Feb. 5, 2004
By Dennis Romero
Cover photo by Steve Appleford
The curb along San Julian Street is more than a metaphor, it's the real deal - the ultimate backstop for a life's downward slide, the end of the row, even for Skid Row. It's lined with runners hissing out drugs for sale, men taking naps, and newly minted homeless teens passing a joint. On a recent afternoon, the smell of skunkweed mixes with the vapors of human waste. The gutter is filled with murky puddles, scorched blunts, a pink backpack, and tattered trash bags full of abandoned clothing - signs of throwaway lives. A worker at the nearby Volunteers of America shelter says she tosses out seven bags of belongings every day because owners fail to retrieve them from storage. The city's weekly street-sweeping crews bring along a trash truck just to deal with all the curbside refuse on San Julian. "Rats as big as cats" prowl the blocks, as one social worker puts it. Some men walk barefoot through the filth.
Historian Mike Davis says the area's high-walled wholesalers, barbwire businesses, and cold, concrete living quarters constitute a "hard-scape" unfit for human beings. San Julian is the epicenter of a two-decade city policy to concentrate homelessness within the Row. "Skid Row is just a human landfill," Davis says, "and that should be intolerable."
It's the home of America's unwashed masses, but times are changing, and so is the Row.
The agency responsible for funneling the most public money - about $60 million annually - into county homeless shelters and services is now putting a cap on funding for Skid Row. No additional service centers. No additional shelters. No additional transient housing. Not in the next 10 years. Not with any of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority's cash. Instead, this joint city-county agency, known as LAHSA, wants to see the homeless spread more evenly throughout the region.
Mitchell Netburn, the agency's executive director, says "the current thinking is we don't want it where building after building is just homeless people. We're 180 degrees from that of the past. We want services all around the county."
"What has been a policy of containment is turning into a policy of dispersal," says Mollie Lowery, executive director of Lamp, a drop-in center on San Julian.
But the idea of spreading the pain doesn't have the ring of truth for Skid Row service providers. "One of the reasons we have services downtown is that it's one of the only places you can put them," says James Howat, Los Angeles director of homeless services for Volunteers of America, which has its Drop-In Center at 628 S. San Julian St. "NIMBYism is a real problem for providing services to the homeless and those being released from prison. It's not even NIMBY [Not In My Backyard], it's NOPE - Not On Planet Earth. People don't want it."
Historian Davis agrees. "There are far more powerful forces arrayed against dispersal of the homeless," he says. "Suburban governments are passing laws essentially outlawing the homeless. It's forcing a lot of people from the periphery to the center."
In fact, advocates say homelessness is growing downtown. The suburbs won't have them, redevelopment is threatening the Row's housing stock, and the slumping economy is kicking some workers to the curb. (In December, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported a 13 percent increase in demand for emergency shelter - with nearly a third of that demand going unmet.) "There needs to be more services, not less," says James Bonar, executive director of Skid Row Housing Trust, one of two nonprofits responsible for most of the single-room-occupancy buildings in the area.
Developer Tom Gilmore, among the first to see the profit potential in the historic buildings of Skid Row, is one of 10 politically appointed commissioners who decide where LAHSA aims its sizeable budget. His trio of airy, elegant loft buildings at Fourth and Main streets contrasts with the cardboard shantytowns south and east.
He sees some good in gentrification. "In this case, the redevelopment in the area is focusing energy on the issue of homelessness, rather than having it be swept under the rug as it has for the last 20 or so years," Gilmore says.
Still, with some of the area's old hotels and potential housing stock being converted for middle-class use, it sounds like the "joint powers" that be are putting the brakes on Skid Row, or at least scattering the homeless.
"The policy of containment has been an abject failure," says City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, whose district includes a good piece of the Row. "The area's future is one where we begin by changing the nomenclature from Skid ´´ Row to Central City East and create a vision for that area. I think the Central City East portion of downtown is an area that is striving to reclaim its neighborhoods. It's a place where people can live and work with a renewed hope for the future."
Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents most of downtown, agrees. "It's been a magnet for people descending in life or just let out of jail to congregate," she says of Skid Row. "As far as a policy of containment, that's not a policy anymore."
The Row Goes Upscale
New York transplant Gilmore sparked interest in Skid Row as more than just a homeless zone when, in 1998, he purchased three early-1900s buildings at Fourth and Main, converted them to lofts, and christened the northwest corner of the Row as the Old Bank District. Since then, he's been a principal in the purchase of such nearby mainstays as the El Dorado Hotel, the Palace Theater, and St. Vibiana's Cathedral - all slated for redevelopment. "All of those buildings were empty and didn't require relocation or dislocation, and our future plans don't involve relocation or dislocation," Gilmore says.
But Councilwoman Perry has said other developers are planning to turn some transient housing (or "SROs" for single-room occupancy) buildings into "market rate" yuppie lofts and apartments, pulling available beds from the Row.
