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The Rev. Andy Bales to exit Union Rescue Mission after 20 years serving the destitute and needling the powerful

The Rev. Andy Bales with staff members
The Rev. Andy Bales, chief executive of Union Rescue Mission, said Friday that he will leave the Skid Row organization at the end of the year. Above, Bales and staff at work in October.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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When single women seeking shelter from the perils of Skid Row began to overwhelm the Union Rescue Mission, the Rev. Andy Bales filled the faith-based center’s chapel with cots.

When Los Angeles County assembled a committee of 50 stakeholders to set priorities for a new sales tax to fund homelessness programs, Bales was ruthlessly contrarian, saying that half the money should go straight to organizations like his that take people off the streets and help them turn their lives around.

And when it came time to declare an end to the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bales, a double amputee, did it in cinematic style, rolling his wheelchair onto South San Pedro Street amid two dozen pots of boiling oil filled with turkeys for the mission’s 2021 Thanksgiving dinner.

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Bales’ nearly 20-year run as the face of direct services to Skid Row’s destitute, an advocate for faith-based services and thorn in the side of big-government homelessness policy is coming to an end.

Bales, 64, announced Friday that he’s stepping down at the end of the year as the mission’s president and chief executive.

The Rev. Andy Bales wearing a suit, mask and brimmed hat at an event
Originally from Des Moines, the Rev. Andy Bales says he plans to move back to begin a new role working with inner-city school children.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“My wife decided to give me notice last October that she was moving back with the grandkids in Des Moines, and I could join her if I’d like,” he said in an interview. “I took a big gulp. She didn’t relent, so I had to alert my board of directors I’d be relocating.”

He said he was giving early notice so the board could conduct a thorough search for a replacement.

Bales isn’t retiring — he’s taken a job in Des Moines working with inner-city kids in a before- and after-school education and feeding program.

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“I have some unfinished business with helping in the neighborhoods where I served 34 to 24 years ago, in the hometown,” he said.

Originally from Des Moines, Bales was teaching at a Christian school there in 1985 when he decided to dedicate his life to serving people living on the streets. He was ordained in the First Federated Church in Des Moines in 1989.

Now living in Pasadena, he and his wife, Bonnie, a nurse, have raised six children and hosted 25 foster children. Bales, who has Type 1 diabetes, lost his lower right leg to flesh-eating infections he acquired on the streets of Skid Row and later had to have his lower left leg amputated.

The Rev. Andy Bales reaching toward a dog with a vest labeled "emotional support"
Bentley, an emotional support dog, greets the Rev. Andy Bales during an October health fair in Los Angeles.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

He was appointed president of the mission in 2005 and became chief executive in 2007.

Union Rescue Mission, founded in 1891 to dispense food and clothing from gospel wagons, is a privately funded provider of homeless services that today occupies a five-story building in the heart of Skid Row.

Under Bales, the mission built an international donor base and developed a suite of faith-based recovery programs that offer long-term shelter with medical and legal support and life-skills training.

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In 2011, Bales won his board’s approval for the Gateway Program, which instills “a greater sense of responsibility and dignity” by charging a small fee for long-term shelter. Participants pay $5 a day and are encouraged to put $2 into savings.

Bales also led the development of two satellite programs — the 71-acre Hope Garden campus in Sylmar, which offers shelter to single women and children and permanent housing for senior women, and Angeles Family House, a 74,000-square-foot facility offering long-term rehabilitation programs for families.

The pandemic put the Bales to his gravest test when the mission experienced the first COVID outbreak on Skid Row.

“I went through the Great Recession; that was tough enough,” Bales said. “COVID was the most treacherous time in leadership. We all joined hands and stepped up and did essential work — turned ourselves into a mini hospital.”

The outbreak struck within days of an employee’s death. Gerald Shiroma, who became a driver for the mission after graduating from its third-floor transitional program and who still lived at the mission, contracted the virus in late March 2020. He died at County-USC Medical Center.

Union Rescue Mission director Andy Bales is indefatigable, despite major health challenges.

Feb. 27, 2021

“The loss of a teammate was the toughest blow,” Bales said at the time.

A large tent Bales had installed before the pandemic to increase bed space became an impromptu triage center for the county’s efforts to stop the disease from spreading through the homeless shelter system.

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After the March outbreak, the mission converted its board room and cafeteria into an isolation space and moved women upstairs to the fifth-floor dorms.

As Bales predicted at the time, some of the changes were permanent. Continuing pandemic protocols, the mission has reduced its capacity from about 1,000 to about 700, Bales said Friday.

Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles was scrambling to relocate dozens of homeless people after the coronavirus infected six of its residents.

April 16, 2020

No crises or policy shifts have dampened Bales’ adherence to faith-based recovery. As federal homelessness policy shifted toward “housing first”— moving people directly from the street to permanent housing — and “harm reduction”— removing barriers such as abstinence as conditions to obtain housing — Bales doubled down on the mission’s transitional recovery model.

He faults the permanent housing strategy for leaving people on the street for years because there is insufficient housing. He also criticizes what he views as chaotic conditions for those who do find homes, with some residents continuing to use alcohol or drugs.

An indefatigable advocate, Bales was in Washington earlier in the week lobbying for legislation that would shift 30% of federal homelessness funds away from “housing first” to what he calls “housing plus.”

The Rev. Andy Bales wearing a brimmed hat and floral garland
The Rev. Andy Bales and his wife, Bonnie, a nurse, have raised six children and hosted 25 foster children.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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In 2021, L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger appointed Bales to a vacant seat on the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority governing commission, saying that, while she supported “housing first,” she hoped he would bring a street-level perspective. Bales, who attended a commission meeting Friday, will relinquish the position when he leaves L.A.

“Reverend Bales embodies what it means to be a public servant,” Barger said in a statement Friday. “Skid Row is not for the faint of heart — it’s one of the harshest environments I know. Reverend Bales was a light in that darkness that tirelessly modeled how to help those suffering on our streets with respect and dignity.”

Sarah Dusseault, a former LAHSA commissioner who advises Supervisor Hilda Solis, praised Bales’ dedication.

“I am excited for him to have another phase in life,” Dusseault said. “He’s given his all, including his health, to this work.”

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