Critics Say L.A. Homeless Shelter Is Too Posh

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Los Angeles' newest homeless center has drawn unexpected criticism for its gymnasium, hair salon and other amenities. Luke Burbank spent the night there to see what the $17 million Midnight Mission is really like.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The newest homeless shelter in Los Angeles faces unexpected criticism for being too posh. Even at a time when the homeless don't get much attention from the media, this shelter drew lots of notice for providing excessively nice surroundings. NPR's Luke Burbank wanted to find out if it really was that fancy, so he spent the night with some of the residents of The Midnight Mission.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

The first thing you notice about Alvin Hollier are his glasses. They have the chunky plastic frames preferred by people who run art galleries and coffee shops, but he didn't always have this particular pair. Four months ago when he was on the streets and smoking crack, his glasses were wire-rimmed, and each day, he'd use those wire rims to pack his crack pipe.

Mr. ALVIN HOLLIER (Resident, The Midnight Mission): If you bend wire enough, it's going to break, and I broke my glasses, and that was my moment of clarity, believe it or not, and I just--oh, wait a minute, I can't see. Uh-uh, that's enough.

BURBANK: That moment of clarity led Hollier here to The Midnight Mission. He's been sober and attending support meetings since February. Under his bunk is a desk, which is covered with pictures of his kids.

Mr. HOLLIER: That's little Alvin. He's 13. And this is Brianna(ph) and Morgan.(ph) They're 22 and 21, but I just wanted their baby pictures over here with me.

BURBANK: The second floor of the three-story building has two dorm areas, big, open rooms lined with bunks, which together can sleep almost 300 men. While the facility is new, it's anything but fancy. The floors are made of concrete, and the furniture is sparse. Walking the hallway that separates the two dorms, the smell of fresh paint mixes with the dinner cooking downstairs in the kitchen.

Mr. MICHAEL DEE (The Midnight Mission): This is what we call the fast line. We've got fried chicken. We've got rice and we've got Dodger Dogs, and we've got it going on.

BURBANK: Michael Dee and others dish up nearly 2,000 meals per day to the men who live here, the homeless who come in off the streets and even residents of other shelters who prefer The Midnight Mission's food. With $17 million in new construction, The Mission is the rock star of the local shelters. But that hasn't been completely a good thing.

Mr. ORLANDO WARD (Spokesman, The Midnight Mission): Ten national media outlets calling, requesting interviews, and this is great. This is what we hoped for.

BURBANK: Orlando Ward was once on skid row himself. Now he's The Mission's spokesman.

Mr. WARD: But when they started citing the article and I actually saw the article, something's wrong here. This is not accurate.

BURBANK: The article, in The Christian Science Monitor, described a state-of-the-art, city-funded facility where the homeless could work out and visit a hair salon. In fact, The Mission gets no city funding, and the salon is actually two barber chairs manned by members of the rehab program. Still, the story was picked up by the Drudge Report, creating an outrage. For residents like Kenji Taylor(ph), who worked day and night to get the place ready, it was a slap in the face.

Mr. KENJI TAYLOR (Resident, The Midnight Mission): This is something that is a part of our lives, I mean, because we've been here--I used to work here, you know, when they were building this place. This place is like--it has a piece of me in it.

BURBANK: As dinner wraps up in the kitchen, most residents have a few hours to unwind. Some hit the movie room. Others read in the library, but the real action is outside the building on a narrow balcony lit by the lights of downtown LA.

(Soundbite of music)

Group: (Singing) Who's that lady? Beautiful lady...

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, lady...

BURBANK: This is where the nightly game of dominoes happens.

Unidentified Man #2: What we need? Oh, we need two more players. That's...

(Soundbite of dominoes game)

BURBANK: By 9 PM, the lights are out in dorm one, but the challenge of actually falling asleep is just beginning, if you can handle the bright light that still streams out of the bathrooms and the continuing sounds of the domino game outside. There's one more hurdle--your bunk mate.

(Soundbite of person snoring)

BURBANK: On this night, the sound you are hearing lasted for literally seven hours.

(Soundbite of person snoring)

BURBANK: But apparently, some people are able to sleep through the racket, because at 5 AM, it's time to make the rounds with morning wake-up man Darrel Scott.

Mr. DARREL SCOTT (The Midnight Mission): Some of these guys have been in jail, you know, and you have to wake them up a certain way. You can't touch them, you know. I like knock on the edge of the bed. I don't put my hands on anybody.

(Soundbite of knocking noise)

Mr. SCOTT: Fred.

FRED: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCOTT: Wake-up time.

FRED: Mm-hmm. Thank you.

BURBANK: Back downstairs, the kitchen crew is already preparing today's breakfast, a sort of sloppy joe served with celery and Diet Pepsi.

Unidentified Man #3: Two lines now, Fred.

FRED: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #3: All right.

BURBANK: Out in the Mission's courtyard, a woman, waiting for breakfast, becomes hysterical. It's nothing new to security guard Larry Spells(ph).

Mr. LARRY SPELLS (Security Guard): There's an episode every morning, you know? Get a little breakfast in her, she'll be all right.

BURBANK: Spells says the woman is just the kind of person The Mission is able to reach because of the new building's location and size. On her way out, she thanks Spells for the food and says she'll be back for lunch. That lineup starts in just a couple of hours.

Luke Burbank, NPR News.

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