Column: Momentum is building to use St. Vincent’s as a homeless service center. Let’s not squander it

Mitch O'Farrell
Councilman Mitch O’Farrell outside St. Vincent Medical Center.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

When reader Terry McVerry emailed me Sunday to suggest that St. Vincent Medical Center be reincarnated as a homeless housing and service center, she wasn’t the only one who saw the possibilities.

I floated McVerry’s idea in my Wednesday column and a half dozen readers told me they’d had the same reaction to news that a bankruptcy judge had given the current hospital owner permission to close.

For the record:

9:00 p.m. Jan. 17, 2020A previous version of this column referred to Councilman Mitch O’Farrell as Mike.

“McVerry has a VERRY good idea,” wrote Dan Ford of Encino.

Another enthusiastic response came from L.A. City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell. The venerable hospital at 3rd and Alvarado — which was founded by nuns and has catered to the poor for much of its history — is in his district, and O’Farrell told me he has been interested in the property since last summer and has met with the Daughters of Charity and made preliminary inquiries about acquiring the property to help ease the city’s homeless crisis.

St. Vincent
The statue of St. Vincent stands at the front of St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

On Thursday, O’Farrell and I met at the 366-bed hospital — a neighborhood anchor for more than a century and a half — to talk about the possibilities.

“Every floor has a nurse’s station, there’s a kitchen, a cafeteria, offices, a parking lot. You have everything you need,” said O’Farrell. “We need to take a look and see what we can do to repurpose it to address the issue of the day.”

O’Farrell and I walked around the entire property, surveying the collection of buildings and open space, including a large vacant lot on the west side of the hospital. When we got back onto Third Street, he told me he was going to call for a study to explore buying, renting or leasing the property for housing, mental health care, addiction rehab and other services.

And then on Friday O’Farrell introduced a motion that was seconded by Councilman Paul Krekorian.

St. Vincent Medical Center
St. Vincent Medical Center near downtown Los Angeles. A bankruptcy court has been asked to give permission for the closure of the Los Angeles hospital following the collapse of a sale.
(Reed Saxon/Associated Press)

“Repurposing the facilities could greatly reduce the cost per unit and take advantage of existing infrastructure that is time consuming and costly to build,” said the motion.

That reference was to the fact that it has taken three years to open the first housing units since voters approved Measure HHH, and estimates on some new homes have run as high as $500,000 per unit or more.

The motion called for the city to begin discussions with the county on a collaboration. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti told me he wanted to include County Supervisor Hilda Solis on such an undertaking, so I gave her a call.

Solis, who on Friday introduced a motion similar to O’Farrell’s, told me the county had looked into buying the hospital two years ago but wasn’t willing to pay more than $120 million, and lost out to the company that has now declared bankruptcy.

Mitch O'Farrell
Councilman Mitch O’Farrell outside St. Vincent Medical Center.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

“Obviously this again presents an opportunity for us. But to be very frank, the county doesn’t have an endless pot of money. I would say to you we’re interested in the property,” Solis told me.

It’s not clear what the asking price would be. USC health economics professor John Romley told me the hospital and its equipment have a valuation of $41 million. But the campus also includes an office building, senior housing and a Meals on Wheels headquarters, and it’s not clear whether some or all of that would have to be part of any deal, nor is it clear what it might cost to redesign the space for a new purpose.

Verity Health System took the hospital into bankruptcy in 2018, soon after acquiring it as part of a chain the company bought, and when a sale fell through in the last couple of weeks, the judge gave Verity permission to close the hospital.

In a statement he sent to me Tuesday, Verity CEO Rich Adcock said: “it is our hope that a future buyer will be able to identify a use that honors the facility’s decades-long legacy of service to the community.”

One thing clear from my Wednesday column is that readers want to help find solutions to the raging human catastrophe. They’ve got their eyes on vacant buildings all over the region they think could be put into service at a time when tens of thousands of people are homeless in Southern California.

I haven’t had time to vet all the recommendations, but here are a few:

“Fairview State Mental Facility sits empty! Repurpose now,” Gary Crane wrote regarding the Costa Mesa property.

Margery Brown wonders why the Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, which was closed last summer, can’t be put to work. Annette Mercer has been trying to get someone at City Hall to consider acquiring a former grocery store at Palms and Sepulveda Boulevards.

St. Luke Hospital in Pasadena got several nods from readers. Another one wanted to know why the Sybil Brand jail in City Terrace has been vacant for so many years. And another handful of readers wanted to know about the under-utilized and largely vacant building that once housed the County-USC Medical Center in Boyle Heights.

Actually, Solis told me, a couple of projects now in the works there will produce a few hundred units of bridge housing and crisis care and recuperative care beds. There’s space to do more, but Solis said old buildings can have seismic safety issues, asbestos removal challenges and engineering deficiencies that make them too expensive to repurpose.

All true, but those complications are limited at St. Vincent, and officials need to make something happen as quickly as possible rather than take months to explain why they can’t.

That’s what leadership is, and that’s what an emergency calls for.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has made homelessness a bigger priority and called for more spending, so let’s tap him. Talks are under way to redirect money for such purposes from the Mental Health Services Act. And O’Farrell said there might be some money available through the state’s Homeless Assistance Program.

And didn’t the Trump administration just say it wanted to help us solve our homelessness challenge? Excuse me for being a little skeptical about that. But if Trump wants to put his money where his mouth is, I don’t think anyone in L.A. would be inclined to tear up the check.

As long as Los Angeles is the place with the most sprawling, visible crisis, it has to be the place with the most urgent, creative response.

Gazing up at St. Vincent with O’Farrell, it occurred to me that it could be not just a service and housing facility but a teaching and research center and a laboratory of best practices, and it would also be fantastic if some of the 1,000 people working there now could be retrained and stay on the payroll.

The potential is huge. It can’t be wasted.