Anne Douglas could have celebrated her birthday at home in Beverly Hills with her husband, actor Kirk Douglas.
Instead, she sat behind a silver-and-pink birthday cake Wednesday as women lined up, weeping, to embrace and thank her for starting the Los Angeles Mission's Anne Douglas Center for Women — one of skid row's first homeless shelters for women.
"You have done so much for me," said Sharon Schumaker, 45, wiping away tears.
"You saved my life," said Cynthia Smith, 51, of Burbank, a recovering alcoholic who arrived at the center in December with two black eyes suffered in a skid row beating.
"When I first encountered the women at this homeless shelter it was heartbreaking, and I was determined to make it better," said Douglas, who has had a birthday party at the center every year since launching it in 1992.
At writer Sidney Sheldon's request, her husband had agreed to speak at the mission that Thanksgiving, Douglas said. Afterward, when she asked, "Where are the women?" a staff member pulled back a floor-to-ceiling bedsheet to reveal a few bunk beds.
"I said, 'My God, I have to do something for this,'" Douglas said. "So I prayed to God to help me raise some money, but God has no money so I turned to my husband and some friends."
The Douglases have contributed $21 million to the project, which includes a residential program for 28 women, a day center with showers, a closet stocked with donated clothing, a computer center and a gymnasium.
Anne Douglas has since brought other friends into the project, including Betty McMicken, Kirk Douglas' speech therapist since his debilitating stroke in 1996.
Before Wednesday's luncheon, a multipurpose room at the mission was dedicated to McMicken, who offers communication and movement therapy at the mission. Kirk Douglas, who turns 100 later this year, briefly attended the dedication.
"Traumatic brain injury and long-term addiction can cause communication disorders," McMicken said.
One of McMicken's students, Maryalice Freeman, drew laughs during the luncheon by discussing the facial contortions she went through to clear her speech.
"I was living in a cardboard box for 10 years," said Freeman, 63, who now works at the mission as an assistant chaplain. "Dr. McMicken gave me my dignity back."
Douglas, a nonagenarian who wouldn't discuss her age, said she was "really touched" by the gratitude and affection the women showed her.
The former Anne Buydens, from Hanover, Germany, met Kirk Douglas while working in publicity on a 1953 film he shot in Paris, "Act of Love."
Their Beverly Hills home is the style of old Hollywood — all chinoiserie, African masks, pre-Columbian figures and the occasional Picasso. In her living room earlier this week, Douglas said her husband, the only son of illiterate Russian Jews, had little to eat as a child.
"Or should I say he had nothing," she recalled. "He stood in line for homeless people. By the time the line came to him there was no more food."
The women's center has a Christian focus, but Anne Douglas converted to Judaism before the couple renewed their marriage vows on their 50th wedding anniversary. "Everybody said he needed to marry a nice Jewish girl," Douglas said.
Douglas said public consciousness about homelessness has never been higher, but she worries that downtown gentrification is taking skid row away from homeless people.
"What discourages me is all these real estate people that are building beautiful lofts and nice small apartments in that area.... That reduces the space for expanding buildings that can house these men and women in the streets, or in the cars or in cardboard," Douglas said. "The homeless men and women are used to that area, and it should be for them instead of building better facilities for middle class and even higher."
Douglas suggested Mayor Eric Garcetti turn to the private sector for money to build homeless housing.
As she spoke, Kirk Douglas, whose speech remains limited, pushed past the living room with his walker and called to his wife.
"He said, 'Say nice things about me,'" Anne Douglas said. "I always do."