Much of the redevelopment is encouraged by state and city "adoptive reuse" tax and code breaks intended to foster inner-city preservation. "On one side of their mouths, politicians say we need more affordable housing," argues homeless advocate Alice Callaghan. "On the other side, they're shoveling money to these developers."
Along with Gilmore Associates' considerable moves, the owner of the Frontier Hotel at Fifth and Main streets has bought the adjacent Rosslyn Hotel and hopes to convert both buildings into "market rate" dwellings. The Morrison Hotel near Staples Center, long a spot for transients, is up for sale. The Cecil Hotel, another single-room-occupancy haunt for the sometime-homeless, has undergone $4 million in renovations and is targeting a Euro-traveler market. A loft project at Seventh and Los Angeles streets, Santee Court, is billed by its developer as "the largest adaptive-reuse project currently underway in the City of Los Angeles. It will transform nine historic garment buildings on the northern edge of the Fashion District into a contemporary downtown neighborhood." The Little Tokyo Lofts near Fourth and San Pedro put the young and upwardly mobile in the heart of Skid Row.
"When I saw a coffee shop on San Pedro between Fourth and Fifth with outdoor tables I knew there was a big change coming," says Howat of Volunteers of America.
At Pete's Café and Bar at Fourth and Main, customers can step into a high-ceilinged oasis with a broad, sunlit view of the heroin dealers down the street and order $11 curried-chicken sandwiches. The mayor and other city power players have been known to dine here, but don't come near if you're homeless. "You stop outside Pete's Café to tie your shoes, and you'll be moved along," says Callaghan.
To be fair, Gilmore says that nearly half his employees downtown are homeless or formerly so. But critics say that if the redevelopment continues, there will be a lot more folks without roofs over their heads. Experts say that, on any given night, there are more than 10,000 homeless and transients on Skid Row, and there are nearly 8,000 beds, including single-room-occupancy hotels, low-income housing, transitional homes, and shelters, leaving as many as 2,500 to curb it alfresco.
"We'll have to build a costly shelter system because we encouraged developers to line their personal pockets by purchasing distressed buildings on Main Street," Callaghan says. "The city in the past did everything they could to protect that housing, and has now abandoned that plan. I am not opposed to developing downtown. But I am opposed to taking the irreplaceable housing of the poorest of the poor and giving it to people who have options. It makes good economic and social sense to save the housing on Skid Row."
Advocates claim the housing stock is already being reduced by redevelopment and speculation.
"We tried to buy the Rosslyn, but we were outbid by a landlord who wants to turn the building into condos," says Bonar of Skid Row Housing Trust. "It sold for more than $5.5 million. We were prepared to offer very close to that. They said our price was OK, but they didn't like our terms.
"Buildings around here are getting a whole lot more expensive to buy, to the extent we can find them," he continues. "They're waiting for anyone with a big checkbook."
Meanwhile, recently empowered business improvement districts representing the city's toy, fashion, and flower industries are employing private security forces - homeless people call them "the shirts" because of their bright vests - and putting pressure on police and city leaders to get the bodies and trash away from their businesses.
"The lofts are coming in, and businesses are coming in, and the homeless are all going to jail," says homeless activist Ted Hayes.
Some foresee the homeless being pushed east into the Los Angeles River, where they've been before, or toward South Los Angeles, already home to some services, such as an emergency winter shelter at 3804 Broadway Place. But no one knows for sure where they'll all go if Skid Row becomes Melrose Place.
A History of Containment
Stoned and giggling, 19-year-old Amy Conrad reclines against a brick wall along San Julian. Just weeks ago, she came to Los Angeles from Austin, Texas, with Hollywood hopes, but she quickly hit the curb. Her girlish smile - she barely looks 15 - is marred by stained teeth, and her golden hair is tangled and dirty. "I had an apartment in Austin until my mom took it away," she says, dressed in black and perched atop bagged belongings. "She basically treated me like a child. Does that sound bad, that I'd rather be out here?"
Here at the curb, out-of-town homeless come to bask in warmer days, and just-released county inmates are dropped off twice a day. "It's a dumping ground for the jail system," says Kathryn Seiffert of Volunteers of America.
Two San Julian drop-in centers - one currently closed for renovation - provide "high-tolerance" services for transients as well as parolees, addicts, and the mentally ill: those deemed to be "service resistant." The street's not just an open-air drug bazaar, it's an outdoor halfway house that was, in part, encouraged by city and county authorities who at one time wanted to contain the worst of the worst.
In 1985, the Los Angeles Men's Place opened on the west side of the street. It's now a co-ed drop-in center called Lamp that's closed for remodeling. Then, in 1999, the Volunteers of America Drop-In Center - providing laundry, storage, and activities for 600 people a day, not to mention beds for 87 who sleep in eight-hour shifts - solidified San Julian's status as the end of the line. Not so ironically, the historical figure of Julian the Hospitaller is known in Catholic lore as the patron saint of murderers, travelers, hotel keepers, and clowns. His memorial day is February 12.
