The Rev. Andy Bales will soon lose his right foot and ankle. A flesh-eating virus attacked his leg on the sidewalks that all too often double as toilets in the neighborhood where Bales serves, Downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
“The story about my foot – I didn’t tell it for a year,” Bales said in a recent CSQ interview. The day after media outlets broke the pending amputation news, Bales said the City declared a state of emergency about homelessness, and a prominent local politician contacted him. “Andy, today was all about you,” the politician said. “If Andy Bales can’t walk down the street and preach the Gospel, we had to do something.”
To a layperson, Bales’ arc sounds like something from the Old Testament. Pious man serves others in place full of pain, trauma, illness, and addiction. Once he’s afflicted, his suffering catalyzes change for the greater good.
“My foot helped motivate, because it embarrassed people that I got it,” Bales said. “But every day, somebody’s getting it out there. Every day somebody’s getting some flesh-eating disease. I am vulnerable because of a kidney transplant, so I have low immunity. But there are tons of vulnerable people out there with low immunity.”
“People are suffering and dying on our streets. We feel it’s our duty to step up and work to get every person off the streets of Skid Row, first, and then throughout Los Angeles.”
Filling a Great Need
Bales is the CEO of the Union Rescue Mission (URM), a homeless shelter and services nonprofit located in the heart of Skid Row. URM was founded in 1891, opened as a series of tents three years later, and then moved from Main Street to its current South San Pedro Street address in 1994. A second URM location, Hope Gardens Family Center for women and children, opened in 2007 in Sylmar, Calif.
Los Angeles’ Skid Row is a shocking 49-square-block zone that is among America’s worst ongoing humanitarian crises and certainly Los Angeles’ enduring and grievous failing. Estimates range, but one recent census counted 47,000 people homeless in Los Angeles County. (URM puts the number at 57,000, including as many as 4,000 people who reside on sidewalks in Skid Row.)
“People are suffering and dying on our streets,” Bales says. “We feel it’s our duty to step up and work to get every person off the streets of Skid Row, first, and then throughout Los Angeles. Either we do it, or we inspire others to join us and do it.”
URM internal documents show that the organization provided nearly 700,000 meals during the most recent fiscal year and gave more than 300,000 total nights of shelter to individuals plus another approximately 30,000 total nights to families. The documents also show thousands of total hours listed providing dental care, health care, mental health services, and legal clinic visits. On the day CSQ interviewed Bales, 222 mothers, children, and senior citizen women were housed at Hope Gardens, with a total of 1,163 people at URM and Hope Gardens combined.
All of those stats are a drop in the bucket to Skid Row’s overall needs. Following decades of policies designed to concentrate and contain homelessness to this part of the city – as well as the menu of larger societal issues, conditions, and policies that lead to homelessness – Skid Row is what it is today despite having four major shelters and reportedly more than 100 registered nonprofits. Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t Skid Row success stories.
“I rush here every day to get to work because I get to see people who’ve suffered, turned their lives around and become people who are now not only safe but sober and working and confident and proud,” Bales says. “You can’t trade that for anything.”
Begging for Change
Inspirational, volunteer visitors to the mission have included Kendrick Lamar, Eric Dickerson, and Elon Musk, according to Bales. But running a mission also requires money. “We have to raise roughly $54,000 a day,” Bales says. “And it’s all dependent on sacrificial gifts and compassion,” With a smile, the CEO says that his truer job title is “Chief Begging Officer.”
On Skid Row, there’s a fine line between health and horror. On the day a writer visited URM, police caution tape bisected the adjacent streets and URM was locked down. A man outside – not from the Mission – had allegedly just shot and killed a transgender woman who was his partner. Another day, Bales and URM security guards helped a woman being beaten, her wheelchair knocked over. On another day, Bales in his own wheelchair escorted a mentally ill man being attacked by alleged gang members down the block and home.
Those are anecdotes, but Bales keeps hard numbers as well. For example, during one recent month, for the first time in its 125-year history, URM hosted more women and children than men. “We have never seen so many women and children pouring in our doors,” Bales says. “Our policy is that we will never turn away a woman at the door and we will never turn away a family.”
A Dynamic Duo for Good
Scott Minerd, the global chief investment officer of Guggenheim Partners, was featured on the cover of CSQ’s Spring 2016 issue. Minerd spoke of his admiration for the Union Rescue Mission (URM), including the Hope Gardens Family Center that his largess was instrumental in opening. “I’ve come to believe I’ve benefited a lot from being in this country,” Minerd said. “I think there’s an obligation to give back and provide public service.”
When Minerd toured URM, he left behind the largest check for URM that URM CEO Rev. Andy Bales had received. Since then, Minerd’s commitment has grown. “He pretty much single-handedly carried Union Rescue Mission and Hope Gardens through the Great Recession,” Bales says.
Minerd is a muscular man who gives added meaning to the term “power suit” when he’s in business attire. “I wanted to go have lunch with Scott,” Bales said of the pair’s first meeting. “We sat down where all the powerlifters and bodybuilders eat, at The Firehouse in Venice, not far from Gold’s Gym where they all worked out. He introduced me to Jay Cutler, Mr. Olympia! All of these big guys made me feel very small.” Bales recalls eating double buffalo burgers and chatting with Minerd: “He looked at me and he said, ‘God’s tapping me on the shoulder and telling me to do more, Andy.’”