Skid Row on Easter weekend; the scene is both sad and festive. Arches of pastel colored balloons float over the trash filled intersections. White folding tables are being set up along 5th street, as the hungry crowds line the sidewalks. There are long queues forming in front of the missions. This is the only celebration I am unhappy to see with such a full attendance.
A man with a heavy accent shouts something obscene at me, and I pick up pace as I hurry down toward San Pedro. Today I’m on my way to the Midnight Mission, Los Angeles’s longest running mission, to meet with the president Larry Adamson. As I turn the corner, I recognize the icon on the side of a building ahead of me: a lonely figure in a trench coat.
The sidewalks have been freshly hosed down in front of the business office. I walk inside.
After leaving my name at the front desk, I have a look at the bits of old bottles and other relics on display in the foyer. Later Larry Adamson tells me that when the mission moved locations, archeologists excavated artifacts from the remnants of the railroad that used to occupy this land.
He explains that areas like lumber yards and rail roads, became the breeding grounds for high populations of homeless people, as transients and day laborers would come looking for work. The term Skid Row itself, he tells me, refers to one of these industrial areas of Seattle where the lumber used to ‘skid’ down the river on its way to the mills.
We are sitting in his modest office, accompanied by the mission’s director of public affairs, Orlando Ward. The silver haired man across the desk from me has the demeanor of a congenial university sports coach. Adamson tells me he gave up his life in corporate America to work on Skid Row.
“The worst day here is still one of the best days of my life,” Adamson tells me. “Every day hundreds of people are positively effected by us. And there is no greater reward than having someone come up and shake my hand and say, thank you for saving my life.”
Adamson, who came from a 23-year career at the California Auto Club, was nominated by the Midnight Mission board of directors to serve as their president in 1998, after helping them come up with a five-year business profile that called for leadership.
Soon after, one of Larry’s friends from the mission invited him to lunch. He said, Larry we found our new president. Larry said, great, who is it!
And they said—It’s you.
Adamson says he walked away from a lot of money and the comfort of corporate America to take this position. He did some soul searching, but once he had his wife’s support, he accepted the job. As a result, he understands very well what it’s like to work for a greater good. That is why he found it so difficult when he found himself in the position of having to lay off 20% of the staff last year during the time of greatest demand.
“Some of these people weren’t making a lot of money. They were doing it because they were dedicated to helping others,” Adamson says. “I had a lot of sleepless nights over this. But it was either that, or close the doors of the mission.”
The biggest challenge facing the Midnight Mission today is financial. As a privately funded organization, they rely on charitable giving to support the services they provide to the Los Angeles community. This year, Adamson proposed a balanced budget, cut recruiting, prioritized their staff positions, and focused on preserving the mission far into the future.
Easter weekend, one of the biggest giving times of the year, they lowered their expectations. He says that their biggest donators haven’t disappeared; only they tend to be giving smaller gifts. Not losing donors is a good sign, Adamson says, because it means that the correct message is coming across.
Private funding might be a handicap, but on the other hand, it’s also one of the best things about the Midnight Mission. They refuse to accept government money, which means they can offer longer rehabilitation time to the people they serve.
“It’s not a matter of, ending someone’s treatment because…oh well, sorry the funding ran out,” he tells me, as Orlando nods his head in agreement.
Orlando, the tall gracious man sitting next to me, tells me that it took him 24 months to finish treatment. He even met his wife at the Midnight Mission, as she was coming out of the homeless family program; one of the many success stories to come out of the mission.
Adamson suspects another obstacle to getting more local financial support might be the mindset society has towards Skid Row. I mean, who do we really think ends up at the Midnight Mission? The assumption is that these are people with absolutely no redeeming social value. A crowd of drug addict and mental illness cliché’s huddled in doorways and corners, in makeshift tents and cardboard lien-to’s.
“Actually, there are wonderful people that end up here,” Adamson says. “These are people that have burned through their social networks and have no more safety nets. These are desperate people. The most needy.”
And the demographic is surprisingly unique. The average age used to be 60 years old, as Skid Row was populated mostly by WWII veterans. Today, the average age is 35, with mostly an African American population, and about 25-30% women and children.
If the community understood who they were helping, it might solve several of the other dilemmas. For instance, changing the adversarial conditions between the missions and the local Los Angeles business owners.
“The business owners should see donating to the mission as making an investment, not charity. Together, we can get these people out of their doorways and off the streets and make a better business environment for everyone.”
“You know, the mission is a business too. How many businesses down here have a 7-8 million dollar budget, with 100 employees? They could partner with us, instead of fighting us, and we could actually make downtown a better place.”
Adamson goes on to use the Times Square area of NYC as an example. The local business owners and community members enacted a pilot program where they actually taxed themselves to fund the clean up. It worked so well, they kept it.
But one of the reasons this is impossible to replicate in LA is because our City and County are two separate entities. And unfortunately, Adamson tells me, they are never on the same page. The City will propose a plan to address the homelessness, but the County, which controls housing, isn’t helping. “Tell me,” he asks. “How does this ever work?”
“Instead, we have a situation where they try to ‘one-up’ each other. They need to work together, bring in the right professionals, and get something done.”
Adamson uses the 50 Most Vulnerable as an example, a plan enacted by the County in 2007 that aimed to reduce the homeless population in Skid Row by singling out 50 people who were the most in need, and getting them into apartments. “There’s never been 50 yet,” Adamson says. “If I had their budget, I’d have turned out 500 by now.”
Last but not least, who else is on the list of people that need to step up? Us. The public.
Larry Adamson asks us to remember that we are all vulnerable. “Reach out and help these people. Because society isn’t defined by it’s billionaires, it’s defined by how they treat the ones on the lower end.”
“Come down here and visit. Once people actually come here to have a look around, I guarantee they’ll be hooked. There’s no way they won’t want to help.”
I agree with him; I’m glad I came down to the mission. Now I understand his frustrations and hope that by telling this story it will help bring about these changes. On that positive note, we end the interview, and stand to say our goodbyes.
“There they are,” Larry Adamson says, gesturing out the window of his office, to the huddled masses on the streets below. People we have more in common with than we think. “These are people that have survived the most unbelievably horrific circumstances. And we’re here to say, ok, you survived, but if you use the past as an excuse, you’ll never get beyond it. It’s time to move forward with your life.”
On my way out I have to ask myself, isn’t that something we could all use help with?
So, if you’d like to ‘step up’ and help the Midnight Mission keep its doors open this year, please consider donating funds online, gifting supplies, or volunteering your time.
Midnight Mission (link to ‘how to help’ page, http://www.midnightmission.org/help.asp)
601 S San Pedro St
Los Angeles, CA