The advertisements usually run in the A section of the Los Angeles Times. Sometimes they feature a little redheaded girl, who looks as if she’s a demented extra from the old horror flick Children of the Corn. Other times there’s a color sketch of a huge glass building and a blissful blue sky, with the heart-tugging quote, “Please don’t forget the children, they need our help.” And almost always there’s a giant picture of an older man with gray hair, sleepy eyes and a white toothy smile. That man is Donald T. Sterling, real estate mogul and owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.
For nearly two years now, Sterling has been trumpeting the arrival of a brand-spanking-new medical and legal facility in the heart of Skid Row — the Donald T. Sterling Homeless Center. The advertisements promise a “state-of-the-art $50 million” building on Sixth and Wall streets, whose “objective” is to “educate, rehabilitate, provide medical care and a courtroom for existing homeless.” The italics are Sterling’s. The ads also remind sophisticated L.A. Times readers that “the homeless need our help.”
Sterling rarely talks to the press, and instead has long preferred to communicate with the outside world through prime advertising space in the Times. Over the past two months, the public has learned through his awkwardly designed ads that Sterling plans to hire attorneys and expand his “prestigious Beverly Hills law firm,” that he seeks three “exceptional executive assistants” for his corporation, and that he is offering a “proposed credit line” of $1,050,000,000 “for acquisition of real property in Southern California & Nevada.” Business, it appears, is booming.
When Sterling first plugged the opening of a homeless center in April 2006, homeless-services operators, politicians and downtown business owners were stunned and intrigued.
“When it first came out, we all thought, ‘How did we not hear about it?’ ” says downtown real estate developer Tom Gilmore, who served for six years on the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
Phone calls were made to Sterling World Plaza, at 9441 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Politicians in City Hall who would have to approve any such project, as well as pols on the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors who oversee the region’s key poverty programs — although they would have no direct say — waited for more-detailed plans. And the media-ducking Donald T. Sterling even made a personal appearance on Skid Row. Buzz was in the air. One of Los Angeles’ most prominent real estate holders, who, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal, became a billionaire by offering luxury housing in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Westwood, appeared to be recalibrating his business expertise to achieve some kind of larger good.
These days, though, Sterling’s vow to help the homeless is looking more like a troubling, ego-inflating gimmick dreamed up by a very rich man with a peculiar public-relations sense: Witness his regular advertisements proclaiming another “humanitarian of the year” award — for himself. From homeless-services operators to local politicians, no one has received specifics for the proposed Sterling Homeless Center. They aren’t the least bit convinced that the project exists.
“He uses every opportunity to have it announced somewhere,” says Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest who runs the Skid Row day-care and education center Las Familias del Pueblo. “But it sounds like a phantom project to me.”
“I’m generally a very optimistic person,” Gilmore says, “but this thing smells like shit. The L.A. Times ads aren’t cheap. He could’ve stopped buying the ads and spent that money on homeless people.” Gilmore, who’s been working downtown since 1992, adds, “I’ve never seen [Sterling] down here in my life.”
Joel John Roberts, chief executive officer of People Assisting the Homeless — which briefly talked with a Sterling middleman about the project — sums up the bewilderment spreading through the homeless-activist community, saying, “I don’t know what his motives are.”
Between the summer of 2004 and the winter of 2005, Donald T. Sterling went through a tough run of bad press, during which any smart media-crisis consultant would have told him to find a way to convince the public — and the media — that he was a good guy. The unpleasantness started on August 12, 2004, when the widely read Web site the Smoking Gun ran an article headlined “NBA Owner in Sex Scandal — Los Angeles Clippers boss admitted he paid to play.”