Joan Sotiros — who retired last fall as director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Cardinal Manning Center after 19 years of service — readily admits she didn’t know anything about homelessness or the hardcore homeless when she took over the reins of the center on Los Angeles’ infamous skid row. Growing up in Loveland, Colorado, 50 miles north of Denver, she had never, in fact, even seen a homeless individual or family. While working her way through Regis College in Denver as a secretary at two free clinics, she did occasionally encounter a so-called “bum” or “wino.” But the fact that “they may not have had a place to live never crossed my mind,” she recalled recently.Even as a teacher and then as a social worker with a master’s degree working with adoption cases and foster kids in Colorado, and later at a childcare facility in Los Angeles, the issue of homelessness never really came up. It was only when Sotiros became director of the Cardinal Manning Center on Nov. 15, 1993, that the horrible reality of men, women and children living on the street became real to her.“And I can say that,” she pointed out during an interview at the suburban San Gabriel Valley home she shares with her sister. “Because as an experienced social worker before I went to skid row I didn’t really have an understanding of homelessness or an awareness that homelessness existed.”After a moment of self-reflection, she continued in a low, almost hoarse voice:“It got to a point in my later years where I would look out the window and say, ‘These are our failures. These are the kids that I taught in schools that we didn’t teach well.’ I wondered, ‘How many of these are adopted or foster kids I worked with? How many of these people out on the street are our failures?’ You know, ‘When did we fail these people?’”Private personJoan Sotiros is a guarded individual. No photos. No age, except to say she’s “well past” the usual retirement age. But she’d still like to get what she calls a “part-time” 40-hour-a-week job after working 70 to 80 hours, six or seven days a week at the Cardinal Manning Center, driving into work at 4:30 a.m.Coming from a family of accountants, she naturally majored in accounting at Regis College in Denver and did well. But while working at a Catholic Charities clinic, she came into close contact with social workers, and decided helping people was a lot more “fun” than crunching numbers. So she switched academic gears, earning a Master’s of Social Work degree at the University of Denver.When she arrived at the Cardinal Manning Center on Winston Street years later in the fall of 1993, the roughly 50-block downtown area already had the dubious distinction of being one of the nation’s worst skid rows. Fortunate residents lived in SRO (Single Room Occupancy) rundown hotels with bathrooms down the hall. The rest somehow survived on the street. Most were young men, including many veterans of the Vietnam War, and there were few women with children. Heroin had overtaken alcohol as the drug of choice.The Union Rescue Mission had just moved into skid row. And Sotiros was one of the few professional social workers on the row.But the Cardinal Manning Center — which was call “Miserere” (Mercy) House when it opened in the late 1950s and soon became known as “Misery” House on the street — already had an emergency shelter, day services program, women with children’s program and a long-term enhanced transition program for men. And she reports the clients served have stayed “relatively consistent,” only now the men are older, while there are more young women with children.Last year, the center’s programs provided more than 25,000 nights of shelter, 100,000 drop-ins for day services (like showers) and 60,000 meals to homeless men, women and children. Services include case management, employment counseling, budgeting and financial counseling, individual therapy and group discussion sessions, plus paying transportation costs to work.Sotiros has actually witnessed a number of positive changes on L.A.’s skid row during recent years. Not only is there more affordable housing, but the newer apartments tend to be efficiencies and studios with their own bathrooms and kitchens. Many projects — like the city’s much-touted Project 50 for the hardcore homeless most likely to die on the street — also provide all kinds of supportive services, from case management to addiction counseling if so desired. The veteran social worker points out that these “housing first” programs harken back to social work’s “Harm Reduction Model,” which accepted people where they are instead of having to be clean and sober to even get into the program.Concerning the Cardinal Manning Center, she’s especially glad for two big changes. First, the center’s policy for the long-term transitional program was to get every male client off skid row. Now some of the graduates are encouraged to stay in the area, but in permanent housing with supportive services.Second, Sotiros stresses how she’s been advocating for just the opposite concerning women with children. The need to get away from skid row for both their safety and sanity couldn’t be greater, she maintains. In January, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul actually started moving these homeless mothers with kids into family housing, a completely rehabbed apartment building in a different section of the city. There are seven apartments to house seven homeless families. Sotiros says it’s a good start. Deinstitutionalization?Recent studies have found that up to half of all chronically homeless persons have some form of mental illness, ranging from depression to schizophrenia. Sotiros can remember as a young social worker in Colorado when the seriously mentally ill were housed in state asylums and mental hospitals. Then films like “The Snake Pit” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” exposed the inhumane conditions in some of these institutions. Around the same time, new psychiatric medications were found that helped control the delusions and hallucinations of neurological brain disorders. The result, she reports, was the deinstitutionalization of many mentally ill people with tragic results. And Los Angeles’ skid row offers example number one. “I realize there were serious problems with some of these institutions,” she said. “But instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, you know, these problems should have been corrected.”She also concurs with the conclusion of David Wagner, professor of social work and sociology at the University of Southern Maine, in his recent book with Jennifer Barton Gilman, “Confronting Homelessness: Poverty, Politics, and the failure of Social Poverty.” The researchers write that “we were sold a bill of goods in the 1980s that shelters, soup kitchens, clothes closets and case management would somehow end homelessness.”But what are the more personal life lessons Joan Sotiros has learned from running St. Vincent’s Cardinal Manning Center for nearly two decades, amidst literally a separate homeless mini-city constructed of cardboard boxes, tarp-covered lean-tos, and ragged pup tents housing from 3,668 to 5,131 residents? “I don’t think I would have told you the first three or four years that some of the dearest people I’ve ever met are the guys and women on skid row,” she muses. “You just have to get to know them and to appreciate them. And they get to know you, too.” After a moment, the woman who acknowledged that her Catholic faith helped keep her from being burnt out, added, “You know, always the challenge was the lack of resources to open that apartment building we just opened for women with children and to do other things these homeless people could benefit from. The joys were the little things. It was decorating for a holiday and the guys appreciating it. So the joys were the things that made their lives a little less horrid than it must be on the street, where they are treated as less than human. “And, oh, yeah, the joys outweighed the challenges by a long shot. By a long shot.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0315/olajoan/{/gallery}