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For the Love of a Child, a Man Is Saved : Recovery: A Skid Row addict turns his life around to keep his daughter.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s not really very far from the filthy, seemingly hopeless sidewalks of Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles to the neat, one-bedroom apartment on Atlantic Avenue in Compton--only about 12 miles. But there was a time not so long ago when Orlando Lee figured it might as well be a million.

He was living on the streets then, sleeping in a cardboard condo and planning no further ahead than his next bowl of crack, his next bottle of cheap fortified wine. After eight years on the Row, he had become one of those apparently hopeless cases, the kind you have to step over when you’re walking down Main Street.

Orlando Lee had pretty much given himself up for dead.

What saved him was the love of a little girl--his love for her and her love for him--and a tough, no-nonsense “restoration and re-entry” program run by a Lynwood church.

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Now, two years after he picked himself up from a Skid Row sidewalk for the last time, Lee once again has a job, a home and a future. And, in what social services workers acknowledge is a startling accomplishment for a man with his background, he recently was awarded sole custody of his 3-year-old daughter, Danielle, who was born into the squalor of Skid Row.

“If it hadn’t been for my daughter, I’d probably still be down there,” says Lee, 36, who spent months in parenting and literacy classes to win his child back. “She’s the reason I turned around. Now I’m sitting in my house--a real house, not a cardboard house--and I’ve got a job, and I’m watching my daughter grow up. It’s a joyful thing.”

“Mr. Lee has accomplished what he has through a lot of guts and effort,” says Jeff Murphy, an L.A. County Department of Children’s Services social worker who has monitored Lee’sefforts to gain custody of his daughter. “Unfortunately, we don’t see enough success stories like this. What he’s done should be an inspiration to a lot of people.”

“We’re very proud of him,” says Pastor John Hopkins of the Truevine of Lynwood Missionary Baptist Church, which operates the program that helped Lee. “He’s an example of what can be accomplished with men like him.”

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An L.A. native, Lee grew up in South-Central Los Angeles near 70th and Central. He dropped out of Fremont High School in the 12th grade, got married at 21, had two sons and was working as a food preparer for a catering company. But somehow things started going wrong.

“I was starting hanging out, drinking, smoking weed,” Lee remembers. “That was when crack started getting popular, and I started doing that. I was getting lazy, missing work, making excuses. I lost my catering company job, and got a part-time job as a cook at a child-care center on 75th Street. But I lost that job, too. I left my home and my wife and my kids. I was going down, down. People in the neighborhood were talking bad about me, talking me down. Then this friend of mine said, ‘Hey, let’s go Downtown.’ I wanted to go, ‘cause Downtown nobody cares what you look like, or what you wear, or what you do.”

That was in 1984. Lee would spend the next eight years on the Row, picking up a little money unloading trucks in the warehouse district or working in a liquor store, but mostly living on his county general relief check--at the time a little more than $300 a month.

He met a young woman, and started living with her--and using drugs and drinking with her. When she got pregnant, he says, she quit drugs until Danielle was born on Sept. 10, 1990. He and the baby’s mother would pool their relief checks and get a room in a $9-a-night hotel for a week or so, but most of the money went for drugs. When the money ran out they’d be out on the streets with their baby, living in a cardboard box.

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Nobody knows for sure how many children live on Skid Row. But Liz Mooradian, a spokeswoman for the Union Rescue Mission in Downtown, says the problem is growing, and notes that her mission alone provides services--food, clothing, diapers, baby food--to about 700 women and children a month.

Living on the streets with a new baby and readily available drugs and alcohol did not make for a stable relationship between Lee and the baby’s mother. There were arguments and fights, and Lee did some jail time for spousal abuse--six months one time, three months another. The baby was often dropped off at her maternal grandmother’s house for days or weeks while Lee and the baby’s mother got high.

One day several years ago, a friend of Lee nicknamed Crazy Charlie told him about the Truevine church in Lynwood, which was operating a feeding program for Skid Row down-and-outers. Every Sunday the church bus would make a run to Skid Row and bring a full bus back for a sermon and a hot meal.

“When Crazy Charlie said there was a meal in it, that got me,” Lee remembers. “I started coming down. I’d sit through the service, waiting for the meal, and then after the meal, it was like, ‘I’m full, take me back Downtown.’ ”

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Perhaps providentially, the Truevine church bus was there when Lee hit bottom. He remembers waking up on the sidewalk at the corner of Los Angeles and Winston streets after a binge on crack and cheap wine--dirty, hung over, feeling sick at heart and sick in body. It was November, 1991.

