“Twenty five, twenty four, twenty three, twenty two, twenty one,” the kindergarten class counts down in unison, all eyes intently focused on teacher even as a few children struggle to sit still at Las Familias Del Pueblo. The nonprofit, one-room storefront school, which serves the garment workers of downtown L.A. and their children, is kid-bliss just down the street and around the corner from living hell … Skid Row.
Las Familias Del Pueblo is a joy factory. “Hi!” says a little girl in pink and purple sparkles, who stops to say hello. It’s alive in here — construction-paper butterflies, and multicolored murals dominant the landscape in an explosion of color and light.
Alice Callahan is the supernova who created the tiny galaxy that is Las Familias just nine months after arriving in Los Angeles during the ’80s with $3,000 in her pocket. A former nun turned Episcopal priest, the compact Canadian transplant is an activist in the purest sense. Not only is she a founding and current board member of the Skid Row Housing Trust, a not-for-profit organization that owns and operates SRO hotels, she is such a relentless crusader and advocate for the homeless in downtown Los Angeles that she doesn’t hestitate to throw down with the cops when representing for Skid Row’s homeless.
“I am an activist, that would be one adjective — one who is actively trying to change things,” says Callahan, tightly pressed and all business in an outfit that reads as an adult version of a Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform. “I define myself as part of the community. Whatever problem comes in our door we try to solve it. But the issue of homelessness,” she adds in the same way she’s been saying it for years, “remains the lack of affordable housing.”
Regularly focused on the police perception problem of homelessness, she’s been suing the cops for years. “They perceive the problem of homelessness to be a problem of lawlessness. What the police and City Hall has brought to Skid Row is an unrelenting policy of harassment. That’s the prevailing city policy. To send out an army of policemen to harass the poor till they leave town. What a terrible waste of taxpayer money. As soon as they leave, everybody goes back because they had no home to go to.”
Callahan always wins in court. She’s a force to be reckoned with, a rebel representing a voice for the voiceless.
“The court always stands up for the poor,” she says, “but in the end, to some extent, it becomes meaningless. The courts rule clearly, then there’s this schizophrenic thing that happens in the street, and the police completely ignore it. There are no sanctions.”
She’s been policing the police for decades and it doesn’t appear she’ll relent anytime soon. She is never subtle on the subject of the mayor.
“Every single day the police are out there every hour, intentionally violating the court order, knowing they can do it with impunity given who is sitting in City Hall,” she charges. “The poor of the Row are never going to put money in the coffers of Antonio as he proceeds up his ambitious ladder. He pays attention to the Central City Association and the business community. The police are sent out to do their bidding, to enforce a social order that is desired by City Hall. City Hall could change the police action in a minute. The police do what they do because that’s what the mayor wants them to do.”
Callahan has an ability to bring things into a human focus. Her connection to this geography is more than just about public policy. It’s about suffering in a very personal sense.
“There’s an 82-year-old woman named Marie, who lived in a hotel on the edge of Skid Row in a hotel on Fourth Street until about two months ago,” Callahan says. This woman can barely walk. She has an old, abandoned wheelchair that someone on the Row found and gave to her. She uses her feet and a walker to pull her along. To go home every night she had to walk up 18 steps. She pays somebody to carry the walker up the stairs, going one step at a time on her knees. Finally, one night a couple of months ago, she said, ‘I can’t get up the stairs anymore.’ We managed to get her a handicap room in a new hotel we just opened up at the The Abbey on San Pedro. This is a woman who has avoided social services because she lives in terror that someone would put her in an old-age home in a bed and forget about her. So this 82-year-old lady dyes her hair … you can see the roots, they’re about an inch long. She gets no assistance because she’s afraid to ask for it … living on some workers’ comp settlement and social security, afraid to ask for medical help. She has a little sign in her room: ‘You gotta get up and get going every day.’ She knows the minute she stops getting up and out of that room she will never leave it.”
Alice Callahan is up and out every day, doing what she does. People come and go from Skid Row. Stars shooting across the night sky never to be seen again, but Callahan is a fixture. She’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“When people think about Skid Row they have an image that the police have carefully cultivated. The poor of Skid Row include people like Marie, who is just trying to live, getting up every day against the most incredible odds and finding a way to feed and take care of herself. Not asking for anything from anybody. Just wanting not to be put in an institution. There’s an assumption by people at City Hall that there’s an institution for everybody. If you’re old, you go to a convalescent home; if you’re mentally ill, you go to the hospital; if you’re a criminal, you go to jail. People on the Row are trying to avoid being put in institutions — institutions that they would be put in for no other reason than that they are poor.”
If you’re interested in an informed, enlightened philanthropic endeavor, go ask Alice. I think she’ll know … or just send a check.