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Midnight Mission centennial: How this man went from homeless to managing a shelter

Midnight Mission Managing Director Clancy Imislund started working at the shelter and recovery center in 1974.
Midnight Mission Managing Director Clancy Imislund started working at the shelter and recovery center in 1974.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

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In 1914, Tom Liddecoat — a Pentecostal minister and businessman — opened a small shelter on the intersection of Fourth and Los Angeles streets in downtown Los Angeles. With the promise of a hot meal, he'd invite anyone on Skid Row in to listen to his sermon. Dinner was served at midnight.

One hundred years later, the Midnight Mission is still going strong. The meals are served earlier now, and there's lots more of them: The Mission served 3,000 breakfasts, lunches and dinners a day last year. The headquarters are on Seventh and San Pedro now — near the heart of Skid Row.

Clancy Imislund is the Mission's managing director. He's worked in that position for 40 years. Before that, he was using their services. Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson talked with Clancy about his job and how he got there.

On how he ended up on Skid Row

Well, I wasn't on Skid Row very long. I was only on Skid Row one night. And that was at an all-night theater up on Broadway. At that time, there were two or three all-night theaters. They were designed for old drunks, I guess. Because the tickets would cost 25 or 30 cents. You'd go in there when it rained, or it was cold, and you could sleep in there. You'd try not to find a movie with much explosions or shots. 

They didn't run all night; they ran until five in the morning. And then they'd come in and say, "All right, you bums! Everybody out." And that's when I hit the street.

I ran into a guy who said, "Do you want to sell a pint of blood?" And I said, "You bet!" We walked up Fourth Street to a blood bank. And I did not have enough iron in my blood to sell a pint of blood, so they suggested I go to the Midnight Mission. 

So I went there for breakfast. I said, "I got to have some breakfast. I'm very sick." And the man said, "We just got done serving." And I said, "Come on, for God's sake — I'm sick! Help me!" And he said he can't serve me. 

I grabbed him by the lapel — which was a bad thing to do — and two guys stepped over, undid each hand, and threw me out the door into the rain. They said, "Don't come back!"

And so some guy steered me to an [Alcoholics Anonymous] club out out Wilshire and Fairfax. I thought it was going to be three blocks; it turned out to be 75 blocks! That morning I stopped drinking, and I haven't had a drink since. That was 1958, so that's a long time ago.

On how drinking affected his life

I had just been fired by a big advertising agency in Dallas. I had a fairly good career, but I was drinking very, very heavily. That's why I was discharged. And my wife and children left me in Dallas. A guy had given me a car, said to drive to Los Angeles for him. I got as far as Phoenix, and I hid the car so that when I drank, no one would steal it. And I hid it so well, I have not found it yet!

Then I hustled some guy for $20, got a bus ticket to Los Angeles. I don't know why — I thought maybe the car would show up here. 

On how he came to work for the Midnight Mission

When I was 15 years sober, I was doing very well. I was a marketing director for a publishing firm in Beverly Hills. My family had returned. We all lived in a big [house] out by the ocean. And somebody called me one day and said, "The guy who's been director of the Midnight Mission downtown just died suddenly after a heart attack, after 40 years on the job. Do you know of anybody who'd be interested in taking the job?" And I said, "No, I don't. But I'll look around."

I had brought in AA meetings to the mission, but I had nothing to do with their operations. I was lying in bed one day and thought that would be kind of good to do that — just for a few weeks before they found somebody.

And I got caught up in it. Because I'd been doing a lot of work with people who were down and out. And I went to the board and said I'd like to apply for the job. And recently — Feb. 1 — I celebrated 40 years here. I didn't really think I'd be here that long, or I'd have made different plans!

On how Skid Row and the Midnight Mission have changed over the years

The Midnight Mission was a much smaller facility. It was over on the corner of Fourth and Los Angeles. It had been there a number of years. But Skid Row then was old white drunks, mostly. They were very hard to, in a way, to change. Because most of them — their lives were behind them, and they didn't much care what happened next. They survived — just survived.

I don't think much has changed [at the Midnight Mission] except we have people here who work with these guys in groups. We have counselors. And the counselors adapt to them. And now we have a group of people who have been off crack. And they understand the crack situation very well, and they're counselors for people with crack problems. And we have alcoholics; we're working with alcoholics.

And it's been quite successful. We try to treat the people — sober people — with respect. Which they're not used to. 

The Midnight Mission serves breakfast, lunches and dinners to residents of Skid Row and is always in need of help. If you'd like to volunteer or contribute, you can do so through their website.