A small drug village of mostly homeless men has sprung up like a wild mushroom on an abandoned lot in the shadow of Los Angeles City Hall and the downtown Criminal Courts Building.
"I think it's funny when I shoot dope and look at the court building and City Hall," said Jeff, 34, a self-described heroin user for 14 years who bared his arm and prepared to seek a vein while gazing at the city's most venerable institutions.
"It's a beautiful view, and it's more beautiful when I'm loaded. This is my favorite place to shoot up."
Neither homelessness nor drug abuse is new in downtown Los Angeles. On any given night, an estimated 41,000 people roam city streets or sleep in shelters. Virtually overnight, gutted lots give way to cardboard townships. It's like an urban tide: Homeless move in, officials raze their impromptu towns, homeless move out.
But this camp underscores how invisible the homeless have become--that they can live, smoke dope and shoot heroin next door to the established powers of the city.
And the special proximity is not lost on camp inhabitants, who say the locale makes their dwellings quieter and more secure.
"This is the safest place, that's why we are here," said one 55-year-old resident.
Gesturing toward City Hall, Criminal Courts and the Los Angeles Times and Times Mirror buildings across the street, Henry, 66, a former tailor, said proudly, "We got respectable neighbors here."
Such encampments are illegal, and to keep from being kicked out, inhabitants of this village say they have crafted rules: no truly unruly behavior, no panhandling in the immediate vicinity and no breaking into the Mercedes Benzes, BMWs and other cars in the parking lot sandwiched between the Criminal Courts Building and the encampment.
"We don't be bumming or begging people here. People are trying to catch a bus or go to work, and it just don't look right," Henry said. "And if [camp residents] get too loud or fight, they got to go."
Henry, a short, gentle man who boasts of doing 500 push-ups daily, walks several blocks along Broadway before he starts asking for handouts. He doesn't need much money; $6 a day covers the cost of beer and an occasional bar of soap, and allows him to chip in for snacks when his neighbors pool resources. He eats most meals at skid row's Midnight Mission.
The predominantly Latino residents have other rules, too. They severely limit who can stay in their camp: They allow whites, but they exclude blacks. "This is just like a little town," Henry said.
Shielded by a gray board fence, the camp at 1st Street between Broadway and Spring streets cannot be seen from the sidewalk. The best views of the lot, jointly owned by the county and state, are from the windows of the tall buildings that tower over it.
Entrances to the camp are through the holes in a wire fence by the parking lot. Some residents on one recent morning were friendly, offering to show off their homes on the chipped concrete plaza, the remains of a state office building. Others were not. After one man began to shoot up, several inhabitants, fearful of such an act becoming publicized, chased out the visitors. In ensuing visits, residents sketched out the sometimes hazy tales of everyday lives.
The camp--20 lean-tos of wood, cardboard and plastic sheets--has divisions: Crack cocaine smokers live to the east toward City Hall, heroin shooters to the west toward the county law library. They don't mingle much.
There is no running water. Beneath the camp sit two stories of what used to be an underground parking garage. Few people go to the second, rat-infested level; it has no light.
The first underground level is used as a latrine. The floor of the enormous cavern is dotted with human excrement, patrolled by thick clouds of flies. Getting high down there would mean drug-tortured nightmares, camp residents say.
Sergio, a 38-year-old former truck driver with dark, wolfish eyes, lives on the crack cocaine side of camp. He built one of a series of hovels that cling like lichen to the 3-foot cement wall that once bounded the plaza. The primitive lean-to next to Sergio's bears a sign that reads: Hogar Dulce Hogar, or Home Sweet Home.
Twice a week, Sergio earns $25 a day putting fliers on the doorknobs of homes in suburban L.A. He also makes a little money renting out his lean-to. In exchange for $5 or a $5 rock of cocaine, Sergio said, he allows others to use his home to shoot or smoke the drug of their choice. But he is strictly a crack cocaine user.
"When I take my hit, it's like a burst of energy," said Sergio, who said he began smoking crack 10 years ago. "Nobody likes dope, but you get under the hand of the drug."
Sergio, like most of the other residents, declined to use his full name, fearful of being arrested. Some were afraid that a newspaper story would mean being displaced. "I lived in a place like this in Portland, then they wrote about it and we had to move," said one man.