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A crack in a safe -- and a dent in their lives

Like a number of skid row's poor and "unbanked," Robert Baker trusted his cash and future dreams to a half-ton safe in downtown's bustling Union Rescue Mission.

Baker, 36, had landed at the Christian mission at 5th and San Pedro streets ready to work, save money and move to Arizona to join his four children. As per mission requirements, the West Covina native squirreled away 70% of his earnings in a second-floor safe along with those of some 200 other residents.

The bank safe was a service for the city's poorest -- those who can't or won't deposit their money in traditional banks. But early Sunday, the 116-year-old mission's informal banking system backfired when a thief gained entry to the locked second floor, pried open two steel doors, cracked the back of the concrete-reinforced safe and stole $100,000 in cash, jewelry and gift certificates, police and mission officials said.

Although mission staff reassured homeless victims such as Baker that they would get their money back, the crime has left many shaken.

"It's a damn shame somebody can come into a house of God and do that," said Baker, who lost roughly $300 in the theft.

The loss has already prompted Baker to postpone his departure from the shelter. "I was kind of upset, but what can you do?" he said. "You're in downtown L.A., skid row."

On Monday evening, however, police announced that they had arrested Alvin Synder, 44, on suspicion of violating parole. Authorities are asking for the public's help in finding a Jeep Cherokee that Synder allegedly had bought with cash from the safe.

Mission officials said the suspect was a former shelter resident who often bragged of his ability to "break" safes and who left the mission on bad terms a week ago.

"I think he left with a bit of a grudge," said Andy Bales, Union Rescue Mission's chief executive.

Bales said he and mission residents spent hours Sunday scrutinizing security video of the thief going down a flight of stairs and out of the building. "One of the reasons we figured it out was the direction he was headed, because we knew where he was staying," Bales said.

The mission's bank is a major part of life for those struggling to escape skid row.

Although mission staff usually empty the safe once a month, depositing the contents at nearby City National Bank, many residents choose to keep their money on site. They worry that banks will charge them hidden fees, penalize them for not monitoring their accounts, or allow creditors to tap their savings. One man distrusts banks so much that he insisted his money stay in the safe. He lost more than $10,000 in the burglary, Bales said.

About 1 in 10 households nationwide are "unbanked," according to the latest federal survey of consumer finances. A handful of nonprofits in San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta and other cities offer informal banking services to help fill the gap.

Bales said many mission residents lost about $4,000 in the burglary. The thief also took $16,000 in petty cash and about $1,500 in Christmas gift cards for mission staff, Bales said.

According to Bales, some mission residents used the safe because they're unable -- because of bad credit or lack of identification -- to open bank accounts for Social Security or welfare assistance checks. Unlike banks, the mission cashier accepts identification cards issued by the mission, check-cashing companies and other sources available to the homeless.

"I've even ID'd people with hospital wrist bands," mission cashier Michael Jones said.

Kidogo Jamal, 64, a former barber, lost about $100 in the heist. He said homeless people expected to be targeted on the streets, but he always thought of the mission as a haven.

"It happens out here every day," he said outside the mission Monday. "But for it to happen on the inside. . . ."

Although police say the number of Skid Row robberies has dropped 40% since last year, and overall crime has dropped 30%, criminals still target Skid Row's homeless, said Lt. Paul Vernon.

Los Angeles Police Det. Bryce Spafford, the lead officer on skid row for a decade, said many homeless people with substance abuse problems can't handle the temptation of an ATM card, which can make bank accounts accessible from as close as the ATM in the shelter's lobby.

"A lot of the reasons people are down here is their inability to self-discipline," he said.

Impulsive spending was mission resident David "Dino" Wells Jr.'s problem before he put money in the safe.

"I was bad with saving money," the aspiring actor and screenwriter said. "I'd get $1,000 and splurge it, living above my means."

But for the last few months, Wells, 36, had been changing his ways. He started doing small-time acting gigs and had saved $900 in the safe to buy Christmas toys for his four kids and then move into a studio apartment.

The mission plans to replace its safe, strengthen security doors and install security cameras in the cashier area, Bales said.

But some mission residents said they planned to carry their money with them from now on. Others intend to pay for safe-deposit boxes. But many, such as Baker, Jamal and Wells, said they still trusted the mission and planned to keep saving.

"I need to not indulge so much," Wells said. "And this is teaching me how to do that."

molly.hennessy-fiske @latimes.com

carla.hall@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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