A more than a century-old building with strong ties to separate controversial moments in the history of Boyle Heights’ Mexican-American and Japanese-American communities is about to begin a new chapter as a home for college students experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.
Built in 1914 as the Forsythe Memorial School for Girls, where local Mexican-American girls were “Americanized” by Presbyterian missionaries, the building was first repurposed in the mid to late 1940s as the Evergreen Hostel, a home for Japanese-Americans returning from internment camps. On Saturday, the historic building at 506 North Evergreen will reopen as the Dunamis House, run by a local nonprofit focused on ending homelessness and promoting college completion among Los Angeles County students.
The nonprofit, LA Room & Board (LARB), acquired the property in late Spring of 2022, thanks to a $13.8 grant from the State of California’s Project Homekey, intended to convert existing buildings into permanent or interim housing for people experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, homelessness.
Combined with County of Los Angeles funds and private donations, LARB raised $26,000,000 in capital funds and operating support to acquire the Boyle Heights property and open it up to as many as 80 college or trade school students aged 18-24.
According to a press release from County Supervisor Hilda Solís, the Dunamis House is the first Homekey site in Los Angeles County dedicated to youth. Applications for those who qualify are being taken online.
“We wanted to create a real community where people care for each other, feel supported and have the tools they need to succeed no matter whatever circumstances they may come from,” said LARB community and marketing manager Ramona Prater. “When students walk through Dunamis House, they’re walking into a beautiful, magical place just like the home from Disney’s Encanto.”
Prater is the sister of Samuel Prater, who founded LARB in 2019. While Dunamis is an ancient Greek concept that means “power”, “potential” or “ability”, the name for the new Boyle Heights institution comes from a church ministry in Detroit that was instrumental to the Praters’ upbringing. When their mother died unexpectedly, Prater and her 13 siblings were raised by their single father with the help of the pastor of Dunamis Outreach Ministries and the pastor’s wife.
“As an organization, we’re doing for students what Dunamis did for my family, seeing people in need and taking action in providing stability and community,” said Prater. “You can get so much further in life with a community than you can alone. Every student deserves a place they can call home and people who are rooting for them, but unfortunately that is far from a reality for many.”
Home and Food Insecurity
According to a 2017 study commissioned by the LA Community College District, one in five of its 230,000 students experienced homelessness and nearly two-thirds couldn’t afford healthy food. A statewide survey in 2019 found that over half of the students attending a California community college worried about having enough to eat. According to LARB, many community college students in the county –including some with financial aid– end up sleeping in cars on campus parking lots, couch surfing or without a roof at all.
LARB hopes to change that by creating living-learning communities that provide a safe, secure and supportive environment with individualized case management and access to extensive support services. The programs in place at two other LA locations utilize a hybrid rapid rehousing and transitional model, fully subsidizing student housing expenses for a limited period and progressively encouraging students to pay towards their housing.
“Dunamis will be a place where people can develop into who they’re meant to be without having to worry about when their next meal will be or if they’ll even go to sleep with an actual bed,” said Prater. “Housing is a human right, and we as a society need to recognize that if homelessness across the nation is ever going to change. We’re just one of many organizations taking part in that effort in our own unique way.”
Prater said Dunamis House will provide students with wraparound services, from mental health and job opportunities to communal spaces for studying. Students will also have access to free laundry machines, coffee from an in-house barista, haircuts from local barbers, culinary cooking classes and job search support. In most cases, residency runs from 24 to 36 months.
In addition, the House will serve as a venue for seasonal events open to local neighbors and the surrounding community, from an egg roll on Easter to a haunted house on Halloween. Prater said the intention to engage with Boyle Heights stems from the history of the building itself.
Long History in Boyle Heights
The Forsythe Memorial School for Girls was originally founded in 1884 and run by the Women’s Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church, whose purpose was to provide schools for the church’s missions in the southwestern United States.
The Boyle Heights school from 1914 was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2015 and according to the National Park Service, the Mission Revival style building is a “rare, surviving representation of Americanization attempts made by Protestant denominations to homogenize Mexican American culture in Los Angeles.”
The school housed around 90 students at a time, with classes focused on domestic duties, religion and patriotism. It remained in operation until 1934, after which the property was occupied by the Hebron Community Center, another Presbyterian organization.
When the United States entered World War II, the Presbyterian Mission Board leased it to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization that was originally founded to to assist civilian victims of World War I. In 1942, the building was the first temporary home for Japanese Americans evicted from Terminal Island, before they were transferred to concentration camps throughout the Southwest.
The Army occupied the building during the war, but once Japanese Americans were allowed to return to the West Coast in 1945, the Presbyterian church and the ASFC regained its use. Facing the shortage of housing for the displaced Japanese Americans, they reopened it as the Evergreen Hostel on March 1, 1945.
Housing an average of 80 residents a day, the Hostel remained in operation through the end of the decade and has had several owners since.
Martin Covarrubias, who bought his home across the street from the building in 2003 and has lived there since, recalled the building being used as communal housing run by a “slumlord.” He said the structure had been neglected for years, and that he was “ecstatic” to see it being refurbished.
“It’s already raised the price of my property,” Covarrubias said.