Checking In to Life Off the Street
Nonprofit hotels are a big step off skid row for those who qualify. But a gentrifying downtown puts their future in doubt.

By Carla Rivera
Times Staff Writer
November 28, 2005

Ronald Sedberry has moved into a home for the holidays, savoring the season at the newly opened Yankee Hotel downtown. Here in this skid row abode, he is sheltered by a roof instead of being exposed to the elements and has the luxury of a private bathroom instead of the stench of a public Porta-Potty.

A year ago, Sedberry was living out of his car. He later became one of Los Angeles' legions of skid row homeless. The Yankee, a nonprofit residency hotel built on the site of an infamous crime-ridden neighborhood bar, has brought a strong measure of relief to his life and that of others who at last have permanent shelter.

With 80 spacious efficiency units, a modernist stucco exterior and flower-filled courtyard, the Yankee was designed as affordable housing for low-income and once homeless tenants. Like Sedberry, many of its residents came directly off the streets.

"The stress level is all the way down," said Sedberry, 47, settling into a comfortable chair in the hotel's community room.

The opening of the Yankee comes as downtown Los Angeles is undergoing a makeover, with new cultural institutions, an influx of residents and demand for upscale lofts. At the same time, downtown's skid row is home to one of the nation's largest concentrations of homeless people and services that aid them.

The City Council is considering a one-year citywide moratorium on the demolition of single-room-occupancy hotels, such as the Yankee, until it can develop a preservation strategy so that the poor and homeless are not displaced. Also, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has proposed using $50 million in city funds to develop service-enriched housing for people suffering from mental illness and addictions.

Nonprofit leaders such as Anita U. Nelson, executive director of the SRO Housing Corp., which developed the Yankee and several other skid row hotels, welcome such efforts.

Nelson and others said they have been struggling to hold their own.

With property prices downtown skyrocketing, Nelson and other nonprofit developers fear they may not be able to continue to build and rehabilitate housing for the poor. SRO Housing has built 20 residences for more than 1,700 people and is in escrow on the 49-unit Lyndon Hotel, next door to the Yankee, which is at 501 E. 7th St.

"We can coexist," said Nelson, noting the market-rate Santee Court lofts two blocks away, which rent for at least $1,400 a month. "The residents here, when they have supportive services, are just like any other residents."

The Yankee features an on-site case manager and amenities including a computer classroom, a community kitchen and dining area, a laundry and subterranean parking. The rooms - 300 to 400 square feet compared with the typical 90 of most SROs - have separate bathrooms, ceiling fans, kitchenettes with granite and wood fixtures, and stainless steel refrigerators.

Fifty-eight of the units are subsidized. Sedberry, for example, receives $221 monthly in government benefits and pays about $66 monthly in rent. The 22 market-rate rooms are affordably priced at about $425 a month.

Sedberry said the Yankee has changed his outlook on life, after a year of hardship.

After his girlfriend died, he was forced out of the apartment that was leased in her name and lived out of his car for several months. When it was repossessed, he wandered downtown streets, and was in and out of emergency shelters and missions.

"I tried my best not to go the cardboard-box way," said Sedberry, who has experience working a six-color printing press. "But when you're homeless, you go into a snowball effect and it's hard to punch your way out. You fill out applications for jobs, but you have no address and no phone for follow-up. If you do go on an interview, you have no soap to clean yourself or clothes to wear."

Now, Sedberry said, "the snowball is in reverse."

"This gives me the incentive to reach the goals I've got," Sedberry said, "to feel proud and good about myself, to get up in the morning with clean clothes, something in my stomach, before I go to an interview."

Nelson said Sedberry's experience is atypical.

Most homeless people turn to emergency programs and transitional housing before finding a permanent space such as the Yankee. Many people from the streets must relearn how to manage money and overcome addictions and other instabilities. But the SRO Housing agency can accommodate those who falter because it also offers emergency and transitional housing and supportive services as backup.

Yankee tenants applied for the units and had to show some form of income, however small. SRO Housing officials screened applicants to ensure that they were capable of living independently.

Inside his second-floor end unit, Adam Johnson, 22, showed off the burgundy paisley-print bedspread he recently purchased and talked about his plans to buy matching drapes.

"I've got a little view, my own TV," said Johnson. "It's all right."

When Johnson moved into the Yankee a month ago, dirty and disheveled, he had been sleeping on the streets. Now he's talking about Christmas trees.

"I'm going to get me a plastic tree or maybe a real one," he said, his face brightening. "It feels good to have my own stuff, so I'm happy."

The stench of urine-soaked streets, the constant threats of theft, physical danger and illness are still raw for LaPearl Lewis, 53. The grandmother of four moved into the Yankee about a month ago after spending nearly two years in emergency shelters and on the sidewalks of skid row. She was living in Atlanta when she followed her daughter and son-in-law to Los Angeles to better herself and find a career. But she was never able to find permanent work. She didn't want to burden her family and gravitated to downtown service providers.

Lewis stayed with her daughter during last year's rains, but caught pneumonia twice. On the streets, thieves stole her personal belongings and identification. She finally found solace in a sidewalk encampment near 7th and San Pedro.

"A lot of time at night you'd see people high on drugs standing over you, scary stuff," said Lewis, a smooth-skinned woman whose nickname on the street was Queen. "You couldn't go to sleep, so I'd take naps with one eye open. Every day you'd see people fighting with knives and big old swords and see dead people."

In the Yankee she values her privacy, "being able to pray alone without interruption ... being able to use my own bathroom alone and to cook my own food, it's just a blessing," she said.

Lewis will visit her children and new grandson this holiday season, but she has plans for her new home.

"I plan to have a Christmas angel and decorate the windows," she said. "I'm overwhelmed because I know this was worth the wait."