Union Rescue Mission CEO Andy Bales outside the mission on San Pedro Street in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles, Tuesday, August 30, 2016. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News)
Among the many stories Andy Bales has told about himself in his decades of service to the homeless and forlorn, first in Pasadena at Lake Avenue Church and then as head of the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles, one gets the closest to how he discovered his life’s path.
As a young teacher at a Christian school in Iowa, Bales saw a student being bullied. He picked up a Bible and called the class’s attention to Matthew 25:40 — “that which you do to the least fortunate, to someone who is hungry or who is hurting, you do to God himself.”
After almost 20 years of bringing his relentlessly unsecular message to the down and out of L.A., Bales announced last month that he’s returning to his native Des Moines, where he’s taken a job working with impoverished youth.
His religious perspective has been a contrarian one among the nonprofit and government agencies that deal with the massive homelessness crisis in Southern California. He has never favored the “housing first” model, always insisting on clients of his mission abstaining from drugs and alcohol in order to get a bed. But while his methods may differ, he is beloved among his peers for his sheer conviction to bettering the lives of the destitute.
He sacrificed his own health for his work, losing his lower right leg to flesh-eating infections picked up on Skid Row, and later having his lower left leg amputated as well.
County Supervisor Kathryn Barger is a housing first supporter, but appointed Bales to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, knowing that no one knows the needs of those on the street so well as he does. “Reverend Bales embodies what it means to be a public servant,” Barger said in a statement. “Skid Row is not for the faint of heart — it’s one of the harshest environments I know. Reverend Bales was a light in that darkness that tirelessly modeled how to help those suffering on our streets with respect and dignity.”
Bales heads back home knowing as we all do that despite his work and sacrifices homelessness here has only gotten worse. But imagine the ongoing tragedy without what he has done, and is still doing: His family’s historic Pasadena home will become 20 units of housing when they leave it.