In winter, L.A.’s skid row is 50 blocks of pure misery. Homeless men and women huddle in tents or under tattered cardboard awnings, dreading the storms that mean long nights spent in wet clothes, shivering and chilled to the bone. In 65 grim single-room occupancy hotels, those who can afford a cheap room head out to look for work each morning without even the solace of a cup of hot coffee. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, the streets are empty of outsiders, unspeakably bleak and lonely, because free holiday meals are often served a day or two early so that volunteers can spend time with their own families.
Improvements here are measured in small mercies, and this year there are some. Staff and volunteers at Las Familias del Pueblo community center are handing out 1,500 blue tarps that can be tied to fences to keep the rain out, and waterproof drawstring bags to shield possessions. Women turned away from the Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women and Children for lack of room get sleeping bags, jackets and mittens. In six hotels, lobbies offer pots of free hot coffee. On Thanksgiving, in the 18 hotels operated by the nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust, residents gathered to prepare and share a donated meal.
A sign in the hotel lobbies said: “Harold’s Coffee Pot.” The tarps, sleeping bags and jackets all carried the same cloth tag: “A gift from Harold.”
Who is Harold? The short answer is that he’s Harold Edelstein, a rich man who died four years ago, benefactor of the Harold Edelstein Foundation. The full answer, set at the unlikely intersection of compassion and notoriety, is more complex. It is the story of how an old man’s generous instincts, and his attorneys’ convictions that their client deserved to be remembered, has created one of this city’s quirkiest, sweetest and–among those who work with the poor– most beloved charities.
Harold Edelstein passed through life nearly as unnoticed as the men and women his money now helps. He was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1909, came to Los Angeles with his family about 10 years later and grew up in the midcity.
He earned a degree in engineering from UCLA and served in the South Pacific during World War II. Engineering jobs were largely closed to Jews back then, so he became a land surveyor. Judging by photos and the recollections of friends, he was an attractive man, short and slight, with thick brown hair that silvered perfectly as he aged. He also was intelligent, charming and a ready conversationalist. But he was a loner, not particularly close to his brothers and their children, a hard-core bachelor who didn’t marry until he was 80–and then only briefly. He lived in a small apartment in Brentwood’s Barrington Towers and dressed casually. His luxuries were eating big steaks at The Palm and driving a Cadillac; his social concerns were overpopulation, hunger and homelessness. At Thanksgiving, he sometimes volunteered at one of the downtown missions.
In late 1999, when he was 90, he had a fender bender, left the scene and lost his driver’s license. He was devastated. Friends arranged for a homecare evaluation to see if he needed help in his daily life. During the nurse’s first visit, he began making a cup of tea for her–“I’m perfectly fine,” he assured the woman–then dropped to the floor. It was a stroke; he died two weeks later and was interred beside his mother at Home of Peace, the old Jewish cemetery in Boyle Heights. “Sweet” and “decent” are how longtime business associates who became friends describe him. You also hear “unpretentious,” “gentlemanly” and “ordinary … just a regular, ordinary guy.”
Except in one way. Through Harold Edelstein’s many years as a surveyor, he regularly bought property that he found at foreclosures and tax sales, bargain parcels in barren parts of Arizona, Nevada and the California desert. Eventually, suburban sprawl caught up. By the time he died in December 1999, he was worth more than $20 million.
“Harold and I first set up a charitable foundation in 1986, and I encouraged him to have the pleasure of giving money away himself,” says attorney Fred Simmons, who with Marvin Burns, also a lawyer, and financial advisor Marvin Rothenberg make up the Edelstein Foundation’s board of directors, officers and staff. “He did fund a few small projects. But even wealthy people are nervous about giving while they’re still alive. They want to be sure that as long as they’re around, the money’s there.”
When Harold died, though, it was a different ballgame. The mission statement that had been crafted for the foundation was almost ridiculously broad: Help the hungry and homeless and do something about population control, but do it directly, in ways that have immediate, maximum effect. No funding of construction, big staffs or bureaucracies. And within the larger landscape of philanthropy and need, the $20 million it had to spend wasn’t very large. (Most of the money given annually by California foundations comes from the top 2%, each of which has assets over $100 million. Several are worth more than $1 billion.) The board’s solution was one of rare common sense: It would try to fill charity’s gaps– provide, as Simmons puts it, “small but important things which, without us, there would not be.” And it would find out what small things were most needed by directly asking those who worked the streets.
The social service workers of Los Angeles County–the underappreciated armies striving to help the 1.6 million-plus homeless, hungry and poor, whose daily struggle is mere survival– could hardly believe the Edelstein Foundation was for real. For years, the government funding on which they depend had been shrinking, as had donations from individuals and other foundations faced with declining portfolios. Everyone was fighting over the scraps, most of which required jumping through endless hoops: writing grant proposals and voluminous reports, answering questions, proving what everyone already knew to be true, and too often being treated as if their years of experience didn’t count for much. And here was Fred Simmons, a puckish, chatty 75-year-old asking earnestly: “What do you want? What are you not able to do that you could with a little money?”
“We usually have to seek out funding sources,” says Leslie Friedman, director of the SOVA Food Pantry, a nonsectarian program of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, which provides groceries to about 3,300 people a month. “And many of those sources have agendas and are only willing to fund this or that. Fred came to us. All he wanted to know was, ‘Can I help you?’ It was like the clouds parting.”
