Jack Simone has a sure-fire way of dispersing crowds of homeless people who sometimes gather in front of his store on Skid Row.
He plugs in the electrically powered sprinklers he installed on the roof and waters them down.
"The only people who can make them move are the police," Simone said Friday, as he stood in his store on 5th Street near San Pedro Avenue. "Water is the single most effective way other than that."
Simone says he uses the sprinklers for brief periods when fights break out, and when people use alcohol or drugs outside his door. He also uses them when he considers the number of people outside too large.
This week, the practice--which apparently is not uncommon along Skid Row--came under the scrutiny of the American Civil Liberties Union. Sprinklers also have been installed at two area missions.
Lawyers for the civil rights organization, alerted to the complaints of the homeless by a radio reporter, are investigating whether rousting the homeless with water is legal; a spokeswoman said the practice is questionable.
"It is reminiscent of the 1960s when they turned water on civil rights marchers," said Linda Burstyn, a spokeswoman for the ACLU. "Unless they are breaking the law, people have a right to be on a public sidewalk."
Though it was too early to predict what course the lawyers will take, one option is for them to urge the Los Angeles city attorney to file charges against the merchants, Burstyn said.
Depending on the circumstances, the city attorney could act on such a request, said Susan Zimon, a supervising attorney in the city attorney's office.
"Of course, anytime we look at a case, it depends on whether or not we have a victim, whether they are willing to go to court and a lot of other factors," Zimon said. "But it could be a technical battery, the same as you would have if one neighbor turned a garden hose on another."
If Simone is indeed breaking the law, he has been doing it for a long time.
He installed the sprinklers himself, he said, five years ago when his battle to keep the homeless from loitering around his business began to seem futile.
"They sleep in front of your business, they build bonfires to keep warm," Simone said Friday. "I didn't want to come to work one day and find my business burned down.
For a time, Simone said he had the sprinklers on an automatic timer at night so that they would come on at regular intervals. The bonfires disappeared, he said.
Now, the merchant contends, he only uses the sprinklers in emergencies.
Homeless people interviewed outside his store contended that the sprinklers come on without warning, which Simone denies.
"Most of the time we go out and tell them we're getting ready to turn them on," he said. He noted, too, that there are signs on the outside wall that warn loiterers of the sprinklers.
No warnings are painted on a sprinkler-equipped building down the street from Simone's store. A homeless man who stood near it said the sprinklers often soak people's blankets and other belongings. He and others pointed out sprinklers at the Emmanuel Rescue Mission, a shelter for the homeless on the other end of the block, and the Midnight Mission, another homeless shelter a few blocks away on Los Angeles Street.
A worker at the first mission would not give his name and said he could not discuss the matter.
Clancy Imislund, manager of the Midnight Mission, said the sprinklers on his agency's building are used to discourage drug selling and other criminal activity by people other than the homeless.
The sprinklers do not spray over the sidewalk as they do at Simone's store, but only cause water to cascade down the front wall, he said.