “Smokey, I Love You.”
She begins to walk up to the fourth floor. “Don’t go up there,” a resident cautions her. “It’s too dangerous.”
But she trudges on. Callaghan has come here to drum up a little business--to tell the remaining tenants of this 90-room hotel that they can move into the Genesis, one of her hotels, which looks like a small college dorm, on Main Street.
She knocks on a door. No answer. Then another. And another. Finally, she knocks on one and an 84-year-old man named John Haggard opens the door. She introduces herself, and he invites her in.
Despite the squalor outside, Haggard has kept his little room in tidy condition: a bookshelf, TV, chair, bed and rusted sink are his home. But reality intrudes. “See that mouse there,” he says, pointing to a dead mouse he’s trapped in the corner. “I caught that yesterday. My ninth mouse.”
Callaghan tells him about a vacancy at the Genesis Hotel, about how he’d be eligible for moving benefits.
“I want to know what relocation benefits are,” he says. “I’ve been here five years.” He says he’s had no heat, that the bathroom doesn’t work, that the violence in the neighborhood is terrifying--he’s been attacked 23 times. But he feels lucky that the landlord hasn’t raised his rent in the past year. He pays $160 a month.
The following morning, Callaghan picks him up in front of the Senator and takes him over to the Genesis. Within a month, he has moved into his new room there. When I visit him at his new digs, he greets me at the door, wearing slippers and a tie, and offers a cigarette. A former chef and maintenance man, he’s stayed in downtown hotels since 1942 and now lives off Social Security and a union pension. Above his bed he’s hung a small net and several detailed drawings of fish he’s watercolored. He has no complaints about the Genesis, except that his light bulb got so dirty that he couldn’t read. Asked if he has family, he replies, “Yes, but I don’t know where they are.”
THE BATTLE LINES IN CALLAGHAN’S fight for housing are not simply drawn, especially among Skid Row service providers who vie with her for money, political access and public recognition. But it is more than petty jealousies and the requisite internal bickering that feeds their ire.
“Alice has made a lot of people uncomfortable with business as usual on Skid Row,” says Mintie of the Inner-City Law Center. “She’s always questioning and challenging to see if there’s a better way, a more just way. She’s raised a lot of hard questions for all of us. In a way, she acts like a conscience.”
Acting like a conscience, however, requires distinguishing between right and wrong and seeing the world in terms of black and white, friend or foe. Many accuse her of oversimplifying a range of issues by wearing a mantle of moral superiority as she bangs her housing drum and ignores the need for other social services.
“It sounds sexy, it sounds ideal--if we build enough housing the people of Skid Row will be off the streets,” says Mike Neely, director of the Homeless Outreach Program. “But that’s bullshit. No drug addict will stay in an SRO. You cannot pay the dope man and the landlord at the same time. Something gets screwed up in the translation.” Callaghan counters that housing is only the first step that will enable other services to take root.
But when Alice Callaghan became a Christian zealot with a mission to change the world, she didn’t also become an easy person to get along with. A very effective activist with an unswerving devotion and drive, certainly, but on a personal level, many say she can be selfish, pushy, aloof, power-hungry and sometimes downright mean to those who oppose her agenda. Feelings have been hurt along the way.
Says Martha Brown Hicks, who runs Transition House on Skid Row: “I think she does good work, but I also think she’s a witch. She’s not a nice lady.” Adds Andy Raubeson: “I have felt Alice adopted the attitude that for them to grow, they have to tear us down. I’ve just never understood the degree of animosity I’ve felt directed against me by Alice.”
Some of the conflict is purely ideological. Hicks, for example, believes that homelessness shouldn’t be concentrated in the neighborhood, that Skid Row is a place to leave, not to preserve. Callaghan, on the other hand, views Skid Row as a community of last resort. She is filled with righteous venom for those who want to impose a “bootstrap ethic” on its population and has nothing but sarcasm for anyone trying to “transition” people out of the area.
