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Police Trying to Improve Conditions on Skid Row

July 13, 1986|DANELIA WILD | United Press International

The conditions that have earned Skid Row its name and reputation are the concerns of a sergeant assigned to coordinate police efforts to make the downtown Los Angeles area safe.

"We have a multifaceted problem down here that is generically called the 'homeless problem,' " said Sgt. Steve Twohy, who holds the official title of Central City East rehabilitation coordinator, but is usually just called the "Skid Row coordinator."

Loosely bordered by Alameda Street on the east, Broadway on the west and extending from just south of City Hall to Olympic Boulevard, Skid Row has traditionally been a dumping ground for society's misfits.

Vulnerable to Crime

Cheap hotels and manufacturing and wholesale businesses anchor an area where the homeless sleep in doorways, doze in parks and spend their waking hours shuffling for the bare necessities. Many are alcoholic, drug addicted or mentally ill, and all are vulnerable to crime.

"The problems we're dealing with are deeply rooted social problems which have been around for a long time," Twohy said. "The Police Department alone is not going to solve them."

A two-year study of the downtown homeless found that about one-third of those questioned had severe and chronic mental disorders. Most are under 40, lead isolated lives and often go hungry, the report said.

The study, financed by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and the National Institute of Mental Health, also found that few of the 10,000 to 15,000 homeless who live downtown receive any sort of care.

'They Are Easy Prey'

"The problem with the people who are down and out is that they are easy prey," Twohy said.

The problem for police is that the homeless not only become crime statistics, but they also drain department resources, according to a March study for the police and fire commissions that led to the creation of the coordinator's position.

"The whole idea is to coordinate police activity in the Skid Row area and provide a point of contact for the businessmen in the area," he said. The aim is to use the department's resources more efficiently.

"We are putting out little brush fires all the time, running from call to call," Twohy said.

Police are also trying to reduce the number of street assaults by getting the homeless off the streets and into shelter or rehabilitation programs, Twohy said. On an average day, 190 people show up for detoxification at the downtown Weingart Center.

During April, officers took 1,402 public drunks to the center, and 967 were picked up by the Civilian Assistance Patrol. Another 3,334 either walked into the center or were referred by social service agencies, he said.

Traffic accidents caused by jaywalking are another target for police activity. Six pedestrians have been struck and killed in the area during the first five months of the year, Twohy said.

Drug enforcement in the area is also a priority. Twohy forwarded information on nine locations where drugs sales were prevalent to a task force that recently completed a sweep of street dealers.

66 Arrests in 3 Days

"They made 66 arrests in a three-day period, 44 of those at those nine hot spots," Twohy said.

Each month he meets with private security guards hired by merchants of the Central City East Assn., with businessmen and with workers at social service agencies.

"A lot of my job is talking to people and going to meetings," Twohy said.

Sometimes a solution can be as uncomplicated as arranging additional police patrols to keep the street people from stealing a company's wood pallets, he said. The pallets are used to fuel garbage-can fires that the homeless light to stay warm at night.

Impact on Police

As another part of his job, Twohy evaluates the impact that potential Skid Row solutions would pose for police.

He recently went to Phoenix with representatives of the Community Redevelopment Agency to see a public campsite established for the Arizona city's homeless.

"It was actually quite impressive, with very few problems from a police point of view.

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