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Complex reality at street level

Los Angeles

It’s a storefront on drab East Seventh Street in Los Angeles’ hustle-bustle garment district, just a couple of blocks over from rough-and-tough Skid Row. The door opens, a young woman or man looks in, covertly, cautiously. Ava Castorena is invariably there. She’s asked a quick question or two, and the inquirer, deeming all is safe, enters.

The Los Angeles garment district will soon have another pair of hands sewing shirts, blouses and pants for the fashion industry. Castorena is the instructor.

“It’s mainly word of mouth,” said the Rev. Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and former Catholic nun, as she explains how newly arrived immigrants hear of Las Familias’ free sewing lessons. Callaghan two decades ago founded Las Familias del Pueblo as a community center for garment workers and their children (and 25 years ago was on the front page of NCR when she left the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus for the Episcopal church).

The average sewing trainee -- they’re in their 30s or younger, with a couple of children -- is newly arrived in the United States and doesn’t speak any English. If the trainee has any skills, said Callaghan, “we might see them twice. Others we see for several weeks. Then they’ve found a job.”

Not that Callaghan helps them with skills -- she can’t sew a stitch. But then, when she started Las Familias, she couldn’t speak a word of Spanish, either.

There’s a modern art sculpture outside the center that once held a sewing machine aloft. Late one night someone wrenched it off, and the statue remains bereft. Inside, though, there’s still the rank of sewing machines at which Castorena shows the immigrant women and men how to use the industry-style equipment identical to that in the nearby sweatshops and sewing factories. A retired factory owner, Eve Vollmer, began the program.

Recruitment is healthily haphazard. “We could have three people this week, one person next, and 12 the week after that,” said Callaghan.

To some, preparing a person to work in a sweatshop might seem a retrograde step. The petite, peppy Callaghan dismisses such sugared notions: “First find ways to help them get work, get some money coming in, feed those kids, get somewhere to live -- then worry about next steps.”

Las Familias is full of next steps -- English lessons, legal aid, after-school drop-offs and programs for the children. (The ice cream man times his visits to coincide with the arrival of the 100 or so young children who come thundering in around 3 p.m. daily once school is out. They stay until their parents’ stint is finished at their garment district job.)

Doing something useful

To the battling Callaghan, who’s usually confronting some government or business agency on behalf of the immigrants or the inhabitants of nearby Skid Row, the noise of the kids is angel music. She’s also extremely protective of their parents who, she says, would be intimidated at the thought of being interviewed, even anonymously.

Worrying about the immigrants’ future is a step up for Callaghan compared to 20 years ago, when she was anxious about their immediate safety. Those were really the bad old days when immigrant families were ending up in Skid Row’s flophouses.

It’s been some odyssey, recalled Robert Wyckoff, retired president of oil giant Atlantic Richfield Company, and for 20 years chair of Las Familias’ board.

The pair met at All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena where, for eight years, first “Sister Alice” and then “the Reverend Alice” did homeless outreach in the city.

Wyckoff credits Callaghan with “helping me find ways to do something useful for other people. She’s just incapable of seeing an injustice or a wrong without doing something about it. She decided she wanted to spend some time just walking around Skid Row to figure things out.”

(The term, Skid Row, comes from 19th-century logging jargon. Skid Road was the track logs were sent down. Later -- before entering urban slang as any city section that draws the unemployed, the hobos and society’s cast-offs -- Skid Row meant the place unemployed loggers congregated. At 50 square blocks, 11,000 inhabitants -- 7,000 of them living in 65 single-room-occupancy hotels -- Los Angeles’ Skid Row is perhaps the nation’s largest.)

Born in Calgary, Canada, Alice Callaghan was raised in Los Angeles and Orange counties, joined the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus and, in northwest Pasadena in the early 1970s, with a couple of other sisters, started an alternative school in an old Methodist church. “Loved kids, hated teaching,” she summarized.

Her involvement with All Saints Episcopal Church came through its Peace Center Against the Vietnam War. “I asked them for a job. ‘I don’t cost anything,’ I said, and as it was a job that didn’t really exist.” She added social outreach programs for the homeless -- meals in the park, and Union Station, now the largest of all the homeless “missions” in Pasadena.

During that time at All Saints, she made three decisions. One, to not be a nun. Two, to pursue ordination. Three, to see if she could make herself useful around Skid Row, Los Angeles, 12 miles away.

‘You don’t get a note on your pillow’

“I didn’t quit being a nun in order to become a priest,” said Callaghan. “I quit because I didn’t want to live in celibacy. I pursued ordination in the Episcopal church because they have options for men and women who don’t want to live the celibate life. I’d been working at All Saints for years. I liked the Episcopal church -- and the Episcopal and Catholic churches are so similar.” With a smile, she added, “and I’d much rather be a priest in the Episcopal church. You don’t get a note on your pillow one day telling you you’re going to Africa the next morning.”

She gets on well with her bishop, Fred Borsch, is not attached to a specific church, and is not married. She hasn’t said Mass in a while. “I don’t think there’s anything magic in doing it on that kind of weekly basis.” For a priest like Alice, the Eucharist includes sacramental action.

The action began in 1980-81 when, after a day of Skid Row peregrination, she was seated on the fire escape at the Skid Row Catholic Worker house talking to Jeff Dietrich of the Catholic Worker. He said, “Why don’t you come and work with the immigrant families?”

