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Downtown Center helps women regain their lives


One day in March, 50-year-old Janine Betts woke up and could not move. She literally had to crawl on her belly to get help.

Initially diagnosed with fibromyalgia and arthritis, it was later discovered that the Suffolk, Va., native had degenerative disc disease.

This caused pinched nerves and the immobility.

“There were no warning signs that I was aware of,” remember Betts. “I have Crohn’s Disease so a lot of things I attributed to that.”

At the time, Betts was a telephone fundraiser for a nonprofit organization, but in July that job laid her off.

Initially, the Los Angeles resident was confident she would find a job. But lacking a college degree or any formal skills training put her in a precarious position.

And as she began to plow through seven months of savings paying her rent and other living expenses, her confidence began to waiver.

But not her faith. In fact, Betts credits her strong faith with helping her.

“Faith taught me to save, and pay my tithes. I have to be honest … had it not been for my faith, I would not have seen the light at the end of the tunnel,” Betts said.

But before she could get to the light, Betts ended up behind on all her bills and unable to pay her rent.

“I stayed at a friend’s house one night, then a couple nights at another friend’s house. Then I actually came downtown and stayed at the Union Rescue Mission,” recalls Betts, whose pride would not let her tell her daughter in graduate school, parents or sibling about her plight.
What scared the middle-class Betts about her one night mission stay was the lack of hope she saw.

“It was terrifying. I wasn’t afraid, but was afraid of what was going to happen to me. I heard people’s stories and saw no hope in their eyes.”

That experience prompted Betts–who left college after one year “because of a boy,” and who had always previously worked jobs that kept her in the middle-class and not thinking about the need for further education–to go with some of the women to the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC).
DWC is a day center where homeless women can go to get help, access resources and get training.

Betts arrived with a toothbrush, a pair of underclothes, a pair of jeans and a shirt.

“Ms. Faye was the first thing I saw. She was a beautiful Black woman with blond hair, a soft voice and the kindest eyes. She was wonderful,” recalls Betts.

Ms. Faye, also known as the senior day center manager, helped Betts get a case manager, an emergency bed and assisted her in completing an application for one of the new permanent housing units DWC was shortly going to open.

She also helped Betts find scholarships to underwrite going back to school, and now the former telephone worker is studying to become a psychologist at Antioch University and Los Angeles City College.

Betts is also happily and cozily ensconced in her new room.

“Now I don’t have to stress about where I’m going to sleep tonight; is someone going to steal my stuff. I have a key to lock my door,” said Betts who thinks a lot about the fact that she did not have a place to put a key for many, many months.

“It’s devastating to have everything and lose everything, but even more devastating to lose the ability to acquire it again,” said Betts referring to the period where she was physically unable to work after her collapse.

“That destroyed my spirit. I was petrified.”

Today, that fear has receded, and Betts is on the road to recovery.

That is a road DWC focuses on helping women reach through its various programs.
In addition to housing, a health clinic, and the drop-in centers, there is a job-training component and a process that helps the women who come to DWC, average age 49, simply rebuild themselves.

The job training program involves working in the organization’s newly opened cafe and gift shop/boutique and resale shop.

At the boutique, women use their creativity and repurposed materials to create items like teacups, journals and candles, which they then sell in the boutique.

“Working in the Skid Row community for nearly a decade, I have seen the gentrification with people moving into lofts and boutiques and art galleries opening. I thought wouldn’t be great to start a business that could create employment opportunities for homeless women and be something exciting for people moving into the lofts,” said Lisa Watson, CEO Downtown Women’s Center.

“We spoke with the women to understand what employment opportunities they wanted and what skills they have. We thought having them make unique, handmade products would be a really good fit and a way for them to generate alternative income. Then we decided we should also open a retail store where we could sell the items along with high-end donated clothing that we receive to provide the women with job-training and work experience.

“We opened our MADE by DWC café and gift shop in May 2012 on San Pedro Street and will be opening our MADE by DWC resale boutique this November on Los Angeles Street. Our handmade product line has been really successful, not only in our retail stores, but is now being sold at Bloomingdale’s Century City and the Skirball Cultural Center.”

Founded in 1970 by Watson, a social worker whose clients were primarily on Skid Row, DWC has a $4.1 million annual budget, and in 2011 served 4,300 women.

The cafe and gift boutique is located at 438 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles (at Fifth street ). The hours are Mon.-Fri.: 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (213) 111-1111. The resale boutique is located at 325 S. Los Angeles St., Los Angeles (between third and fourth streets). Hours are Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

The organization will celebrate the grand opening of its new residence and the resale boutique on Nov. 29 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 325 S. Los Angeles St.

For additional information about the daylong activities, visit the DWC website at or call  (213) 680-0600.