Long an institution at the corner of 4th and Los Angeles streets in downtown Los Angeles’ skid row, the 90-year-old Midnight Mission is preparing to build a new facility a few blocks from its current home in what will be the largest downtown homeless service project in a decade.
It also may be one of the last major expansions of social services in the downtown area because of rising real estate prices and a new determination by city officials to disperse such homeless programs throughout the county.
The project is another indication of the changing nature of downtown Los Angeles, which is being invigorated by new cultural institutions and burgeoning numbers of high-end loft dwellers.
But the area remains a hub of social programs, and the massive Midnight Mission project is causing many to examine how the homeless and their providers will weather the changes and coexist with affluent newcomers.
Construction of the $17-million facility is scheduled to begin early next month at the corner of 6th and San Pedro streets on the site of a former perfume and makeup distribution plant that is being demolished.
That block is already home to several social service agencies, including a cafe and housing facility run by the Weingart Center across the street and the Union Rescue Mission, which moved to that stretch in 1994 and greatly expanded its facilities. Meanwhile, around the corner on San Julian Street is a homeless drop-in center run by the Volunteers of America.
Come nightfall, rows of makeshift cardboard shelters line the sidewalks on 6th, San Julian and San Pedro streets.
Scheduled to open in early 2005, the new mission will include 128,000 square feet of office, warehouse and parking space and will increase the number of its recovery beds from 160 to nearly 300. It will have a spacious dining room, a gym and a library.
For many, the Midnight Mission, with its blue-and-white facade, is the most familiar emblem of downtown Los Angeles’ homeless population.
Feeding Hundreds a Day
Three times a day, every day of the year, hundreds of hungry people line up outside waiting for up to an hour to eat in the small dining hall. The agency, which is not affiliated with any religious denomination, also provides job training, rehabilitation and education services.
Midnight Mission officials said they planned the new facility to address concerns raised by neighbors. The building will include a large, enclosed courtyard so long lines of homeless people don’t have to wait outside for food and services. The dining room is expected to seat up to 450 people, up from the current capacity of 128.
The facility also will have a large bank of restrooms -- 20 to 30 stalls for men and 10 to 12 for women -- that will be open to the community around the clock. Los Angeles recently passed laws barring public urination and defecation, and the restrooms were a big selling point for city officials, said Midnight Mission President Larry Adamson.
The mission also will have an elaborate security system, including uniformed patrols day and night and 11 cameras outside the building to record any disturbances. “I think we’re going to improve the neighborhood, especially compared to what is there now,” Adamson said. “If we can get people off the streets, I don’t see how that’s going to make things worse.”
Adamson also contended that the mission’s current location has not hurt neighboring property values.
But some toy district business owners near the current mission said they are happy to see it go. They say it has hurt business, and they would like to see old property be developed commercially.
Tracey Lovejoy, executive director of the Central City East Assn., which represents business interests in the toy and industrial districts, said business owners view 4th and Los Angeles as a gateway to their district and are excited at the prospect.
“Business has always been the predominant usage in that area,” said Lovejoy, whose association did not oppose the Midnight Mission move. “In reality, we’re getting to the point where the real estate costs are so high that it’s probably the last time we’ll see a big development devoted to social services. In 50 years, who knows what this community will look like.”
John F. King, president of the Weingart Center Assn., said agencies now have to “give serious consideration to where do we go.”
“We looked at a space three blocks away -- an empty, large lot -- but it was pretty pricey,” King said. “We don’t have any plans to expand in the skid row area, but we are looking at other areas where we can provide services.”
But some downtown business owners and residents fear that the new, larger facility will draw even more have-nots to a central city that already teems with an estimated 8,000 homeless people, many living in wretched conditions that attract crime and predators. Charlie Woo, the founder of Mega Toys, one of the area’s largest toy manufacturers, owns properties near the current mission site and its future home and said he is both relieved and concerned.
“Their current site is the heart of the toy district, so by moving they would take a lot of homeless people on the streets away from that area,” Woo said.
“As neighbors at the new site, we need to be vigilant, though,” he added. “It’s important that they do a lot of mitigation and management and have programs that encourage people to stay inside. People need to see this neighborhood is normal like any other.”
But others support the mission project, saying they recognize that homeless people, their service providers, loft dwellers and businesses will have to coexist for many years to come.
“The old model was that in order to do good business, you must eliminate the homeless from the area,” noted developer Tom Gilmore, whose residential loft properties skirt skid row. “On the other side, it was that to facilitate the homeless, you must disregard the business community. I think from the business perspective, we’re beginning to understand that finding constructive ways to end homelessness is essential for long-term growth. There’s an interesting new dynamic that’s occurring.”
Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry echoed that sentiment.
“The best practice is to have a fully integrated community,” Perry said. “The missions serve the needs of people who are early on in their recovery; they are the first line of response.”
But Perry also has been vocal in suggesting that outlying communities must shoulder more of the burden of caring for homeless people who originate in their neighborhoods but end up downtown.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a city and county agency that controls federal and local funds for the homeless, put a hold on awarding new grants to social service projects downtown to discourage further concentration of such programs.
The Midnight Mission construction project, as with all of its services, is funded by private donations. The mission did not seek government grants.
Agencies Face Challenge
Adamson acknowledged that social agencies such as his that are outgrowing aging facilities face a challenge: Available property in Los Angeles is at a premium and there are few parcels that meet zoning requirements for their needs. They also face resistance from neighbors no matter where they locate, he said.
“I’m a strong proponent of the idea that the homeless should not be centralized in skid row, but I’m also a realist. I’m not sure getting the people of Brentwood to have a homeless facility is going to happen soon.”
The Midnight Mission has located a family housing program for women and children in Inglewood, and in the future wants to open smaller facilities that are more geographically dispersed, said Adamson.
Still, he and others agree that downtown will continue to be the center of homeless services because that is where the demand is. And though many advocates believe the needs of the homeless are being shortchanged by development and downtown gentrification, some service providers say the changes could have a positive effect because policymakers can no longer ignore conditions if more affluent people complain.
“In Los Angeles the homeless problem has been out of sight, out of mind,” said Mitchell Netburn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “It’s a shame the problem has existed for so long and has been so easy to ignore.”