Beginning a crackdown on sidewalk squatters on Skid Row on Thursday night, Los Angeles police officers went to one of the largest encampments--and found almost nobody home.
With a larger audience of news crews, homeless activists and other observers than actual homeless people, a group of about 40 officers from the department's Central Division arrived at 6th Street and Stanford Avenue shortly before dusk, finding piles of wood, blankets, broken cups and other debris where about 50 people had been living just a few hours before.
Most of the homeless, having gotten word on the street that the police were coming, had quickly faded away behind nearby buildings and into alleys.
Only a handful, hearing that police would hand out vouchers for lodging, stayed to get hotel rooms. Officers, who arrived with 50 vouchers, handed out four and abruptly left after about 20 minutes.
A few hours later, they handed out 11 more vouchers at an encampment at 4th and Los Angeles streets and made one arrest.
Officers moved on to other Skid Row areas until about 11 p.m. Thursday, when Police Lt. Orley Barton announced that the operation was shutting down for the night. He said that 23 vouchers had been handed out and that three people had been arrested.
The action, the subject of much political controversy, began a week after Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, calling the sidewalk encampments "a situation that is intolerable" and a violation of law, announced that the homeless people had seven days to get off the streets or face arrest.
The area announced for the sweeps was bounded by 3rd, 7th, Main and Alameda streets, where 13 or more encampments--of tents, mattresses and cardboard and wooden shelters--have been increasing in size over the last year.
Following a procedure worked out by city officials, police appeared Thursday night with the emergency vouchers from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services, good for four days' lodging in the Ferraro Hotel, a single-room occupancy hotel in the Westlake area, about two miles west of Skid Row.
The first to get the vouchers was a bare-chested young man named Thomas Shannon, 25, who had moved to California from Tennessee because, he said, "I thought the opportunities were better."
He had been living in the camp with his wife, Anna, 36, after losing general relief assistance, he explained, because he had disobeyed county work rule procedures.
As his wife huddled over a cardboard box containing a baby bird she had found nearby, Shannon listened as Barton explained that he was in violation of the city's sidewalk ordinance.
"Would you like to have a voucher?" Barton asked, politely.
"Yes, I would," Shannon replied, solemnly.
The two stood like players on a stage, surrounded by news media microphones and cameras. Barton filled out a voucher form and took a Polaroid picture of Shannon. Then the lieutenant gave Shannon the voucher.
"Thank you very much, officer," Shannon said, pushing off with a shopping cart loaded with aluminum cans and one chair.
"Have a nice day," Barton said.
After giving Anna Shannon, James Keith and his wife, Dora, three more vouchers, the officers left.
"It looks like the problem has disappeared before the vouchers," police spokesman Cmdr. William Booth said.
Earlier this week, Mayor Tom Bradley and police officials publicly agreed that no one would be arrested for living on downtown sidewalks unless they refused alternative shelter.
Violations are misdemeanors with a maximum of a $500 fine and six months in jail. The city attorney's office has said it will not prosecute violators.
Critics of the action have said they were concerned there was not enough substitute lodging to offer those living in Skid Row's streets. The number of homeless is estimated from as few as 1,000 to as many as 10,000.
Another temporary housing alternative surfaced Wednesday, however, when Bradley announced plans to open an "urban campground" on a vacant RTD lot downtown, near the Los Angeles River. RTD board members approved the proposal in a meeting Thursday.
One group of camp dwellers, in fact, moved their goods out of the sweep area on Thursday and set up housekeeping next to the proposed city campground at 4th Place and Santa Fe Avenue, even though it will not open for about a week.
About 30 residents of the Towne Avenue camp, known as the "Love Camp," which had organized in January, loaded their belongings onto shopping carts and trucks belonging to friends and re-established themselves under the 4th Street Bridge.
They piled extra wood and other unused debris in the street and, as a last gesture, swept the sidewalk before leaving Towne Avenue.
"All they got to do is come pick this up," Rachel Verdugo said. "They can keep their vouchers."
"We're a family," her husband, David Bryant, said of the camp residents, who split cleaning and cooking duties among themselves and had a reputation as Skid Row's most orderly camp. "And we wanted to stay together."