At 7:30 on a recent chilly night, Father Arnold N. Abelardo tends to 200 homeless people lined up for food outside Our Lady Queen of Angels church in the historic Olvera Street district in downtown Los Angeles.
He asks Dolly about street life and John about job prospects. He whisks a family into the church basement, where he gives them milk, blankets and toys.
Another day, the Roman Catholic priest lures his largely Latino congregants to his side after Mass with mariachi music, stands on a chair and exhorts them to register to vote. “If we want to achieve change, we have to actively participate in politics, and the best way to do that is register to vote!” he booms.
And some neighboring merchants fear the church’s new activism will bring back the controversial days of Olivares, who declared La Placita a sanctuary in 1985. Although many activists hail the late Olivares as a visionary hero, his critics say the refugees he sheltered transformed the area into a “war zone” of fights, drug use, panhandling and other mayhem.
Vivien Bonzo, president of the Olvera Street Merchants’ Assn., said business revenues dropped by an estimated 40% during Olivares’ time. She said business later revived but has been down again by about 20% over the last few years. However, she could not separate the effect of the homeless from the overall recession and drop in tourism after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In one 30-day period a few months ago, two area employees were beaten, a handgun was discovered in the plaza and a homeless man was found dead of a drug overdose, according to Rushmore Cervantes, interim general manager of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument.
Police Officer Ken Lew, who patrols the area, said crime had not risen statistically but the nuisance factor has increased with the neighborhood’s homeless population during the last 18 months. He said he asked the priests to stop feeding the homeless, suggesting they send them instead to Skid Row organizations for food, shelter and medical care.
“I’m very concerned,” Lew said. “The homeless create trash. They don’t clean up. They’re like an eyesore.”