More than 100 years ago, a man drove a cart around the mean streets of Downtown Los Angeles, looking for lone souls to save and mouths to feed. That man was Thomas H. W. Liddecoat.
Deeply religious, Liddecoat was appalled by the amount of homelessness and suffering he encountered in transient Los Angeles. “We have a conglomeration of riffraff here that is not equaled anywhere I have ever seen, not barring the New York Bowery flop joints,” he exclaimed.
Liddecoat would go on to build what’s known today as the Midnight Mission, a well-oiled, social-services machine at 601 South San Pedro Street that provides clothing, job training, and alcohol and drug recovery programs and, every year, shelters thousands of people and serves more than 1 million meals to the needy.
Born in a small English village in Cornwall, in 1864, Liddecoat immigrated to the United States with his family when he was still a child. In 1893, he moved to Los Angeles. He soon became a successful produce wholesaler, supplying fruits and vegetables to many of the city’s hotels and restaurants from his headquarters at the Terminal Market, at Central and Seventh.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rootless people, a majority of them men, flooded into the sunny city, looking for a new beginning. Once here, they often found themselves jobless, friendless, and hopelessly addicted to alcohol or drugs.
“Los Angeles has been widely advertised as the white spot of the world, and it is,” Liddecoat explained. “But that very fact brings here a great many people. We get the best, and we get the worst of the worst.”
There was little help for these displaced men. The Salvation Army did what it could, as did women’s charitable clubs and religious organizations. The government’s solutions tended to be twofold: round up the drunk and disorderly and throw them into the city jail to sober up, and send the old and infirm to poor farms like Rancho Los Amigos in Downey.
Liddecoat decided to do his part. With the encouragement of his wife, Mary, around 1914 he began to drive around the rougher parts of Downtown at night, rounding up indigents. Once they were in his grasp, Liddecoat, who fashioned himself “Brother Tom,” would preach to them the word of Jesus, before feeding them soup made with leftover vegetable trimmings from his wholesale business.
In June of 1917, Liddecoat’s mission found a permanent home when he began to rent a dilapidated building at 121 South Los Angeles Street, adjacent to the notorious neighborhood known as Hell’s Half Acre. That same year, Mary died. Her last request was that he “keep the mission going.”
The slapdash mission offered a late-night service (“Brother Tom” was often the preacher), a hot midnight meal, and floor space where homeless men could crowd together and sleep. Every man was served, no questions asked. Under the motto of “free soap, free soup and free salvation,” all races were welcome, as were the numerous ex-servicemen coming home from World War II.
No matter who they were, Liddecoat greeted all comers with the same refrain: “Son, put your feet under the table and eat.” Volunteers, including missionary Elizabeth Schofield, the “mother of the mission,” worked punishing hours to care for the men, in conditions that were both chaotic and unsanitary. In 1921, the Los Angeles Times reported:
The facilities of the mission for the work which it attempts to do are deplorably inadequate. The building, some twenty feet wide and 100 feet long, is church, banquet hall and bedroom for the 200 men who jam it to capacity every night. The space occupied by the mission is divided in halves, the part toward the street including the rostrum and chairs used in the services. The other part is filled with long tables, flanked by benches, and the tiny kitchen. A sink in one corner of this room provides a place where hands may be washed.
There is no place, however, where the men may take baths. Neither are there any fumigating tanks for their clothing or any public lavatories nearer than the Plaza. The result is what might naturally be expected. The mission rooms at night smell to heaven with the stench of foul, unwashed bodies as the men crowd together on the bare floor or sit nodding in the chairs, and some of the more reckless risk losing their shoes by removing them.
These conditions, along with police raids, led to the landlord raising the mission’s rent by 50 percent in 1921. But a wave of positive publicity for Liddecoat, and a round of fundraising to improve conditions at the mission followed, as did such powerful benefactors as the Chandlers.
Liddecoat was the perfect public figure for dramatic 1920s Los Angeles. Joining religious charismatics like Aimee Semple McPherson, he was the prototype of the self-aggrandizing modern religious figure. “A robust, romantic-appearing figure of a man is Brother Tom,” one reporter swooned. “With rugged, benevolent features, iron-gray hair worn rather long, and very large and soft brown eyes which spill over with tears very, very often.”
Newspapers extolled Liddecoat’s grueling schedule, which included daily visits to the city jail, and frequent hospital stays due to exhaustion.
Problematically to today’s minds, the hungry were served midnight dinner only after they listened to the nightly sermon, in fact, the one way into the dining hall was through the makeshift, graffiti-covered chapel. A writer for the LA Times visited one such service in 1923:
On Saturday evening Brother Tom always has charge of the meeting from the middle of the evening on until midnight. He prefers to speak from the floor, on a level with his audience, rather than from the elevation of the platform.
“Boys, I’m glad to welcome you here tonight. I wonder what you lads have been doing today. How many of you have had your hands in somebody’s pockets? How many of you have been eating dope? …Oh I know you. I know you. You’re mean as hell, a lot of you boys, just mean as hell. Yes, and you folks perched up there on the platform-why, boys, some of those folks up there on the platform, they’ll snap at you like a turtle if you give ‘em a chance. And yet they say they’re sanctified!”
