In Memory of Mollie

“I’ve been doing this kind of work for 45 years now, and I still believe human nature is good. Every day, I learn it’s the truth. I learn from folks who are told they’re nothing. Yet they say, ‘I want a chance, I want to live and I’m grateful’ ”

— Mollie Lowery, 2016

H

ow often in life do we have the opportunity to be among a true pioneer, an uncompromising, fearless spirit, an unselfish and humble soul? The answer for so many of us would be “very rarely”. But today, as our hearts are heavy with grief, we remember and celebrate the life of one who embodies all of those things. Would she agree? Probably not! We’re sure she would look at us with those big blue eyes and smile — the kind of smile that lets you know “don’t go there!”

Today, we must “go-there”. Born in Van Nuys, California on August 2, 1945, Mollie Ellen Lowery was a human unlike any other we’ve ever known. It’s clear that from being a small child she was never one to conform to the traditional route. Never one to take a back seat when faced with the insurmountable injustices she saw others encounter. Never one to turn a blind eye on the people the rest of the world discarded. Mollie was smart, strong, capable. A visionary. She could have been the captain of any industry she wanted. But she chose a different path.

The young Mollie Lowery began testing a variety of trails, moving back and forth between Los Angeles and far-flung places, between individual accomplishment and a compelling need to connect. She earned a psychology degree from USC; marched for civil rights in Mississippi; bicycled and hitchhiked across Europe; got typhoid; picked up a master’s in rehabilitation counseling from USC; spent a year in a Guadalajara medical school; photographed refugees and villagers in Central America; managed the eclectically left-leaning radio station KPFK-FM; and went to work for the state. After just a year, she left her government job to begin what she called, her “first major production”: working with homeless people at the nonprofit Ocean Park Community Center in Santa Monica.

Over the following years, she and like-minded activists created a patchwork of programs to help people get a grip on life. But Mollie saw that one group frustrated even the best care-givers: the estimated 45,000 people with mental or emotional illness, whom budget cuts, and new laws, had sprung from state institutions. And her dedication to the city’s homeless intensified.

In 1985, Mollie joined philanthropist Frank Rice to establish “Lamp” for chronically homeless people with severe mental illness. As a founder of Lamp Community on Skid Row, Mollie shared how she wanted it to be a place with “a real sense of community. A place people wanted to come to”.

Former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley once said of her:

“Her low-key approach sort of catches you off guard. But before you know it, she’s like a whirling dervish, getting things done, and you don’t know how it happened.”

If the mayhem of skid row social work was Mollie’s love, serenity was her mistress, and she left Lamp in 2005 to start a retreat in the Eastern Sierra. Her clients came from skid row, trading sun-blasted asphalt for mountain ranges, where she had them shearing llamas, riding horses and backpacking into the clouds on snowy slopes. In her own words, “it was heaven, but financially, I couldn’t keep it afloat”.

So in 2007, Mollie moved back to Los Angeles and a start-up called Housing Works. A tireless advocate for housing first, she led the organization to where it is today. Her fearless leadership style went hand-in-hand with our organizations mantra to do “whatever it takes for as long as it takes”.

There’s no words to truly measure the lives that Mollie has touched. Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times sums it up, “Mollie would cringe at my saying so, but she has saved so many souls, there should be a statue of her on skid row”.

Yesterday, the City of Los Angeles lost a pioneer of homeless services. Humanity lost a beautiful soul. Heaven gained an angel.

We will be forever grateful for the honor we had of working with her. Eternally thankful to her for sharing her life with us. We will miss you Mollie.

With gratitude,

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Celina Alvarez

Executive Director
Housing Works