A Very Dear Abbey
Kelvin McClelland in his unit at the new Abbey Apartments. The $28 million Skid Row complex mixes apartments with a suite of services in the effort to keep people off the streets. Photo by Gary Leonard.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - From the top-floor terrace of a new apartment complex on San Pedro Street, resident Kelvin McClelland looks down at the roof of the adjacent Midnight Mission and points to his former sleeping place.

“See that skylight there?” he asks. “Right under there, that’s where I stayed.”

McClelland slept on the top level of a bunk bed in a dorm shared with other homeless men, many of them battling substance abuse. While he no longer stays there, he is fond of the mission, mostly because it’s where he got clean. The services he received there have led McClelland to consider the mission his “mother.”

But since January, the place he calls home has been the Abbey Apartments, a 115-unit permanent supportive housing complex from nonprofit developer Skid Row Housing Trust. The 645 San Pedro St. building, which is between the Midnight Mission and the SRHT’s Rainbow Apartments, is more than just a place to sleep — like other permanent supportive housing complexes, it provides a suite of social services to ensure that residents do not succumb to the temptations of Skid Row and wind up back on the streets.

The facility opened in January to overwhelming demand. In two weeks of leasing, the company received 600 applications from individuals like McClelland who didn’t, or still don’t, have permanent shelter, said Molly Rysman, director of special projects for SRHT.

“There’s giant demand to get into permanent supportive housing,” Rysman said. “Someone like Kelvin, where else is he going to be able to afford an apartment? Even traditional affordable housing is aimed at people who work full-time and have an income he doesn’t have.”

A Funding Puzzle

The $28 million Abbey secured capital and operating dollars from six public agencies, a nonprofit investor and one bank. The city Housing Authority awarded rental subsidies from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

With the Abbey, SRHT’s funding recipe included, for the first time in its 20-year existence, a chunk of money from Los Angeles County to support in-house social services, Rysman said. A three-year, $1.8 million county grant will fund a medical clinic, a substance abuse recovery program, case management and assistance for tenants seeking public benefits.

While other SRHT projects have onsite social services, none can boast the range and quality that the county funding will support at the Abbey, Rysman said.

SRHT started building Single Room Occupancy housing in 1989. The developer targeted old, dilapidated hotels for rehab.

The company soon realized that shelter alone is not sufficient for helping a residential population largely suffering from mental illness, substance addiction and chronic health problems. By 1992, SRHT began to staff projects with case managers to refer residents to social services in Skid Row.

It wasn’t that easy.

“The way we do homeless services in Los Angeles is so fragmented that it really doesn’t work for people,” said Rysman. “So what we’re trying to do is reassemble the system in one place.”

Thus, in the Abbey, all the resources and services typically sought out by low-income residents, from medical and mental health treatment to substance abuse recovery programs, are under one roof. The building also has case managers on staff to work with tenants, helping them secure and retain benefits like Medi-Cal and steering them toward needed services.

Asterisk Marks the Spot

Perched above the building’s entrance is a 12-inch metal asterisk. It’s a subtle touch, but it is more than a small aesthetic detail, said Brian Lane, a principal with Santa-Monica-based architecture firm Koning Eizenberg.

“We hoped it would communicate that hey, something special is going on here,” Lane said. “Like when you see an asterisk when you’re reading, it calls attention.”

The 51,000-square foot Abbey is the latest SRHT project to employ a prominent architect (the Rainbow, which opened in 2006, was designed by Michael Maltzan). Koning Eizenberg recently received the 2009 Firm Award from the American Institute of Architects.

Units in the building, which come furnished, measure about 315 square feet and include a small kitchen and multiple windows. The six-story structure wraps around an interior courtyard, where green plants flow visually into the lime green apartment doors.

The building also includes two recreation rooms with flat screen televisions, meeting space and a large commercial kitchen.

“It was important for us to have this common space because we want people to build those friendships and create a new community for themselves, because one of the things about homelessness is you’re so isolated,” Rysman said.

McClelland, however, has been reminded that there is a big difference between isolation and privacy, something he is cherishing in his new apartment.

“It’s so quiet and peaceful here,” said McClelland, who joked that the mission was too loud because people snored too much. “Here you have your own private bathroom, shower; I can wake up, cook my breakfast, lunch and dinner. Man, this is beautiful.”

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at ryan@downtownnews.com.

page 7, 03/16/2009

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