The migration routes to El Norte are as well-known to the potential Central American and Mexican immigrant as a Greyhound bus schedule was to rural Americans in the 1930s. For the successful new arrivals, the way north, though dangerous, even deadly for some, is the equivalent of a stagecoach service through Mexico, with a transfer to a shuttle service at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the early 1980s, the immigrants were being shuttled from the border into Los Angeles in ever-increasing numbers, dropped at the edge of Skid Row, and pointed in the direction of the dozens of broken-down single-room occupancy hotels -- SROs.

Trouble was, Callaghan explained, the hotels were dangerous. Families, women with young children, were sharing corridors and facilities with Skid Row men who don’t mind their manners, their mouths, their morals or their anti-social malice.

Relying on friends at All Saints, “with not a word of Spanish, we put together a board of 12 people, had $3,000 in our pocket, rented a storefront, plugged in the coffee pot, and declared it a center for Skid Row immigrant families -- somewhere they could escape to from the SROs. A safe place if they didn’t want to stay in their room.

“We had kids at the center all day while the parents hunted for work, or were at work. We started a legal clinic for work-related problems. We did parenting classes,” she said, “and lifestyle classes. And we made a decision -- to put ourselves out of business by moving all the families out of Skid Row. That began in 1982, and we ultimately moved 400 families out of 22 hotels.”

She came with lawyers

The plan was a simple copycat program of what people -- particularly church- and synagogue-connected folk -- were doing for the Vietnamese Boat People. Callaghan said Skid Row families were adopted, money was found to pay for an apartment -- deposit, first month and last month rent. “It worked out to a little over $600 per family.”

There was an obvious problem, of course. Move out one family from a hotel and another would move in. It was a cycle that could have lasted forever. Callaghan solved that one Alice-style. “Alice-style” is confrontation born of indignation and fueled by determination. She plants her feet on behalf of the beleaguered immigrant or Skid Row inhabitant and stands her ground. And not police, not the Business Improvement District, nor the local political machinery can shift her. (The political issues usually concern the homeless -- in 20 years the Immigration and Naturalization Service has never raided Las Familias.)

To stop the constant hotel turnover of immigrant family out, immigrant family in, she turned up at the hotels with lawyers. “We’d meet with the owner, measure the rooms and say you can’t have that many people in a room this size. If you decide to re-rent to families,” she’d tell them, “we will call the fire department, the building and safety department, we’ll sue you for the criminal conditions in your hotel, and we’ll sic the city attorney’s slum housing task force on you.”

Years later, Callaghan looks back and laughs. “We did that for four years. It shifted the hotel’s economics -- they were getting far more for a room renting to families than to a single guy off the streets.”

She closed down the Las Familias Skid Row day center and moved it to its safer present-day garment district site a few blocks away.

But she’s still using the same tactics. Providing port-a-johns for those who live on and off Skid Row was an eight-year saga. Callaghan won out. Under Mayor Richard Reardon -- the previous mayor wouldn’t budge -- 26 portable toilets were allocated to Skid Row. The city lined them all up side-by-side.

Callaghan objected, said they needed to be spread around the 50-square block region.

The city said they stay put.

Each night, after the streets department went home, Callaghan and company and the Catholic Worker community uprooted the johns and replanted them around the neighborhood. The next morning, the street department put them back. That continued until the city gave in.

“I don’t always agree with Alice,” said board chair Wyckoff. “I don’t think anybody could always agree with Alice, but her stances are taken with honesty and good judgment. She often does look beyond the obvious into some of the secondary affects of what people are proposing, and recognizes there’ll be problems. And it’s surprising how often she knows what those problems are, and faces them.”

A demolition moratorium

Having seen how bad the hotels were, Callaghan again took a contrarian course -- instead of favoring their demolition, she got a demolition moratorium for the remaining 65 hotels. That lasted for close to 10 years. It has now expired.

Callaghan and company then embarked on another venture, buying the hotels, rehabbing them and renting them back to the Skid Row inhabitants -- often for less rent than they’d previously been paying.

“We have raised hundreds of millions of dollars -- the board has. There’s state money, and tax credit money, “ she said. “Las Familias bought the first two or three hotels, then we created the Skid Row Housing Trust as a separate entity.” It now owns 19 hotels. Other nonprofits have done the same.

Yet Callaghan’s journey and stances point not to success stories, not to how society can clean itself up and do the right thing, but how complex things can get. Reality at the street level is not necessarily everyone else’s reality.

In the 1990s, out-of-step with California progressives, Callaghan began to publicly oppose the existing bilingual programs -- because they taught children to read and write only in Spanish, thus “guaranteeing they’d never go on to college. None of the people favoring bilingual education had their children in it. Our parents complained, and finally, I understood. They boycotted, and we subsequently helped write Proposition 227,” which passed in 1998 and ended the bilingual program.

Equally complex, Las Familias is “part of Sweatshop Watch,” she said, “and we support all those efforts. I am extremely ambivalent about doing so. Because, if you clean up the garment district, our families will lose their jobs.

“And that’s the reality. I mean our families are below the working-force level. They’ll do any, I mean any job. And any job is better than no job.”

But the agonizing was interrupted.

The after-school kids were pouring in through the front door. And in the rear yard, with its tall wooden fencing and jungle gym equipment, the gate was opened and in came the ice cream man.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s California-based editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2001