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Housing for homeless opens on skid row

April 16, 2009 |  2:20 pm

During the grand opening today of the Abbey Apartments, a 115-unit building on skid row for people who have disabilities and have been chronically homeless, housing officials asked resident Karen Burton to tell the story of her life.

So she rapped.

I want to spit this flow for everyone on Skid Row. I’m on a spiritual microphone with this pumped-up ego, and I’m never alone ... I’ve used drugs in one form or another, I disrespected everyone, even my mother, she rhymed to a beat.

Burton, 49, moved into the Abbey in January. Developed by the Skid Row Housing Trust, it is designed to provide a range of on-site services to help support residents.

“This apartment complex serves as a solution to the problem of homelessness by pairing a warm bed with access to affordable medical care, by coupling case management with a working kitchen, and by placing mothers and fathers, sons and daughters on the path to self-sufficiency and self-respect,” said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who attended the opening ceremony with other elected officials.

Burton said she knows life on the streets and has been on and off drugs for more than 30 years and has spent several stints in jail for possession of crack cocaine, often with the intent to distribute. She said most of her troubles occurred in Pasadena, where she grew up, but a judge ordered her a couple of years ago to attend an in-patient program on skid row.

When released, she didn’t want to go back to her old neighborhood and applied to live in the Abbey.

I know a place where we can become grateful. I know a place where we can be thankful, live our lives respectfully, she rapped.

When she first moved in and opened the front door to her studio, she said, she cried with joy.

“I can stick the key in the door and it’s just me,” she said, sitting at a small dining table inside her apartment. “Hardwood floors, nice color, my own restroom, own refrigerator. When I came here, it was just like, ‘Wow.' ”

She hung African paintings and masks on the wall, put a mattress pad on her bed to make it more comfortable and neatly stacked some of her books next to an open Bible. Her life is now scheduled around a series of support groups -- outpatient treatment Monday and Wednesday mornings, a women’s group Thursdays and a job club Tuesdays, among others.

Living on skid row, even in such a nice apartment, can still be difficult, she said. There are temptations and bad influences all around, but there’s also support. Sometimes, she looks out her apartment window and thinks “that was me four months ago.”

She wants to earn her degree at Los Angeles City College and hopes “I can be an asset or be an example for some of the youth coming up behind me.”

At the opening ceremony, Villaraigosa said Los Angeles has 44,000 people who are homeless and that more affordable housing options like the Abbey are a step in the right direction. When Burton rapped, he tapped his foot and bobbed his head to the beat:

When I was out there in the world, I thought I was a hell of a girl. I thought I was getting over, even though my life wasn’t clean and sober, but I had to educate my mind.

-- Ari B. Bloomekatz

Caption: Karen Burton, 49, a resident of the Abbey, holds her niece Rhyan Cunningham-Harper, 9 months, during the grand opening of the apartment building designed to provide a range of on-site services to help support occupants. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times