Money went to help the struggling St. Vincent Meals on Wheels Program, which delivers food to the homebound elderly. Money went to buy 100 sleeping bags–and later, gloves, socks and rain jackets– for the Good Shepherd Center. “When we first mentioned the idea to the foundation, they were so enthusiastic,” marvels Sister Julia Mary Farley, who has been working with the homeless for more than 20 years. ” ‘What a great idea! Why didn’t we think of it!’ They said, ‘Put it in writing.’ I wrote a letter–and there came the check.”
Money went for emergency food vouchers that could be offered at a number of Jewish Family Service locations, and bus tokens, jackets and socks to be given away at its food pantries. Not that much went out from the foundation at first–maybe a few hundred thousand dollars–but waves of gratitude came back. Before long, another conviction about shaping the foundation grew: The gifts needed to be connected, somehow, to the manwho had made them possible. “Maybe I felt a touch of guilt when people kept telling me, ‘Thank you,’ ” Simmons says. “It was Harold who deserved to be thanked, to be known. He was a modest man, but he didn’t want to be forgotten any more than anyone does. I didn’t want to put his name on a plaque– there are buildings out there so covered with plaques they’d fall down if you took them off. People don’t read obituaries. You need something that catches the eye.”
That something became Harold himself. At its inception in 1986, the charity was named The Edelstein Family Foundation. Following its benefactor’s death, it was renamed the Harold Edelstein Foundation. By its second year of operation, money from the foundation came with a single request: Whatever benefit it supported had to be tied to Harold. After the foundation made a 10-year funding commitment, the SOVA organization added “Harold’s Pantry” signs at its facilities. At ONEgeneration in Van Nuys, which offers a senior center and adult and child day care, as well as meal delivery to homebound seniors, a red neon “Harold Cares” sign hangs in the main room. When staff worried that federal funding for the meals they delivered only covered Monday through Friday, Harold paid for frozen food that would last the weekend. “This meal is a gift from Harold–enjoy!!” says a small blue card, with an accompanying photo of Edelstein. At a San Fernando Valley shelter for battered women, a “Harold’s Treats For Kids” sign hangs near a refrigerator kept well stocked with healthy treats; a similar sign, in Spanish, hangs in the Las Familias del Pueblo community center downtown. In a mid-city homeless shelter for women and children, staffers now work in “Harold’s Office.” In the counseling office of a Childrens Hospital program aimed at helping teen mothers avoid a second pregnancy and reclaim their lives, a sign exhorts girls experiencing a financial emergency to “Ask Harold for Help”; funds are there to pay for diapers, clothes and bus fare, and job training is available at “Harold, Inc.”
Hokey? Absolutely. But nobody who gets Harold’s help laughs. Almost no one else, social service workers say, responds to their needs so quickly or shows such visceral, practical understanding of the realities they face. “We got stuck when the supermarket workers went on strike because our credit line was at Vons, and we couldn’t ask volunteers to cross the picket lines,” says Donna Deutchman, executive director of ONEgeneration. “We needed money to buy food right away. I called the Edelstein Foundation, and the check arrived in 24 hours.”
“No one else out there funds the little things,” says the Rev. Alice Callaghan, director of Las Familias del Pueblo, who has been working with skid row residents for decades. “And it’s almost always the little things that make a huge difference in someone’s life. A homeless person isn’t going to get a job because he has a piece of plastic tarp. But he won’t have to spend the night in the rain with his hands red and swollen with cold.”
“Does it matter that we’re able to offer some concrete assistance to teen parents who already are living marginally?” asks Dr. Curren Warf, medical director of Childrens Hospital’s High Risk Youth Program. “There’s nothing worse in any person’s life than to see their children go hungry or unclothed.
Does it make a difference that people can get diapers for their children or buy them food or pay the rent when they’re threatened with homelessness?
It makes a massive difference.”
This year, when some low-income families whose kids attend ONEgeneration’s day-care center received gift certificates to grocery stores “from Harold,” “they were stunned, moved to tears,” says Judy Hamilton, the center’s child-care director. “It was the first nice thing to come their way in a long time. And the first nice thing, maybe ever, that didn’t require them to apply, fill out forms and spend hours on hold.”
The Edelstein Foundation, which gave away around $750,000 in 2003, and hopes to reach $1 million a year, is dipping into principal and won’t last forever. Simmons hopes that “seeing how much you can accomplish with relatively small amounts of money” will inspire others. Certainly, he and the other board members, who grow positively gleeful when they talk of the snacks and mittens they’ve bought, have been altered by the experience of brokering Harold.
“Fred [Simmons] does the most, but we’re all looking for worthy projects,” says Marvin Rothenberg. “Marvin Burns found a place in Hollywood that helps runaway teens. I found one up north that feeds children. Because I’m a licensed securities broker, I’m always researching how we can make money. We don’t want to lose one penny of Harold’s money–it’s money we can use for the hungry and homeless.”
So after all the giving, promoting, cards and signs, do the people of Los Angeles now know the name Harold Edelstein? Maybe. “We’ve explained who he is to the children here,” says Alice Callaghan. “I think the more things are given away with his name, the more people will say, ‘Harold did this, Harold gave that.’ ” She smiles. “They probably won’t have a clue who he was, but I’m not sure that matters.”
“He’s a symbol,” agrees Sherry Kobayashi, director of case management at ONEgeneration. “Even if our clients don’t know who he is, they know that someone cares that they’re eating. That’s what matters: someone cares. Someone just happens to be Harold.”