On a narrow, isolated stretch of San Julian Street in downtown Los Angeles, homeless people by the hundreds are flocking to use a new city-sponsored drop-in center that offers them something unique: a hassle-free place to shower, launder their clothes and sip a cup of coffee.
The Downtown Drop-In Center is so popular that the 250 people who were expected to use the facility each day has quickly been outstripped: It has drawn as many as 1,200 in a day and averages more than 800 daily walk-ins who overflow its Mediterranean-style courtyard and the street beyond.
Some people say the center has been a lifesaver, helping to pave the way to jobs and better health. But the huge numbers have also meant huge problems that have sparked yet another debate over how best to deal with a skid row homeless population that numbers more than 22,000, many of them beset with drug and alcohol addictions and mental illnesses that defy conventional solutions.
The 24-hour drop-in center was opened six months ago with high hopes and the backing of Mayor Richard Riordan and other civic leaders as an experimental new approach: a high tolerance facility catering to the kinds of hard-core street nomads who would normally be unwilling to visit conventional shelters, or who had been banned from them because of disruptive behavior.
Services would be provided with no quid pro quos such as the prayer meetings common at nearby missions. There would be a minimal security presence and even the most disheveled-looking would not be harassed or looked down on. But the center quickly became a central meeting place not only for street people, but for shelter dwellers and residents of surrounding single room hotels.
And somehow word went out that it was a place where anything goes. Along with the poor souls looking for a shady spot to rest came the predators ready to roll them for government checks or to solicit them as drug runners in exchange for dope. People were openly selling heroin in the courtyard and shooting up in the restrooms, according to police.
It didn't help that private security patrols in the surrounding toy and fashion districts began herding homeless people off the street and in the direction of the center. Officers with the Los Angeles Police Department's Central Division said they had to intervene with the patrols when foot traffic began to overwhelm the center.
The Volunteers of America, which manages the 8,500-square-foot, single-story structure, has had to hastily reevaluate its mission and programs to accommodate the crush. Some of the problems have abated but some remain.
To supporters and detractors, the drop-in center is either a long-awaited godsend or a dangerous, overcrowded no man's land in a part of downtown that already fills many who venture into it with trepidation.
"The center is an extremely important asset in the skid row area," said Harold Adams, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which has oversight of the facility. "There were some initial problems just because of the volume of traffic they had and it took them a while to set up the necessary adjustments. It's been a learning curve for everybody. . . . But we're making substantial progress in stabilizing the center and making it a workable place."
Officials with the Volunteers of America admit they were blindsided by the numbers.
"It didn't turn out quite the way we intended," said center director James C. Howat. "But we believe we should be customer driven and we've tried to accommodate everyone."
The center provides job development, self-help groups, literacy classes and personal mentors but has become far more of a multipurpose affair in order to cater to a more diverse population. Trips are arranged to help people get identification cards and government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income.
It is the quotidian aspects of the center that attract many homeless people. There are 32 respite beds in a cool interior section of the building where men and women can catch a nap during eight-hour shifts. There are men's and women's showers next to the laundry. A clubhouse features a television and video equipment for movies. Outside in the courtyard are tables for chess and a barbecue.
Howat said the center has increased staffing--currently about 43 paid positions--by 25% and will add more in coming months. The group dismantled a retaining wall it had built near a row of hedges across San Julian because it was being used as a gathering point for drug sales.
Curbs in front of the building were made No Parking zones and sidewalks and the street are swept clean several times a day to discourage drive-by drug dealing. The group has also cooperated with police in erecting an observation post in the building that is manned several times a week.
But Howat said his group has only had to eject about a dozen people and there have been few violent incidents.