Callaghan is also vociferous in her criticism of local missions for their “pimping of children” to raise money. She has a strict policy that prohibits families of the children she works with from being referred to social services on Skid Row. “We will put them on the bus and send them to East L.A. for something (medical services, counseling) that might exist a block from us, but we won’t send a woman and child walking through Skid Row. It’s just too dangerous.”
She goes on: “There are very few families left on the row, but there’s a popular perception that there are thousands of children on Skid Row. And that is fueled in large part by some of the service agencies on the row, principally the missions. At holiday times, they invite the press to film the thousands of Skid Row families they’re serving.
“But on the day of any of those events, I stand on 7th Street and watch all these families exiting the row after the event. They get on the buses and drive their cars out. It’s called pimping your children. It’s easier to raise money if you serve children. So people want to serve children. And it’s a constant battle to stop the missions from housing homeless women and children on Skid Row.
“If you want to house homeless families, I tell people to do it a block off the row or six blocks off the row. Anywhere but on the row.”
Callaghan is equally forceful about SRO economics: No rent, no room. As she redefines her role as landlord, she has admittedly become a hardhearted businesswoman. Evictions are now a part of her life.
“People a month behind in paying rent we can’t make excuses for,” she says. “We’re not a shelter. We need money for operational costs.”
She softens. “We can work with people up to a certain point. Everything depends on why they didn’t pay the rent. Sometimes I’ll even give ‘em the money myself. But if someone has received three relief checks and hasn’t paid in three months--they’re out.”
Although she says she’ll rent to drug dealers and prostitutes, she won’t allow them to ply their trades at her hotels. Not surprisingly, Callaghan has had her share of management difficulties. At the Pershing Hotel, which has gone through five managers, tenants have gotten a restraining order against the current manager for racial epithets. Until recently, the hotel manager kept a list of tenants late with their rent posted in the lobby--a practice one tenant described as “a Gestapo approach” that has led to the formation of a tenants association.
“Management,” Callaghan says, “is hell.”
WHY CALLAGHAN DOES WHAT she does is a question she has difficulty with. On one day, she’ll say she goes to work to be with the people she wants to be with, that it’s her neighborhood more than the one she lives in. On another day, when pushed, she’ll point to her radical Christian beliefs.
“That a guy could come in drunk and pull a knife on me and be welcome back the next day is what it’s about,” she says. “By experiencing forgiveness on a human level, maybe they’ll believe it on another level. If they can believe human beings can be that forgiving, maybe they can believe what they learned long ago, that God is a loving God and forgiving.
“But how can you believe that if no one cares if you have a glass of water or a bathroom to use?” She grows self-conscious, worried that she sounds corny or self-serving. “Just don’t make it sound like a Hallmark card.”
Her friend Robert Wycoff offers something else. “Every now and then she tells me she’d love to drive off and just forget the whole thing. But I don’t think she really means it. I think she’d go crazy if she weren’t doing something like that. She seems to thrive on turmoil and adversity.”
For now, the future of Skid Row lies in a sort of political vacuum. Much depends on how Councilwoman Rita Walters, whose 9th District includes Skid Row, will oversee it since taking over for Gilbert Lindsay, who championed economic growth. In recent weeks, Walters has been conferring with city planners about Skid Row, trying to chart its course. Will the area be rezoned to allow for more housing, as Callaghan would like? Or will the Skid Row population be dispersed throughout the city?
As she waits for a direction to unfold, Callaghan is gearing up for her next political battle--installing portable toilets on every street corner. There is also the issue of working conditions for garment workers, whom she is trying to make aware of their rights by passing out leaflets at job sites.
But acquiring and financing more hotels is highest on her agenda. Whether the housing tax credit will survive in Congress this year, whether the state bond measure on next year’s ballot will be approved (voters rejected the last bond measure for low-income housing), whether the CRA will continue to support her efforts--she worries about it all.
“Our biggest obstacles are ahead of us,” she says, “not behind us.”