Sheepish grins on the platform, delighted laughter from the unregenerate down in front. Brother Tom’s words sting and bite like a lash sometimes, but he always tempers them with the balm of humor and understanding.
At midnight, the men filed into the dining hall, set with crude benches, the wall covered with crayon drawings of Jesus and Bible verses. Mulligan stew was served in enamelware dishes along with a cup of skim milk, two pieces of bread, and pie. The donated food was occasionally rancid, leading Liddecoat to quip, “beggars can't be choosers."
Later, men slept on the mission’s splintered oak floor. They used newspapers as blankets, and shoes as pillows. “The aisle leading up to the altar is so packed by the men at 1 o’clock in the morning,” one visitor wrote, “it is almost impossible to walk through.”
The mission received more and more donations, including a car christened the “sanctified Ford,” four showers, rent money, and food. Liddecoat became known as the “bishop of the underworld,” and was said to be worth more to the city than 100 policemen. “Our modern Christian warrior goes forth to war with the dinner pail to back the gospel,” one supporter wrote in the LA Times. “Somehow we seem to see in Brother Tom a better Christian warrior than the great King Charlemagne.”
In 1923, a board of directors was formed, and Liddecoat set off for an extensive speaking tour, spreading word of the mission far and wide. In 1928, the mission, now also sponsored by the Community Chest, the most powerful charitable organization in Los Angeles, moved to bigger quarters at 396 South Los Angeles Street. The new digs were run by 150 workers, and, according to Liddecoat, provided services to 3,000 people 24/7. According to the LA Times:
Partitions have been removed in a room designated as the chapel with seats for 500. The mission includes a dormitory which accommodates several hundred, library, women’s prayer room, writing room and dining room. Shower rooms, laundry, barber shop and a small printing press are located in the basement. The clothes dispensary [and] tailor shop…will be lodged in the new location. “Our dining room division is the busiest,” says Brother Tom, “for we serve four meals a day, including the warm meal at midnight.”
But the mission’s expansion signaled the beginning of the end for the rule of “Brother Tom.” Under his leadership, chaos often reigned, he was in debt, being taken advantage of, and drawing a secret salary from the mission. “For a while there, about 1929, I didn’t think we were going to make it,” one insider said. So that year, the board of directors paid for Liddecoat and his daughter, Mary, to take an extended tour of the Holy Land.
Liddecoat had always dreamed of going to the Middle East and was thrilled by the honor. He should not have been—the trip was just a pretense. While Liddecoat was gone, the board instigated a virtual coup. Experienced social worker Mary Covell became the leader of the new modernized “Midnight Mission Incorporated,” where “all is strictly systemized.”
When Liddecoat returned, he found himself shuffled off to a cubicle of an office, the mission’s “honorary president and religious director.”
Overwhelmed by the needy due to the Great Depression, strict new restrictions were placed on those seeking help. They were required to be sober, deloused, and had to answer a questionnaire and take a work test. Those receiving shelter also had to work for the mission three hours a day. One visiting reporter described the mission’s new nightly system:
You are sent upstairs to bed, past a guardian who sits at the foot of the steps and checks you in. You may leave laundry work in a cage at the stairhead, and get a ticket for it. You also receive a ticket for a shower bath. The only way you enter the dormitory is via baths…towels and soap are supplied; you shuck your clothes and get a nightie. Don’t overlook the nighties; you sleep in them or you don’t sleep…You draw blankets and in many cases sheets and pillowslips of snowy white, and mattresses. In the morning you fold your blankets, turn in your nightie, sheets and towels to the laundry, get your own clothes and depart for breakfast below.
These changes produced many positive results. The dormitory was now “very clean, light and airy” with tiers of bunk beds and windows nailed opened to circulate air. Modernized kitchens meant the staff could provide food to the thousands of hungry who appeared at the mission’s doors each day. Due to these new rules and restrictions, the clientele changed, much to the horror of Liddecoat, who spent most of his time in his cubicle studying the Bible. According to one reporter:
The men I saw in and about the present mission downstairs and up were not down-and-outs. They had all the earmarks of decent, hard-working laborers, such as you’d expect to find in a working-man’s hotel of the $1-a-day class…where were the true bums? A bewildered Tom says to look on the streets for them after dark, but I’ve no desire to meet them face to face… Brother Tom was the soul of the mission; as it has elaborated and extended out, he has become less and less a necessity, a vital factor; and has more and more fallen into the background. He feels it very keenly.
A diminished Liddecoat spent his last years on speaking tours. He also hosted a local radio program. When he died, in 1942, his funeral was attended by thousands of people at the Little Church of the Flowers at Forest Lawn. They were there to celebrate a man- messy, imperfect and problematic as he was, who gave birth to an organization that changed the lives of thousands and become the blueprint for helping the homeless of Skid Row.