Working his way through a box of chocolate doughnuts, B. J. Link, 28 and homeless, paused to lick a finger and ponder fate.
Nope, he said, the latest threatened crackdown on the homeless on Los Angeles' Skid Row--scheduled to start today--won't bother him much. "I'm not worried about it really," he said. "I'll go over to the other side of Chinatown ... in the woods by Elysian Park." But if police do pull people off the street, "it's not going to solve the problem. The jails are already overcrowded."
Despite the calm of a few such as Link, the past week could be called the stampede on Skid Row.
By all accounts, that's what happened last Friday when about 200 people began flocking to the Panama Hotel on 5th Street.
Lured by easily available referral slips and apparently spurred by anxiety over the planned crackdown on homeless people camped on the sidewalks, the crowd was competing for about 65 rooms available from the Single Room Occupancy Housing Corp., an offshoot of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency that renovates and operates hotels on Skid Row.
This rush for rooms was the latest round in a long-running saga involving SRO's controversial role on Skid Row. It was also an indication of the complexities involved in housing the homeless in a city that has opened emergency shelters for--and conducted "street sweeps" against--the homeless.
"We really underestimated the response, we had no idea there would be such an overwhelming turnout," said Nancy Mintie of the Inner City Law Center, explaining that center staffers working in separate locations inadvertently handed out more referral slips than there were rooms available.
Street Market Developed
The referral slips reportedly became one of the hottest tickets in Los Angeles, selling for $5 each on the street.
(On Wednesday, Mayor Tom Bradley said an "urban encampment" for the homeless was being readied near downtown and that the had asked police not to arrest the homeless after officers ran out of housing vouchers. Police are supposed to offer vouchers for city- and county-paid shelter at area hotels--including those run by SRO and others that accept welfare clients--before making arrests. It was not clear Wednesday how much housing will be available for the estimated 1,000 to 10,000 people sleeping on Skid Row streets. Public interest attorneys were seeking court action Wednesday to halt the sweeps, at least temporarily.)
For about the past year, SRO has been a source of ire for some other social service providers on Skid Row. Over the past few months their criticisms have intensified--mainly that the agency has moved too slowly in renovation and has exacerbated the housing shortage by closing hotels to fix them up. The agency's executive director, Andy Raubeson, also has become more of a target, primarily because he supported city action against homeless encampments earlier this year.
Most recently, critics such as Mintie and John Dillon of the Chrysalis Center, a private self-help organization on Skid Row, have been irked by SRO's reports that its vacancy rates were increasing while many people were living on the streets.
For much of this year, SRO has reported vacancy rates from about 15 to more than 50 rooms in its two largest hotels, the Panama and the Russ in the area of 5th and San Julian streets. These hotels house a largely transient and homeless male clientele whose fees are often paid for by the county welfare system.
SRO spokesmen had blamed the vacancies on warmer weather, dispersal of the homeless beyond Skid Row and temporary increases in shelter beds.
Mintie and Dillon said their efforts to get people into SRO's hotels last week were partly to demonstrate that street people do want shelter. But homeless people often don't seek or get shelter because of red tape and delays in assistance programs such as Los Angeles County's General Relief program that provides vouchers for hotel stays, they explained.
"Housing needs to be a real option rather than a theoretical option," especially when the homeless are threatened with arrests, Dillon said.
City Pays for a Week
Under SRO's emergency program, the city pays $8 nightly for up to a week's stay at an SRO hotel, so long as applicants are sober and not under the influence of drugs, said Raubeson, who noted his hotels have been full or nearly full the last few days. After a week, clients go back on the street if their vouchers are not renewed or they don't find another government agency to pay their bills.
"It seems that there is more demand than supply if you make the eligibility requirements liberal enough," Raubeson said, referring to the fact that those seeking shelter don't have to fill out forms, have vouchers or meet other bureaucratic requirements.
\o7 Mark Loard, 40, has been staying at the Russ Hotel for about six months. He has lived on Skid Row "off and on" since 1980, he said. And he is ambivalent about the looming crackdown.