Union Rescue Mission serves thousands at Thanksgiving feast

The Rev. Andy Bales speaks about the Thanksgiving Celebration at the Union Rescue Mission.

When asked what brought him to the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row, the Rev. Andy Bales recalled a sermon he gave 24 years ago.

“I preached a sermon about how important it is to feed people who are hungry and not turn your back on people who are hungry,” said Bales. “If you turn your back on people who are hungry, it’s like turning your back on God himself.

“And I preached that six times, and then on a weekend, I had a man ask me for my lunch and I turned him down. I realized that I was not practicing what I preached.”

So, in the spirit of “practicing what he preached,” Bales went to work at a downtown rescue mission, ultimately ending up at the Union Rescue Mission on San Pedro Street.

imageAnd on Saturday afternoon, Bales joined 300 volunteers in providing a Thanksgiving meal to an estimated 3,500 of Skid Row’s hungry.

The mission’s Thanksgiving Celebration, co-sponsored by the daytime drama The Bold and the Beautiful, is its largest food event of the year.

Among event volunteers were cast members from The Bold and the Beautiful, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry and Paris Hilton, who Public Relations Specialist Kitty Davis-Walker said often volunteers at the Union Rescue Mission.

Donald Morris, who attended the event, said that the lines weaving up San Pedro Street were so long that he left and came back.

Gobbling down a piece of pumpkin pie next to Morris, Daljit Singh added, “I’ve enjoyed the food, enjoyed the lunch.”

While dishes ranged from stuffing to greens to macaroni and cheese, the highlight of the meal were 160 turkeys, cooked in 15 turkey fryers between the hours of 1 and 11 a.m.

“We’re trying to welcome everyone who’s on Skid Row, who’s experiencing homelessness and welcome them to our house. We welcome them to our house and welcome them to sit down and have a nice Thanksgiving Dinner,” said Bales.

imageThis year’s celebration differed from past ones in its location. Bales said it is usually held on San Pedro Street, but due to inclement weather, the celebration was moved inside.

“Having to do it inside made us live a little close and see each other a little closer, and so hopefully it built some community today,” he said.

Bales also hopes that the Thanksgiving Celebration will spread awareness about the programs at the Union Rescue Mission. The mission houses men, women and children and offers long-term rehabilitation programs.

The number of people on the streets of Skid Row has decreased from 2,000 to 750, said Bales. But he believes reaching out to the remaining 750 will be a greater challenge.

“They are reluctant to come into a mission. They are suffering physically and mentally and often battling addiction. And so, they need a special way to reach out to them,” said Bales.

For that reason, the mission offers cold water on hot days and extra beds during the winter. It has also partnered with the Chamber of Commerce and the United Way in advocating for the creation of more supportive permanent housing.

And at the Thanksgiving Celebration, it gave the residents of Skid Row a place to escape the rain, grab a meal and maybe more.

“Sometimes, it becomes more than a meal,” said Bales. “They may decide to make a change, come in and enroll in one of our programs and give life one more try.”

The push to make downtown L.A. a real city center

imagePhoto courtesy of Todd Jones Photography.

Downtown Los Angeles has long suffered an identity crisis. Bustling and noisy during the day but a ghost town at night, this “city center” is far from being the center of the L.A. Tourists flock to Hollywood, Beverly Hills and the beach. Few stray downtown for a day of sightseeing.

But AEG, the company who owns and operates the Staples Center and LA Live!, wants to change that. The latest push for downtown rejuvenation includes a proposal for a $725 million NFL stadium, and an expansion of the Staples Center. The big idea? Bring crowds downtown and keep them there. AEG’s Tim Leiweke says the company hopes to see completion of the NFL stadium in time for the 2016 Super Bowl.

Angelenos who live and work downtown have already witnessed a dramatic change in the past few years, as the city pays more attention to downtown and its potential for tourism and entertainment revenue. The first push saw the addition of LA Live! and the Marriott Hotel. So how do they feel about this second wave of development?

Listen to downtowners talk about a potential NFL stadium:

Greg Johnson, who is homeless and living on the streets downtown, says development means pushing out the homeless population and making way “for the rich.”

“All they’re doing is building for the rich,” said Johnson. “We can’t go to the stadium. We’ve got no money. We probably can’t even get a job there.”

The demographic shift has been dramatic in the last few years, according to Johnson. While the homeless population has swelled with African Americans, the new lofts and apartments downtown are being filled with White and Asian residents.

“They say, ‘taking back L.A.’,” said Johnson. “I never knew it was missing.”

However, Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row, says that companies like AEG can have a positive impact on the problem of homelessness in Los Angeles.

“The first push actually brought a lot of attention to the fact that Skid Row exists,” said Bales. “This latest push probably could have the same effect. It brings more attention, but it also sounds like it could bring more jobs to the area.”

AEG has donated between $10,000 and $15,000 to Union Rescue Mission, according to Bales, and also occasionally offers sports tickets to residents of the homeless shelters. In 2006, Leiweke announced a gift of $250,000 to the Midnight Mission.

Making a difference will require more effort from the business community, said Bales, including a dedication to creating more permanent housing for the homeless population. But above all, says Bales, Los Angeles must experience a “change of heart” about homelessness.

“The biggest piece missing in solving the situation of homelessness in L.A. has been the business community,” said Bales. “That’s one of the reasons why we are the capital of homelessness. The City of Angels is the capital of homelessness. How embarrassing is that?”

Listen to the full interview with Union Rescue Mission CEO Andy Bales here:

Only a few days left to save Hope Gardens homeless shelter

Union Rescue Mission’s Hope Gardens has offered shelter to many homeless women and children in Los Angeles. Now, experiencing a financial drought, Hope Gardens is on the brink of closure. CEO Rev. Andy Bales says that they are still in need of $1,035,577 before June 30th. The closure of the Sylmar shelter would no doubt put extra stress on L.A.‘s already strained facilities.

Fundraising efforts have been alarmingly successful in a short span of time, with URM raising $1 million in the past two weeks. The total now stands at $1.7 million of a $2.8 million goal.

“Time is of the essence and we need everyone’s help to keep women and children from returning to the mean streets of Skid Row,” wrote Bales in his latest news update.

Here’s what the CEO had to say about the three ways people can help:

1)  Donate.  Every gift we receive by June 30th will be matched up to $500,000.

2)  Text “URM” at 85944 to donate $10.  Please reply “yes” when prompted.

3)  Invite your friends to become our Facebook fan.  We will receive $1 for every new fan up to $25,000.

4)  Spread the news.  Share our story on your blog, re-post our blog, or re-tweet our Twitter messages.

If everyone does just one thing, it will make the difference.  Thank you for stepping up to meet the need.

URM also produces a series of mini documentaries about the people who have successfully transitioned out of homelessness through the shelter. Watch Serwa’s story from Hope Gardens: