It was a recent Wednesday afternoon, and the Rev. Andy Bales, Union Rescue Mission CEO, had already put in a 38-hour workweek. As head of one of the nation’s largest and oldest missions of its kind, perched in the dubious center of Skid Row on South San Pedro Street, the Pasadena resident has doubled down on his efforts to rescue the estimated 58,000 men, women and children experiencing homelessness across L.A. County.
That means Bales gives out his cellphone to anyone who needs it, answering those calls at all hours and driving hundreds of miles to retrieve desperate people and their belongings and bring them to the Union Rescue Mission shelter, where more than 13,000 people are given lodging and food daily. He does this to save every person he can from the inhumanity of sleeping on the street.
“I’m haunted by anyone being on the streets of L.A. We need immediate solutions because I know the devastation of experiencing homelessness,” Bales said.
Bales originally moved to Pasadena from Des Moines, Iowa, to take a job as a reverend of community outreach for the Lake Avenue Foundation. He also served for years on the board of Harambee Ministries, which will honor Bales at their upcoming benefit this Saturday, March 3.
He quickly began a relationship with many of the Pasadena homeless, and “those that are still alive,” he said, still call out to him with a “Hey, Pastor Andy!” when they see him around town.
Harambee Ministries Executive Director Harlan Redmond said selecting Bales as honoree was a “no-brainer.”
“I wanted to recognize him for some time as a co-laborer; the lengths Andy Bales has gone through to advocate for the homeless, for those who have no voice, no leverage, is impossible to quantify,” said Redmond, who meets regularly with Bales. “We don’t even know half of what he does, in the trenches every day, to make sure families stay off the street and making sure the kids are safe.”
A friend of Bale’s recently posted on Facebook: “The one place you can call 24/7/365 is Andy Bales at Union Rescue Mission when you have a family in need.”
Bales smiled at that — he’s proud of it, even if he was a little tired on a Wednesday. The night before, he sat outside the mission with a woman who pitched a tent with her children, refusing offers of help. She was mad at Union Rescue Mission. He and his team still stayed — they had to make sure her children were safe.
“We always say yes. We never turn away a family with children, never turn away a woman who comes to our door, never,” Bales said, easing into an office chair to discuss his 35 years of experience in community outreach and service to those “experiencing homelessness,” as he refers to it, because being homeless should never be a state of being.
Bales gets more than 1,000 emails a day, plus messages on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other platforms.
Union Rescue Mission has served the less fortunate on the streets for 127 years, beginning as a group of gospel wagons offering food, clothing and salvation to the impoverished. It grew over the years and expanded its efforts to feed both the body and the person, helping individuals and families break the cycle of poverty.
When Bales came on board 14 years ago, he brought a fresh fierceness to the leadership. He played a pivotal role in reshaping hospital and governmental policies, including those related to “dumping” of homeless patients from hospitals on to the streets of Skid Row. That happened after Bales and his team caught (on their outdoor cameras) an ambulance dumping a homeless woman on the street in nothing but her hospital gown.
Union Rescue Mission bought an abandoned retirement home on a 77-acre campus in Sylmar in 2005, providing permanent supportive housing for senior women, some of the most vulnerable on the streets, in a facility called Hope Gardens Family Center.
And against community backlash, Bales was able to open the facility for women and children as well in 2007. It offers living up to three years, with educational training and supportive services.
It still pains Bales to think of how hard he had to fight for that.
“We’re talking about not wanting women and children in your neighborhood,” he said dryly.
He compared it with a recent battle in Compton, where Union Rescue Mission served some 275 families facing homelessness last year after they were priced out by high rents. The Mission wanted to open a satellite housing option there. During a public hearing, a family with young children described their plight. The parents both worked, the children did well in school, and they did not want to disrupt their schooling. But the community’s council did not budge.
“People did not want them in their neighborhood. It’s always this ‘not in my backyard’ attitude,” he said. “This is one of the biggest challenges in L.A. — people don’t mind homeless on the streets and in the bushes and in the alleys of their neighborhoods, but they do not want services or shelters nearby. We need a serious change of heart in this city.”
