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COVER STORY : A Far Cry From Skid Row : As More Women and Families Join the Ranks of the Homeless, Many Are Shunning Downtown for Safer Areas

October 03, 1993|LUCILLE RENWICK

IN PICO-UNION, A FAMILY and two couples sit beside cardboard lean-tos that are part of a string of ramshackle shelters lining the sidewalk of Shatto Street.

Miles away in South-Central, a tree house and three shacks sit on an abandoned corner lot on Grand Avenue near Imperial Highway, where a couple cooks food over a makeshift grill and a man sits on a chair amid old tires and thigh-high weeds.

As the face of Los Angeles' homeless population changes from predominantly single men to families and couples, where they seek shelter has shifted dramatically.

Just as those with homes aspire to move to more desirable neighborhoods, many without homes are avoiding seedy, downtrodden areas in favor of more stable environments.

Specifically, they are seeking to stay away from the gritty streets of Skid Row, bordered by 3rd Street to the north and 7th Street to the south, from Main Street east to Alameda Street, and are settling as best they can in communities such as Pico-Union, South-Central, the Eastside and Echo Park. Although there have been homeless people in those neighborhoods for years, their numbers are escalating.

"I wouldn't walk Downtown in that area daytime or nighttime strictly for the fear that some moron who's strung out on something would kill me for a cigarette or some money," said Eri (pronounced Eddie) Burns, 37, who lives in an encampment off 9th Street just west of the Harbor Freeway. "It's cleaner here. It's safer."

There is no exact number of homeless people living on Skid Row, but officials at Shelter Partnership Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides support services to more than 200 homeless shelters and social service agencies working with homeless people in the county, estimate that more than 50% of the homeless people in Los Angeles are on Skid Row. The organization's report for the 1992-93 fiscal year estimated that as many as 40,000 homeless were on the streets of Los Angeles on any given night.

Some outreach workers believe that, in a couple of years, the homeless in communities surrounding Downtown will outnumber the homeless of Skid Row.

"If there's a neighborhood within this city, there's a homeless encampment there," said David Bryant, a project coordinator for the city Community Development Department's Mobile Ombudsman Program. "You can find homeless everywhere. They're hidden in these places, but the more you look, the more you find."

Across from the Hubert H. Humphrey Health Center on Main Street in South-Central, three large abandoned buildings shelter dozens of homeless people who have cleaned up the site and put curtains in the windows. On 3rd and Bixel streets in Temple-Beaudry, the site of the defunct Bunker Hill West development project overlooking Downtown and Echo Park is home to dozens of encampments under shrubs, behind rocks, or out in the open.

"The story is rather simple: People become homeless and tend to stay where they are unless they're obliged to move," said Michael Dear, a USC geography and urban and regional planning professor who co-authored "Malign Neglect: Homelessness in an American City" with USC geography professor Jennifer Wolch.

"If they need services, they go to Skid Row. But they may feel that Skid Row is dangerous, so they move back toward their social network," Dear said.

Although distance from the Skid Row area means relative safety and seclusion, it falls short in access to social services, especially general relief and health care. In addition, people living in the outlying neighborhoods still encounter hustlers, thieves, drug addicts and the mentally ill who frequent Skid Row.

Some homeless drug addicts chose the surrounding communities over Skid Row to avoid harassment from police, some experts and service providers say. In several alleys in Westlake, in the middle of the afternoon, drug addicts openly smoke crack outside their encampments.

But for the most part, people in areas not traditionally associated with homelessness have set up social networks in which they look out for each other, clean up the property and establish as much of a sense of normalcy as possible.

"In Downtown L.A., wherever you stay, every morning you have to be up at 7 a.m. to take down your cardboard shelter," said Christine Scott, who lives beneath the Hollywood Freeway near the Men's Central Jail with her partner, Darryl Scott. "Away from Downtown, you can have a space built the way you want."

In their 20-foot-long, three section shelter, Eri Burns and her companion, Bill Matthews, 48, have set up the closest thing to home that they can get. There is a living room and kitchen, a bedroom and a storage closet. Theirs is the largest and sturdiest lean-to of the dozen encampments on the Golden Avenue site. Burns and Matthews are the cleanup patrol.

"They live like pigs around all that garbage down there (in Skid Row). I wasn't raised to live like that, and I won't," Matthews said. "This is the only place we've got, and we have to take care of it."

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