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Bold Beacon of Hope : Hollywood’s New Covenant House Offers Alternative for Homeless Youth While Avoiding the Look of an Institution

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The grim message spray-painted on a crumbling brick wall beside the new Covenant House hostel for homeless youths in Hollywood says it all: “Life on the Streets Is a Dead End.”

For the estimated 4,000 young people who struggle to survive in Hollywood’s alleys, sidewalks and abandoned buildings, this sad sentence is, if anything, an understatement.

Most have been sexually, physically and emotionally abused. Many have been forced into prostitution to feed themselves and buy the drugs that dull the terror of life on the street. A sizable minority are HIV positive.

The new Covenant House shelter, at the intersection of Western and Fountain avenues serves a particularly vulnerable segment of Hollywood’s homeless youths, those between 18 and 20.

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This group tends to fall between the cracks of the public social service system because, at 18, young people are generally no longer eligible for juvenile programs and adult services deal with those who are 21 and older.

Covenant House, an international youth service organization with facilities in New York, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, New Orleans and Anchorage as well as Canada and Central America, has operated an outreach program for homeless youths in Hollywood from a temporary shelter on Sunset Boulevard since 1988. The new building provides a permanent center to serve this needy population.

Designed by Meyer & Allen Associates, Covenant House is a vivid presence in a jumbled area of decaying apartment blocks beside the sunken ravine of the Hollywood Freeway. Bold and brilliant, its style is intended to lift the spirits of the homeless young people it shelters without any suggestion that they are being sucked into an institution.

Meyer & Allen specialize in public buildings, such as the new headquarters for the Air Quality Management District in Diamond Bar, and large-scale planning projects, such as the long-range development plan for Caltech in Pasadena and the urban design plan for the proposed development of Central City West, the area west of the Harbor Freeway adjacent to downtown.

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Painted in bright reds, yellows, purples and turquoise, Covenant House’s two-story compound features crisp roof profiles and strong, uncluttered walls in a modern version of the old California missions, influenced by the work of famed Mexican architect Luis Barragan.

Altogether, the building is a beacon conveying an image of shelter in a desolate city landscape. Its true sophistication consists in not allowing the architecture to be so clever and stylish that it distracts from the building’s humane function. “The central imagery is to do with the concept of sanctuary,” said architect Clifton Allen. “The high walls promise endangered kids security from the surrounding chaos, and the strong colors call to them out of the urban wilderness. Our aim is to avoid any notion that the place is a boot camp for lost souls.”

The complex is being built in two phases. The $2.4-million Phase One, recently completed, will be expanded by the larger second phase in a year’s time, for a total cost of $5.6 million. The building is now entered off Fountain Avenue, but when completed, the main entrance will open onto Western. The entry on Fountain is a gated gap in a high wall, but a gap that allows Covenant House’s beleaguered teen-agers--referred to as “young clients"--to see through into the intimate and welcoming interior.

Like the old California missions, the complex is planned around a series of internal courtyards that recall monastic cloisters. The entry court, copiously planted and open to the sky, is flanked by two wings. On the first floor of both wings are the reception room, offices for staff and visiting social workers, health clinic, dining room and kitchen.

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The second floor is occupied by 12 bedrooms accommodating 42 young men and women in separate quarters, plus communal living rooms. Beyond a free-standing elevator shaft painted bright yellow is a wide colonnaded courtyard that can be used for a range of activities, from basketball to public meetings. A small open-air chapel/performance space with wooden benches forms the northern boundary.

Phase Two will open off the east wall of the basketball court. When completed, Phase Two will add 24 more beds, plus a larger health clinic, counseling offices and multipurpose lounge. Its entrance on Western Avenue, shaped like a section of a barrel set on the slope, will become the main gateway to entice teen-agers into the shelter.

According to executive director Fred Ali, Covenant House’s site was chosen because it was close to Hollywood and Sunset boulevards, distant enough to remove them from the worst of the street scene.

“This place is connected to the street scene but distant enough to get the kids away from the worst of it,” he said. Another advantage of the location is the proximity of other youth service providers, including the Children’s Hospital and the Boys and Girls Club.

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Covenant House takes in any youngster between 18 and 20 who comes in off the street, except for those who are high on drugs or otherwise intoxicated, and the ones who are too threatening or aggressive.

Although the shelter does not now accommodate women with babies, it has been designed to do so in the future. The young clients are served by two main programs--"crisis care” and “transitional living.” The crisis care program allows young people to stay for 21 days while receiving health services, psychological assessment, substance abuse counseling and HIV testing.

The primary aim of crisis care is to help young people back on their feet and return them to the homes from which they’ve run away, for one reason or another. If they can’t or won’t return home, the Covenant House clients are placed in drug rehabilitation facilities, residential vocational training programs or are moved into Covenant House’s transitional living quarters.

In the transitional living program, young men and women may stay in Covenant House for up to a year while they finish school or work at a job and learn the necessary “life skills.”

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Called “Rights of Passage,” the program accommodates the young people in a communal setting while building up the confidence they need to survive on their own in the outside world.

During this confidence-building period, the residents live in airy, high-ceilinged bedrooms, each accommodating four people. Along one wall are two tiers of bunk beds with red steel frames. Along the opposite wall are built-in cupboards painted a deep blue. Clerestory windows provide natural cross-ventilation even on the hottest days.

The same bright colors and strong shapes pervade Covenant House’s public rooms. Glass walls give the interior spaces an open, cheerful aspect and movable partitions allow these rooms to be divided or enlarged as needed. The openness removes any hint of an institution while discreetly aiding the staff in overseeing the occupants.

“This place really helps people out,” said John Kennedy, a 19-year-old who’s spent two months in Covenant House. “Sure, you have to keep the rules and such, but that’s good discipline.” A former resident named Joey, also 19, put it more graphically: “If it wasn’t for Covenant House, I’d probably be dead.”

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Whiteson writes on architecture for The Times.


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