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A Night at L.A.'s New, 'Plush' Homeless Shelter


Did you hear the reports earlier today on NPR's "Morning Edition" from the new homeless shelter in downtown LA? It's called the Midnight Mission, and some people complain it's too plush because it's got a gym, it's got a hair salon and a big-screen TV, though you might not really want to stay there yourself. NPR's Luke Burbank did spend the night there to get a feel for the place and for the people who rely on it. And after filing his report for "Morning Edition," he said there was just a lot more he couldn't get into the story. So we've invited him here to our studios.

Luke, what do you got?

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

Well, Alex, I got an Associated Press wire clipping about maybe three weeks ago that said, `This very plush homeless shelter is opening in downtown Los Angeles,' and we thought, `Oh, that seems a little unlikely.' So I was dispatched to go down and do a story about it. And I got there and I was struck by two things. First of all, it was not that plush. The supposed beauty salon was two barber chairs that are manned by people who are in the program, and they basically have one style of haircut which is shave your head. So it was by no means kind of as it was being billed in this one news story.

And the other thing was I was being taken around this mission by the spokespeople, and then while I was talking to them about the nuts and bolts of the place, behind them were all these very interesting people who I thought, `I should be talking to them,' so I ended up staying the night there.

CHADWICK: Well, where do you sleep? I mean, where do you stay when you stay there?

BURBANK: Well, they have two big dormitory rooms on the second floor. They hold about 300 guys, and it's men only. And one of the people who was a couple of bunks over from me was a 25-year-old guy named Kenji Taylor. Very nice fellow. Has three kids. He's from St. Louis. And like a lot of the people there, he had a story about how he had gone down this road of drug and alcohol abuse.

Mr. KENJI TAYLOR: The first time I got drunk, it was off the wine that tastes just like Kool-Aid. I just went berserk. I started kicking mailboxes for whatever odd reason. I don't know. You know, from drinking, I started smoking weed. From smoking weed, I started using meth. And from meth, I went to cocaine.

CHADWICK: Jeez, that guy sounds like a recruit for Partnership for Drug-Free America, you know, one thing does lead to another.

BURBANK: Yeah. And that was a story I heard from a lot of guys there which was they had used marijuana, drunk alcohol. There were able to manage that, and then they got into crack cocaine and it was just over. One guy told me crack cocaine was the only thing he couldn't stay stopped from.

CHADWICK: Well, give me another one.

BURBANK: OK. One of the things--the story that came out when this mission was opened up was that it had this beauty salon, it had this fancy gym, and it was the Hilton for the homeless. Well, the gym isn't even open yet, but the guys there were so excited about this gymnasium and the basketball team that they're going to have when the gym is functional, that as I was walking by at about 10:00 at night, a couple of them--a guy named Taj Kennedy(ph), another guy named Philip Powers(ph)--they were standing there playing an imaginary game of basketball with each other. By the way, Alex, the basketball here is referred to as the pill. And they got in an argument about an imaginary foul in an imaginary game of basketball.

Unidentified Man #1: All right. Throw me the pill.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: Damn. Got it.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm standing. You can't do nothing.

Unidentified Man #1: That's a foul, man.

Unidentified Man #2: No, that ain't no foul.

Unidentified Man #1: That is a foul.

Unidentified Man #2: That's not a foul.

Unidentified Man #1: That is a foul.

Unidentified Man #2: That is not a foul. That is...

Unidentified Man #1: It is a foul.

BURBANK: This is not good team chemistry already.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, it is. This is what you do.

CHADWICK: Luke, there's no basketball here? They're just making this up?

BURBANK: There's no basketball. You can only walk around about 20 percent of the floor because there's, you know, debris and wood and rolled-up carpeting. They were so excited about the fact that they're going to have this basketball court that they just couldn't stay off of it.

CHADWICK: OK. So you're back from Midnight Mission, the supposedly plush homeless center. Tell me: Is this a place where we can put guests for DAY TO DAY when they're in town?

BURBANK: If they have an incredibly strong ability to sleep through almost anything, Alex, because sleeping in one of these big dormitories--they have about 300 guys in there--for somebody who's not used to it is all but impossible. I mean, you've got the light coming out of the bathroom. You've got guys playing their radio at their bunk. You've got people snoring. I mean, medically problematic snoring, Alex, like nothing I've ever heard. And so for people that thought they got the idea that this was an amazingly posh place, having spent the night there, I really didn't see that as the case. And one of the guys that I talked to, Tyrone Richard(ph), who is in recovery there, talked about how he thought that some of this criticism was really misplaced.

Mr. TYRONE RICHARD: With the fund, I think it was put to good use. This supplements a lot of things that the government isn't doing and the government isn't putting a dime in here, you know? So you can criticize the $17 million building, but in the long run, I think it actually pays off.

BURBANK: And it really did, Alex. I mean, there were a lot of people there who from their own stories were broken before they got there, and it's not known where they're going to go but they certainly seem to be getting fixed at this facility. And for my part, the next night when I went back to my bed with helicopters whizzing overhead, you know, LAPD, Alex, all the things I complain about, barking dogs, I still got the best night of sleep I've had since I moved to Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: NPR's Luke Burbank back from the homeless shelter.

Thank you, Luke.

BURBANK: Sure, Alex.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick, and NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Luke Burbank
Luke Burbank is kind of amazed that NPR is letting him co-host its new morning show, The Bryant Park Project, NPR's new morning news show launched on October 1, 2007.
Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.
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