Lynn Russell found new perspective, hope at Downtown Women’s Center

| August 2, 2018 | 0 Comments


Lynn Hall Russell’s blue eyes sparkle when she tells of the founding of the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC) 40 years ago.

As the story goes, an outreach worker on Skid Row, Jill Halverson, befriended a woman living out of two shopping carts. She found Rose to be a bright, loving and interesting woman. She was also among a growing number of women living on the streets after the state legislature’s removal of mentally ill patients from psychiatric hospitals following implementation of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act.

Halverson, the caseworker, was so moved by Rose’s resourcefulness — including bathing with pails of water warmed by the sun — and others like her, that Halverson spent money she had been saving for a house… to rent a piece of property where women could have a hot meal and a shower and be safe.

Eight years later, with great community support, Halverson and her board bought the land which, today, is home to the DWC at 442 S. San Pedro St. It has two buildings of 119 units of permanent housing and so much more. Founded in 1978, DWC was the first permanent supportive housing provider for women in the United States.

“It shows what one person can do, and it grew from there,” says Russell, who, herself started as a volunteer at the downtown site 15 years ago, after her two children were grown. She was still practicing law, but looking for a way to contribute away from courtrooms and contracts.

Her legal acumen came in handy as her volunteer post morphed into membership on countless committees and a seat on the board. Her expertise in corporate law was put to good use when the second building was planned starting in 2004, and — after years of environmental reports, negotiations and contracts — opened in 2010.

“That’s how long it took,” says Russell, now a grandmother and retired from law practice but continuing with her posts at the DWC, which she visits most Wednesday evenings.

She drives from her 1923 Colonial-style home in Brookside through rush-hour traffic, bringing crackers and cheese to share company with some of the Center’s residents.

Many members among the 50-member board only attend the quarterly board meetings.

“She is definitely not one of them,” Ana Velousie, DWC director of communications, said of Russell.

“She speaks to women one-on-one, without any pretense, and she is genuinely interested in the residents’ lives and keeping track of their grandkids, surgeries…

“Particularly for people who don’t have family, she really contributes to their sense of well being… she’s very involved.”

Being homeless can be isolating, and being older can also be especially isolating, adds Velousie.

“When you get to know them as an individual, each person matters,” says Russell. “You can’t solve all their problems, but you can solve pieces of the problem…

“I have seen success stories. I’ve seen many women who were living on the street who were traumatized… and who could take advantage of job training and medical care.

“At the Women’s Center, they’re safe. We have a community, a family, and that’s a success in and of itself,” she adds.

The Denver native had considered a career in teaching, but — in spite of being “discouraged along the way” — she followed her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps into law. School counselors suggested teaching; law wasn’t a category for women in 1964; and her father told her there was a need for good legal secretaries.

But a female friend was admitted to Harvard, and so she thought, why not?

She met her future husband, L. Michael Russell, at Yale, and she later was the first woman at Hill, Farrer & Burrill, a now-95-year-old local law firm in downtown Los Angeles. The couple are active at St. James’ Church; their son has followed his parents’ footsteps into law; their daughter is a poet and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Russell found her way to the DWC via a newspaper ad, and she had a friend who was on the board.

Meeting with the residents has “given me a whole different perspective on living in the city and how easy it can be to end up on the street if you’re physically ill, mentally ill or lose your job…

“Prices keep going up, and many people are on fixed incomes. Some people think they’re alright but then you get sick and lose your job.”

Others flee from spousal abuse. “You don’t plan on that…

“It gives me a perspective, and I realize how fortunate I am… I feel I help people certainly more than I did when I was in law.”

Gala for 40th

Besides the 119-unit “forever” housing, DWC “helps connect women with housing throughout L.A. County. Its Day Center provides food and showers for women living on the street and medical and mental health care and job training for DWC residents and Day Center participants alike.”

Treating illnesses before they become chronic is another factor in the Center’s mission, Russell adds. Operating on a $10 million annual budget, the Center has a 125-member staff and serves 4,000 women annually. It is funded by donations and city and county monies.

The 40th annual fundraising gala, “Dinner With a Cause,” is Thurs., Oct. 18 at Vibiana, in downtown’s historic core.

Learn more at

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Category: People

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