Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

New Downtown Women's Center - twice the space and more help for homeless women

A few years ago, I interviewed clients of the Downtown Women's Center around Christmastime. The DWC is the only center in downtown LA that caters exclusively to women, which seems odd to me because it's the fastest growing portion of homeless people. But in any case, I was really impressed with the center and what it was doing for women who have nowhere else to turn.

(Monday at the DWC's new center at 442 South San Pedro. Credit: John Rabe)

On Monday, I saw what the DWC has been up to lately, and was even more impressed, and heartened. Friday, they're holding a grand opening for the new huge new $26-million building, with room to do even more for homeless women. I talked with the center's CEO Lisa Watson for this weekend's show, and you can hear it here.

(CEO Lisa Watson with a mixer donated for the DWC's new kitchen, which will also be used for helping women learn job skills. Credit: John Rabe)

If you don't happen to have the $800,000 the DWC needs to round out its $35-million capital campaign, the center needs volunteers of all sorts, even to just hang out with the women and help them feel human and valued. We did this one Christmas Eve, and it was the best time I've spent.

Here's the news release with all the details about the DWC's new home:


–  New Center contains the first women’s medical and mental health clinic in Skid Row;  71 affordable apartments plus 75 percent greater Day Center capacity; innovative social enterprise –

– Additional capacity urgently needed as women are fastest growing segment of homeless population –

LOS ANGELES – December 10, 2010 – The Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), the only organization exclusively dedicated to serving the needs of homeless and economically disadvantaged women in Los Angeles’ Skid Row, today unveiled its new and significantly larger home in a beautifully rehabilitated historic building at 442 S. San Pedro Street at 5th Street.  The six-story facility contains permanent housing and supportive services, including the Women’s Health Center, the first women’s medical and mental health clinic in Skid Row that DWC will operate with its medical services partner JWCH Institute, Inc.  It also features one of the most innovative social enterprises of its kind in downtown LA - MADE by DWC – a store and café that will sell unique handmade products created by DWC women collaborating with local artists. 

“We are grateful for the generous support of our donors and government agencies which has made this new center possible at this critical time.  Women are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population with more than 15,000 women without a home each night in Los Angeles County.  It has long been DWC’s top priority to create additional capacity to help more of these women in need,” says Lisa Watson, CEO of the Downtown Women’s Center.    

At 67,000 square feet, the new building is almost twice the size of DWC’s original facility on Los Angeles Street and includes both residences and an expanded Day Center.  The Annenberg Foundation Downtown Women’s Center Wallis House, as the Residence is named after its lead donor, contains 71 private studio apartments with supportive services.  Supportive housing is a successful, cost-effective combination of affordable housing with services that helps people live more stable, productive lives.

"Permanent supportive housing is the best tool we can use to end homelessness in Los Angeles and I applaud the efforts of the Downtown Women's Center," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. "When DWC was founded 32 years ago, it was the first shelter in the Country to offer permanent supportive housing for the homeless, whether men or women. Thanks to our combined efforts, the residents at this Center will be able to leave behind the streets for good and help us prove that permanent supportive housing is a cost effective long term solution to the crisis of homelessness."

The new center has 75 percent more capacity in its drop-in Day Center, serving 3,500 women annually, up from 2,000 women at the original DWC facility.  The Day Center provides three meals a day and a safe place where women can get respite from life on the street with day-rest beds, restrooms, showers, medical and mental health services, computer availability and a learning center.  Among its many services, the clinic will provide a health and wellness program that includes preventive services such as mammograms and diabetes and obesity prevention for uninsured and under-insured women in downtown LA. 

The building was granted to DWC by the City of Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency in 2008. 

“DWC has had an enormously positive impact on the lives of countless numbers of homeless women in Los Angeles by giving them the support they need to address their daily challenges and achieve self-sufficiency.  I am proud that the City of Los Angeles played a role in helping the Center expand into this beautiful new facility so that even more women can find help at this tremendous time of need,” said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry. 

Maureen Sullivan, Founder and Principal of LA-based Pica+Sullivan Architects, Ltd., served as the lead architect.  Sullivan and her all-female design team worked closely with DWC’s staff and residents to develop a deep understanding of the organization’s culture, its services and its respect for the women it serves.  “This building will change women’s lives and become a beacon of hope in the neighborhood,” she said.

The new home of DWC has numerous features not normally found in facilities serving the homeless, including a 2,400-square-foot Otis and Bettina Chandler Rooftop Garden with tangerine, lemon and lime trees and an herb garden; agricultural bins surrounding the parking lot provided by Los Angeles artist Lauren Bon for growing herbs and vegetables for use in DWC food preparation; an expanded commercial kitchen and pantry that will allow the organization to serve over 200 meals a day; a library; fitness room; therapeutic spa tubs and quiet lounge.

The European revival-style building was originally built in 1926 by Florence C. Casler, a pioneering woman developer who built many commercial and light industrial buildings in downtown Los Angeles from the late 1910s through the early 1930s with her business partner Jesse K. Lloyd.  The building was designed by William Douglas Lee, one of the most renowned architects in Los Angeles during the 1920s who designed many buildings in the Fashion District still in use today.  It is listed on the California Department of Parks and Recreation’s Historic Resources Inventory and evaluated as eligible for listing in the National Registry of Historic Places by the Community Redevelopment Agency.  The renovations to the building met the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Standards and achieved LEED Silver certification.

Gafcon Inc. and W.E.O’Neil are the contractors on the project.  Christy Johnson McAvoy, Managing Principal of Historic Resources Group, was the historical consultant.  Victoria Reitz, President of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID)/Los Angeles chapter, recruited and organized 40 volunteer designers who were involved in numerous capacities during various stages of the project, from conceptualizing and furnishing the rooms to designing the community areas.  ASID worked in partnership with Nest Feathers, a group of design professionals that help local communities through design projects.