“I was at my rock bottom,” Lee says. “That was it. I knew I had to change my life or my life was going to be over. Then I saw the Truevine bus come by and I flagged it down and said, ‘I need help.’ ”

Since 1988 the Truevine church has operated a program called Truevine Community Outreach Transitional Program for Men, which puts alcohol- and drug-addicted men in a highly disciplined group home environment. Funded by grants and contributions, the program has two residential houses in Lynwood and Compton, each with space for six men. The rules are strict: out of bed at 6 a.m. sharp, working during the day at house chores or church-related tasks, no one allowed out of the house unaccompanied for the first 30 days, and so on. Residents agree to stay in the program for at least 180 days, undergoing job training and substance abuse, spiritual and psychological counseling.

In the past five years, about 40 men have gone through the program, Hopkins says. It’s a small program but an effective one.

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“We’re not a shelter, we’re a re-entry program,” says Hopkins. “A lot of men wind up just going to this shelter for so many days, then that shelter for so many days and so on. They get locked into that system. But we can give them training, help them build up their self-esteem. And when they leave the program every man has permanent housing. He doesn’t just go back on the street.”

Lee signed the papers agreeing to abide by the program rules and moved into one of the residence houses. He didn’t tell anyone on Skid Row where he was because he didn’t want to be embarrassed when he failed in the program. He simply assumed that he would fail. His years on the Row hadn’t prepared him for anything else.

“I had the shakes for two weeks,” Lee remembers. “But then after a couple of weeks in the home I wasn’t shaking any more. It was hard, but I stuck with it. I knew I had to stick with it.”

Lee’s daughter, Danielle, then about a year old, was at her grandmother’s house in Hollywood when Lee checked into the program. Her mother was still on Skid Row. Eventually the grandmother decided she couldn’t or wouldn’t care for the child; she turned Danielle over to the police. Lee and some church members picked Danielle up and she stayed with a parishioner for a month while Lee remained in the treatment program. But then the county Department of Children’s Services decided that Danielle would have to be placed in a foster home.

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“I sat down and cried when they took her,” Lee says. “I knew I hadn’t done right by her. I hadn’t been a good father, but I was trying to change. I was willing to do anything to keep my daughter.”

While Danielle stayed in a foster home in Compton, Lee went to court and asked what he would have to do to regain custody of his daughter. He would spend the next year meeting the conditions laid down by the court.

Assisted by a Compton social service agency called Equipoise Family Preservation Program, Lee began attending parenting classes, learning everything from the proper way to change a diaper to how to appropriately discipline a child. Today he proudly displays his certificates of completion. He also completed a literacy program run by the Truevine church, a necessary step in improving his job prospects. He now is able to read at high-school level.

“Whatever class they sent me to, I always tried to be at the top of it,” Lee says. “I felt like I had to be.”

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Meanwhile, Lee continued in the Truevine residence program, working as a cook and a house supervisor. He graduated from the recovery program in June, and eventually was able to find an affordable apartment in Compton.

Children’s Services brought Danielle to Lee’s home for a 60-day trial, with twice-weekly checks by Equipoise counselors to make sure he was taking care of her properly. Finally in September, Lee went to court again seeking full, permanent custody.

“The judge looked at my records and said, ‘I’m really proud of you,’ ” Lee says. “Imagine that, the judge was proud of me.”

Lee was awarded full custody of Danielle.

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“I was really impressed with the way he had turned his life around,” said Superior Court referee Armando V. Moreno, who served as judge in the matter.

Lee has a full-time job now at a cosmetics factory in Lynwood, but eventually he wants to become a chef. While he’s at work, Danielle goes to a day care center--where, the proud father says, “she’s at the head of her class.”

Lee has a few regrets, mostly about not being around to be a father to his two sons from his first marriage; he’s trying to re-establish his relationship with them.

For Orlando and Danielle Lee, the future looks bright. Although he knows it’s a never-ending journey, a day-by-day and step-by-step process, Lee knows that he has finally escaped the life he led on Skid Row.

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“When you’re down there gettin’ high you got no worries, no bills, no responsibilities,” Lee says. “Now I got all of those things--worries, responsibilities, bills.”

Lee smiles and says, “And I’m loving it.”


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