Homeless services have been in the Skid Row area since the 1880s: In 1896, Volunteers of America also rolled a "mission wagon" for alcoholics in the area. As turn-of-the-century hotels along Main Street and east along Sixth and Seventh deteriorated after World War II, transients moved in. During the 20-year reign of Mayor Tom Bradley, which started in 1973, his administration made it a policy to contain homelessness to the more than 50-square-block Skid Row area that runs from Main to Alameda, from Third south to Eighth. The rationale was to centralize services and encourage single-room-occupancy conversions of hotels for low-income living. Councilmembers were "hysterical about sending homeless to their districts," Davis says. "So the Bradley administration policy of containment and centralization of services was a response to a de facto political situation where nobody else wanted to deal with the homeless."
Then, says Davis, "In the early '90s, the city took to closing down market outlets and liquor stores where cheap wine was sold on Skid Row. In the absence of cheap wine, crack cocaine began flooding into the Row. And Skid Row probably became the area with the largest concentration of crack-cocaine users in the country."
Dispersing the Homeless
Deputy City Attorney Dena Sohn remembers that in the '90s things got so bad around San Julian, "there were people camped out in the lobby and in the bushes" of the LAPD's nearby Central station at Sixth and Wall streets.
When crack hit the Row, violence followed, and it continues today. On November 16, 2002, a man was fatally stabbed in the 600 block of San Julian. Four days later, as part of LAPD Chief William J. Bratton's crackdown on so-called quality-of-life crimes, police, California Highway Patrol officers, U.S. Marshals, and even FBI agents swarmed Skid Row as part of "Operation Enough." Nineteen people were collared on suspicion of felony crimes, and authorities rounded up another 89, mostly for parole violations and outstanding warrants. But the American Civil Liberties Union sued the LAPD for allegedly violating the constitutional rights of Skid Rowians by charging through and casting too wide a net. The ACLU won, and the sweeps were over.
But, lately, the LAPD - responding to complaints by business owners and residents - has been sweeping homeless encampments, this time arresting people on suspicion of sleeping on the sidewalks, a municipal code violation. "Do the loft dwellers file complaints?" says Deputy D.A. Sohn. "Yeah, and we have to respond to those complaints. They've changed things in that respect."
During their sidewalk sweeps, police drag along LAHSA social workers, who offer the homeless shelter and services in lieu of arrest but are usually rebuffed. Police say they check with local shelters to verify that beds are available - but this is usually at dawn, at the end of the capacity overnight sleep shifts. "Every night that I've seen on the logs, there are beds available," says Capt. Blake Chow of the LAPD's Central Division.
"So much is done to give people alternatives," adds Sohn. "To say there are no beds is untrue."
But the numbers don't add up, and two weeks ago, Callaghan, of Skid Row's Las Familias del Pueblo community center, put the LAPD's claim of shelter availability to the test, distributing fliers saying that LAHSA had beds and services available to those who needed them. "So many people ran over to LAHSA, they had to put someone in the lobby to tell people to go away," she says.
LAHSA's Netburn admits that emergency winter shelters, for example, have been "over 100 percent capacity since November 30 - 865 beds. If we can get a larger number of beds available, a larger number of people on the street would use them," he says. "What we were saying was, most nights we can get beds for most people who we approach - for that small pop of people we do encounter - not easily, but we can do it."
The ACLU sued the LAPD over the sidewalk-sleeping citations, but just last week it lost. The organization is pondering an appeal.
In any case, Skid Row observers on all sides - homeless advocates, City Council representatives, police - agree that law enforcement isn't the answer, and that sweeps are like playing musical chairs with the homeless. The geography changes, but the problem remains.
Skid Row of the Future
Davis and Hayes agree that the homeless should have a voice in the changing nature of Skid Row.
"The city should sponsor the creation of a council elected by people on Skid Row so they can actually advise the city on policy and report honestly to the public on the conditions on Skid Row," says Davis. "Another 10 academic studies or 15 stories in the L.A. Times based on cops or social workers won't do it. It's time to empower a group of Skid Row residents. At the end of the day, they're the ones who know the truth."
"A lot of people in this area want to work," says 61-year-old Jeff Spiller, standing at the curb on San Julian as he waits for a bus to take him to a temporary winter shelter in South L.A. "You can't get rid of the homeless here unless you got a heart to help the homeless. Some people want help, and I'm one of the ones who wants help."Callaghan wants the city, county, and developers to allow Skid Row to fulfill its promise of housing the poor and giving a helping hand to the downtrodden. "What the police and City Hall want to talk about is that there are people who are going to be homeless no matter what. But we don't know that, because we don't have housing for everyone."
Story notes: In the wake of a new wave of gentrification downtown, I started talking to my editors about how L.A.'s Skid Row was still as bad as ever. I pointed them to San Julian Street, which was essentially an open-air drug market, just a block south of the Los Angeles Police Department's Central Division. CityBeat editor-in-chief and I went down to San Julian, mouths agape at what we saw. He took photos and I took notes. This story ran before Steve Lopez turned his pen to the area (resulting in a book and movie), and before LA Weekly published a series on Skid Row.