Never giving up, Bales has found an option nearby for that satellite housing facility in Carson. Union Rescue Mission launched a capital campaign to build a permanent housing structure for families with children there.
“What we want to do is decentralize services, so we can serve people in their own neighborhoods instead of them having to come down here to Skid Row,” he said. “It just makes more sense.”
L.A. voters recently approved an ambitious $1.2 billion bond measure — known as Measure HHH — to provide long-term supportive housing with the construction of 10,000 housing units for the homeless.
The problem, Bales noted, is that it could take a decade to build. And even then, it will house just a fraction of the region’s homeless population.
“The passage of Measure H and Measure HHH was great, but we are in a state of emergency; we need emergency shelters now. I won’t be satisfied until they offer the immediate step of housing people until they can get all those other things in motion,” he said, noting that the Union Rescue Mission facility is “busting at the seams.”
Union Rescue Mission soon will open a “sprung tent” facility on its back parking lot, with bathrooms, heating and air conditioning, which can house 100 people in each tent. He wants to offer a six-month stay with case management. By working with community partners, he’s hoping to organize a slew of sprung tents across the city.
He is also working on a proposal for micro-unit housing, or tiny homes, which would help the Measure HHH money go 10 times further, he said.
“We don’t all need 1,000 square feet,” said Bales, who was planning a trip to Austin, Texas, to visit a low-income, micro-housing community. “We have to focus on creating intentional, low-end, micro-units that people can actually afford, instead of housing the government will always have to perpetually subsidize and that’s just not economically sustainable.”
The passion and call to help people experiencing homelessness are deeply personal to Bales, whose father was homeless his entire childhood. Bales points to a photo on his office wall of his father and grandfather living in a tent in Azusa Canyon. Although they were from Iowa, they would frequently come to California during the harsh winters by jumping freight trains. They lived in sheds, garages and tents, weather permitting.
In hindsight, Bales said, his grandfather, who served in World War I and even received the Purple Heart, probably suffered from PTSD.
But the trauma of being homeless as a child greatly affected his father. Even in the last week of his life, at 78, those memories haunted him.
“All he could talk about on his last week on the earth was the embarrassment, shame and devastation of experiencing homelessness. After all those years, it was the foremost thing on his mind. So I don’t want anyone to go through that, ever.”
Bales has sacrificed a lot to follow that mission, including his health. Committed to doing the rounds on Skid Row, shaking hands and passing out water bottles, he somehow contracted three flesh-eating infections several years ago. He had already had a quadruple bypass and a kidney transplant (donated by his wife, Bonnie). With Type 1 diabetes, he was wearing a wound boot to cover a sore on his foot. But somehow, he came into contact with human waste.
After trying to save his right leg for two years, doctors ultimately had to remove it below the knee.
He refers to the injury lightly, even lifting his pant leg to show off the steel limb he deftly uses (even to ride his bike to Sacramento to fundraise for the Mission, raising $2 million last summer).
“I’m not the only one. There are so many more vulnerable people on the streets getting this stuff all the time. It’s how we lost 800 people to the streets last year,” he said.
One of his colleagues, Kitty Davis-Walker, vice president of public relations, said Bales is going stronger than ever.
“I call him the bionic man; he’s even more mobile now, but it was also hard to keep up with him in his wheelchair. I used to say ‘If you see a wind go by, that’s Andy.’ Nothing is ever off the plate for him,” she said. “He’s turned it up even more notches; that’s the kind of environment and the emergency we are living in right now.”
The Rev. Albert Tate, Fellowship Monrovia’s founder who will take over at Harambee Ministries later this year as executive director, praised Bales as someone who epitomizes compassion.
“When you think of the heart of compassion, justice, someone standing in the gap for others and speaking for the voiceless, if there is a list being made anywhere in the world, Andy Bales has to be on this list,” he said. “When I think of Andy, I think of a fighter, I think of someone who has compassion and love and someone who forces us all to be better humans.”
To learn more about Union Rescue Mission and its efforts to help people in L.A. overcome homelessness, visit urm.org.