Homeless advocates blocked traffic for nearly two hours in Los Angeles' bustling Toy Town area Wednesday to protest what they claim are attempts by the area's two new business improvement districts to oust street people from the heart of Skid Row.
The activists claim that the new business-funded cleanup and security teams are rousting the homeless from the sidewalks, dumping their belongings and urging police to crack down on Skid Row residents for a variety of petty offenses.
The complaints come just weeks after Toy Town property owners began funding private sanitation and security crews to begin patrolling the eight-block area bounded roughly by 3rd, Los Angeles, 5th and San Pedro streets and an adjacent 32-block warehouse district.
Police made no arrests in the mostly peaceful protest, but BID organizers fired a member of their red-shirted bicycle security team after the guard cursed and threatened a protester. BID officials said the incident was an isolated one and they deny that their security guards are harassing the homeless--an assertion that was backed up by the Los Angeles Police Department.
"I've seen nothing to indicate that [BID security] is violating anyone's rights or breaking any laws," said Sgt. Joe Sanders of the LAPD's Central Division.
But protesters said the confrontation, which was captured on videotape, is proof of the strong-arm tactics being employed by the "red shirts" in Toy Town.
"A private police force should not be in control of public space," said the Rev. Alice Callaghan, director of an area community center who organized the protest.
The protest underscored the inherent tension between the rights of merchants and homeless people in urban areas. Homelessness itself is not a crime, but merchants complain that when the homeless block sidewalks, urinate in public and leave debris, they are breaking the law.
"My heart is with the homeless people," said Ava Tengco, owner of Drecar Crafts. "But the red shirts are making this area cleaner and safer."
Los Angeles has become a leading center for BIDs, which are geographically defined business districts where merchants or property owners agree to pay a special assessment to provide extra services. The city has 20 active BIDs, with 24 more in the planning stages, putting it on pace to surpass New York City as the nation's BID capital.
The Toy Town BID and its companion Downtown Industrial District BID are two of L.A.'s newest, with more than $1 million in combined funding. Their red-shirted safety and sanitation crews hit the streets last month as part of an effort to polish the area's image.
Callaghan and others worry that means moving the homeless out. She and about a dozen other activists blocked traffic on Los Angeles Street by repeatedly crossing at an intersection with a banner reading "Private Security Guards = Homeless Harassment."
No victims of the alleged harassment showed up to verify the protesters' claims. But at least two bystanders watching the action said they had seen private security guards clearing the sidewalks of homeless people or their possessions over the last month.
Tracey Lovejoy, executive director of the Central City East Assn., which oversees the Toy Town and Downtown Industrial District BIDs, denied that the private guards have engaged in any aggressive actions.