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Taking Homeless Services to a New Level

Times Staff Writer

In a downtown Los Angeles burgeoning with new architectural landmarks and affluent residents, the 91-year-old Midnight Mission today will unveil the latest installment in the building boom: a $17-million state-of-the-art center for the homeless.

With gentrification pressing in on skid row, the facility at the corner of 6th and San Pedro streets is also likely to be one of the last major expansions of social services in the area.

The new mission building sports the same sleek modernist lines, landscaped courtyard and jewel-toned colors as many of the hip new offices around the area. But it was built to address one of the most problematic and intractable features of downtown: the estimated 6,000 to 8,000 homeless people who live there, many in squalid conditions that attract predators and crime.

Alvin Hollier, 46, who lived on downtown streets before entering the mission’s 12-step recovery program in February, said the new center would be a beacon for others like himself.

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“There are so many people in need,” said Hollier, who now works in the mission’s public affairs office. “I’m excited about it, and I think others will be, too. It’s a sign of hope.”

The project is also a reminder that, despite the recent downtown renaissance, the 50-square-block central city area remains a hub of homeless programs that will demand compromise and coexistence for years to come.

The blue-and-white facade of the old Midnight Mission, standing at the corner of 4th and Los Angeles streets since 1922, was a source of food and comfort for the homeless but sometimes frustration for neighboring businesses.

The new 123,000-square-foot mission will have 360 recovery and emergency beds, up from 230, seat 500 for meals and have restrooms and showers available 24 hours a day.

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It features a full-sized gym, a library and a playroom for the area’s growing number of homeless children. And it has a styling salon, education center and professional-grade kitchen.

At a cost of $22 million for construction and land, it is one of the largest social service projects in downtown in more than a decade.

“For 80 to 100 people who have had to live in a cardboard box because we don’t have the room and turn them away, this is going to make a huge difference,” said Midnight Mission President Larry L. Adamson. “I truly believe it’s worth every penny of investment.”

Adamson and other social service providers acknowledge they face challenges serving the poor because property in Los Angeles is at a premium. The Midnight Mission sold its old building for more than $12 million, which covered construction costs for the new building.

The facility may be one of the last additions to skid row’s array of social programs. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the city and county agency that controls government funds for the homeless, gives new social service projects downtown its lowest priority.

The Midnight Mission, which has no religious affiliation, does not seek government grants and its project is funded by private donations.

Several days before the opening, the building rang with the sound of jackhammers and power drills and smelled of paint and new carpets, as scores of workers raced to complete final touches.

The Donna and John Crean Center at the Midnight Mission is named after the Orange County philanthropists who donated $5 million to the project, although it will still be known as the Midnight Mission.

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“I think it’s going to be a new template for delivering services for people who can’t exist in a structured environment,” said City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district encompasses both sites. “It’s a more high-profile, forthright way to do outreach. I expect it will have an immediate impact.”

The entry to the new building, through the Wallis Annenberg Courtyard, is a high-tech, computerized security center with monitors for cameras installed at the four corners of the building. The city of Los Angeles provided about $90,000 for the cameras.

The mission will also have uniformed security to protect program participants and the surrounding neighborhood, said Orlando Ward, public affairs director.

Next to a day room -- which will feature a big-screen television -- are a still-unfinished children’s room and an outside play area that Walt Disney Co. designed using its cartoon characters.

On the second floor are classrooms and dormitories and on the third floor are two-person efficiency apartments for participants preparing to move out on their own.

Walking through the large kitchen that shines with stainless steel grills and cook pots, Ward notes that cooks at the old facility had to rise at 1 a.m. to begin that day’s meal service, which took three seatings because of limited capacity.

The result was that hundreds of people milled about 4th and Los Angeles streets, the heart of the toy district.

The move to 6th and San Pedro, home to several other social service agencies, will further concentrate homeless programs and dramatically change the toy district streetscape.

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A&A; Holdings, Acquisitions and Development of Los Angeles is acquiring the old mission building.

The company will use the space to build a retail plaza that includes -- if the city grants an exception to the area’s height restrictions -- upscale apartments, said Vice President Pouya Abdi. The firm plans a bold architectural design that invites foot traffic.

“We want to use styles and colors that will make everyone -- whether they are a Rodeo Drive shopper or a swap meet shopper -- want to come,” Abdi said.

Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn., which represents business interests in the toy and industrial districts, said the Midnight Mission and most other social programs are good neighbors. But she noted that a “tsunami” of development west of skid row and east of Alameda Street is squeezing the area’s traditional boundaries.

“It’s not a question of taking services away from the community but of providing them in the right way, with the right guidelines and that means every community shares in doing that,” Lopez said. “The errant behavior on these sidewalks would not be tolerated anywhere else.”

But while city and county authorities have vowed to disperse homeless programs, downtown Los Angeles is likely to remain ground zero, said Peter Dreier, director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College.

“Until we address problems of which homelessness is a symptom, there is going to be a need for emergency shelters, food pantries and other social services that will attract homeless people, and most of those in Los Angeles are downtown,” he said.

Architect Gin Wong, who designed the Arco Center downtown, the Four Seasons Hotel and MGM headquarters in Beverly Hills, and terminals and lounges at Los Angeles International Airport, said the mission building was especially complex because of the many purposes it must serve.

“It’s not a simple project,” Wong said. “I wanted to make it so that it’s not institutional, but behaves and manages like an institution. But I also gave a warm feeling to it.”

The courtyard, paved in brightly colored concrete, features large impressions of footprints, meant to evoke the mission’s 12-step recovery program.

Wong said he and Adamson also chose the landscaping with special care. It will feature shimmery, golden-leaved honey locust trees.

“We wanted to make sure that, when the wind is blowing, it kind of flickers,” he said. “Part of it is the psychology. We’d like to provide the opportunity for the homeless people to appreciate every part of the world.”


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