From Temple and Grand to where the underserved live

-- The Tidings / April 2006

Story & Photos by Bill Stephens

Although it's early Thursday in downtown L.A.,  20 of Gus Catipon's Cathedral Outreach  volunteers are making sandwiches for a unique homeless feeding program. Some stand at a long table spreading cheese, meat, and mustard onto bread. Others stuff brown bags with sandwiches, fruit, water, and sweets.

This Thursday program takes lunches right to the tents of homeless living east of downtown's Skid Row under L.A. River bridges and in nearby streets.

"In 2001, we had a few volunteers making 100 sandwiches weekly for local parish shelters," says Catipon, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels outreach director. "I  knew about the growing  population under L.A. River bridges and about Skid Row's many mission and week-end soup kitchens. So I suggested targeting the underserved under the bridges on Thursdays. Now we have 40 volunteers making 1200 total sandwiches weekly on Tuesday and Thursday."  

L.A.'s serious, complex downtown homeless problem is compounded by the area's renaissance.  "Some complain our feeding attracts homeless. But these people need help. We can mobilize quickly and have dedicated volunteers. We're called by God to help. The Cathedral is committed to helping downtown underserved, and this is just one of our outreach efforts. Of course, donations and volunteers are welcome." 

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Mid-morning. Volunteers Bob Lavallee, Caroline Rubio, Jim Denny, and I head southeast from the Cathedral in a van, skirting Skid Row.

Explains aerospace retiree Lavallee: “We serve people on the edges of Skid Row. Many feel Skid Row's too dangerous."

We stop at three empty tents. “Our homeless clients move around, so our task is to find them," says Lavallee.

Near a littered lot, we spot Larry, a regular.

“We have lunch, Larry,” retiree Denny says,  emerging from the van.

Larry, a man with a craggy face, dusty clothes, and gentle manner, accepts two sack lunches,  chocolates and hygiene kit. “This helps keep me healthy,” he says. “When you have your health, you have everything.”

Larry says he's been here 10-15 years and doesn’t know what he'd do if he had to rejoin society. 

Under soaring Sixth Street bridge Caroline Rubio chats with somewhat disoriented Donald, just arrived from Oklahoma.

She hands him lunch. “Stop by our Outreach office at Temple and Hill and talk to our case worker."


Rubio, who grew up in downtown L.A. and volunteers daily at the Cathedral, says "helping these people touches you, is gratifying, and makes you appreciative."

Across the street Rubio and Denny approach a camper shell. Joe, who wears a pony tail and earns money helping local warehouses, gratefully accepts lunch.  

"These guys make a difference and never give me a hard time,” says Joe, whose situation has been improving. “I enjoy their visits."

Back in the van Lavallee notes that the team never evangelizes. "That isn’t the goal."

Underneath a river bridge, men emerge from small tents to claim their lunches. A tall man wearing shades and a bandana, goes by "Seven."

“How’s it going Seven?” Lavallee says

“Fine, just on my way to work.” 

Homeless nine years, he works part-time.  “God directs these people to help us,” Seven says, hugging the volunteers.  

On a sunny street, we spot another Larry. He’s wearing shorts, no shirt, and a bushy beard, Two  shopping carts guard his tent.

“How are things Larry?” Denny asks, handing him two lunchbags.

“Okay," says Larry, 59, but looking older. “Excuse  my informal attire."

A Vietnam vet who's been here years, Larry loves novels, which the feeding team occasionally bring. The lunches help him get by, he says.

We stop near two tents on a gritty dead-end.

"Anybody home? We have lunches."

Ron emerges, wearing a scruffy beard. Happy for the lunches, he shouts: "I LOVE chocolate!"

He's been here years. "I got attuned. See it as an extended camping trip.”

Inside Ron's tent  a tired woman waves.

A familiar person approaches the van.

Melanie!” Rubio says. “We thought we missed you.”

Melanie breaks into a dance as she receives sandwiches and hygiene kit. “These guys help me so much," she says, smiling. "They're the greatest.”

Driving north, we meet a young man in a chair reading a newspaper.

“Hi Pruiit,” Denny says politely. “Want lunch?”

He nods. Pruitt accepts the sack lunches and chocolates. After chatting, he says: “These people are my best friends.”

Later we spot an older man sitting by his tent.

“Hi Elijah,” Caroline says, getting out of the van. “We have lunch.”

Grey bearded Elijah accepts two lunches. A Chicago musician, he came here years ago, landing in the street. “These people help a lot,” he says.   

As we approach tougher areas, Lavallee says they don't know the people here as well, so stay alert.

Nearby, Denny says, a building owner recently asked them not to feed because people sell drugs around there. "Not all of them,” Denny replied. "We’re here to feed people, not condemn them."


Denny says this work has changed his life, made him more appreciative. "It's a complex problem, but our piece helps. Jesus said feed the poor."

A man complains his tent was stolen. The team gives him a rolled-up tent.

"Thanks so much! Great."

In another tough industrial area, we pull up to a group sitting against a wall.  A man and a woman are screaming at each other. Accepting  sandwiches, a woman in a halter top says: “Don't pull up like that. Somebody will think you're undercover agents."

On a nearby street, we come upon defeated-looking people sitting amid trash. Several collect our lunches and grunt appreciation.  A menacing man leans close.  “You have no idea what this means to have you come by," he says.

A tear trickles down his face. He looks embarrassed. “Men aren’t supposed to cry.”

“It’s okay,” Lavallee says, patting him on the arm. “We’ll be back to see you next week."

The van heads off for the Cathedral. 

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