Aiding immigrants on Skid Row is calling of activist

20 Years that Changed Los Angeles, 20 Extraordinary Lives: Rev. Alice Callaghan

The Rev. Alice Callaghan wears no vestments, preaches in no church. Her ministry is L.A.’s Skid Row, and her flock are the poor families that live and work there, along with the thousands of homeless who roam its streets.

She has become the area’s most visible and influential voice for its immigrant population, drawing much praise and occasional criticism for her single-minded commitment. Her most ardent admirers describe her as headstrong and confrontational, and she readily admits that compromise isn’t her strong suit.

Alice, as she is known by friends and foes, prefers action to coalition-building, issues to ideology. “What I want is for people to drive through Skid Row and see an area that looks gentrified, but is for the poor.” Callaghan said. “It makes economic sense to do what we’re doing.”

Two jobs occupy most of her 14-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week schedule. One is running Las Familias Del Pueblo – the Families of the Town – a community center on Seventh Street near Main Street that she started in 1982 for garment workers and their children.

The other is heading the Skid Row Housing Trust, which she founded in 1988. The trust purchases and then converts the singleroom-occupancy hotels that dot the area into subsidized low-income housing units. In the past decade, the trust has bought 15 such hotels, and now manages real estate valued at $88 million. Another hotel about to open will provide housing for those who are HIVinfected.

Then there is the issue that has occupied much of her time: bilingual education. As much as anyone, she is responsible for Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education measure that is now law in California. “On this issue, put me on the other side of the politically correct,” she said. “I know that I’m off some Christmas cards forever.”

Callaghan has been a study in contrasts since she was very young. She grew up in a Catholic household and resolved to commit herself to the Church at an early age. But she was also unconventional and rebellious, shedding her parents’ Republicanism in high school and spending more time surfing than studying.

Upon graduation from high school, she decided to become a nun, and entered the order of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, a Catholic convent in Pasadena. “I surfed that morning in a two-piece swimsuit and entered the Middle Ages in the afternoon,” she recalled with a smile.

She served at Pasadena’s Episcopal All Saints Church and founded the Union Station homeless shelter – only to balk at taking her final vows because didn’t want to remain celibate. So she switched to the Episcopal Church and decided to become a priest.

As Callaghan neared completion of her studies for ordination in 1981, a friend suggested she work with the homeless on Skid Row. There, she found that immigrant families were living in crowded, single-room hotels, surrounded by drug dealers and junkies and paying rent to slumlords who cared little for their wellbeing.

She set out to move the families off Skid Row and into low-income housing. The L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency approved of her plans and agreed to pay moving costs. For other funds, she turned to the wealthy and influential parishioners she knew at All Saints who enlisted in her cause.

While attorneys from some of the most prestigious firms in the city worked pro bono, threatening legal action against hotel owners who rented to more than one person per room, Las Familias moved more than 400 families into affordable housing.

“There are almost no children living on Skid Row where there used to be hundreds,” said former Atlantic Richfield Co. President and CEO Robert E. Wycoff, who serves on the boards of both Las Familias and the Skid Row Housing Trust. “The whole area is a safer place than it would have been, and it’s all because of her.”

Callaghan then set about changing the hotels into low-income units for the area’s remaining residents. Once again she enlisted the CRA’s aid (“back when it had deep pockets”), picked up other public funding and successfully lobbied City Hall in 1989 for a moratorium against demolishing SRO hotels by owners who wanted to put in parking lots.

But she grew critical of the CRA, which took more time renovating than she felt was necessary, and quarreled with All Saints Church over its management of two of the converted hotels.

Callaghan discontinued her association with the church in 1990, and has had no liturgical duties since. “She is one of a kind and a free spirit,” said the current Bishop of L.A., Fredrick Borsch, who has supported her even while lamenting her lack of parish participation. “I wish she were more closely involved with the church and would in this way invite more people to share in her ministry.”

She argues that the streets of Skid Row are more in need of her devotions. “I’ve been to church a lot,” she said. “Men have created some very boring institutions, and I say let them keep them.”

Her iconoclasm sometimes brings rebukes from her allies, like last October when she was part of a group that protested the groundbreaking ceremony for the new $160 million Roman Catholic cathedral, chanting that the money should go to the poor.

But it was her successful crusade against bilingual education that generated the most controversy.

In 1995, Callaghan became frustrated when the parents at Las Familias began complaining that their children weren’t learning English at the local elementary school. She led a delegation asking that English classes be substituted for the bilingual education classes for those students who wanted them, but was refused.

So when Ron Unz, a millionaire Silicon Valley software developer, approached her about drafting an initiative to eliminate bilingual education, Callaghan agreed.

“He brought something to the table I didn’t have,” she said.

That something was time and money, and Unz collected more than half a million signatures for what became Proposition 227, which Callaghan helped write. Traditional liberal groups assailed it as discriminatory and mean-spirited, and she came under attack from people who once had cheered her, and drew praise from some unlikely quarters.

She remains committed to seeing the law implemented, An L.A. County grand jury report recently criticized the L.A. Unified School District for not implementing the law, and Callaghan sounds as if she is contemplating legal action against it.

“They are absolutely out of compliance and the only way I think they’ll ever come into compliance is if they’re taken to court,” she said.

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