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Los Angeles | Patt Morrison

A Glimmer of Hope for a Grim Downtown

January 23, 2002|Patt Morrison

It was about 10 days ago that Gary Brownstein finally had it up to here, and he followed the junkie who shoots up in his building downtown as regularly as some people show up for work.

He trailed him down the street, to the corner, into the Burger King, all the while on the phone to the cops, telling them, here he is, here he is.

In 22 years in the garment trade here, Gary had called the cops before, about the junkies on the stairs, the panhandlers who scare his clients and the hookers who hit on them. He called the cops so often that finally his landlord called him and told him the cops wanted him to lay off.

So here's the Army veteran on his cell phone to the cops. Nothing. Finally he flags one down, and the cop tells him, "Nope, I gotta take care of traffic violations."

Gary e-mailed me recently, and if an e-mail could sputter indignantly, his did. I'd written about Lisa Magdaleno, who came to downtown L.A. from Orange County to shop one day and got threatened, then got lost, then got ticketed. So she spent her Christmas money in Long Beach, and scratched L.A. off her list. I matchmade her with Councilwoman Jan Perry for lunch to show her the better downtown.

That really got to Gary, who can't get cops, much less council members, to come calling in his downtown, a place where clients refuse to walk the two blocks from the California Mart without an escort. His company, Staples Designer Services, sold the Staples name to the office supply people; he can see his old name in lights on the arena on his way home at night. He'd love to leave downtown, but as long as the garment trade is here, so is he.

Gary's was not the only e-mail. Tom Burrows is one of the new urban pioneers living downtown in spite of "tons of garbage," burned-out street lights, sidewalks defiled with condoms and feces that can't be hosed off because then they defile the ocean, and the 24-7 parade of whores and crackheads, parolees and the homeless.

The homeless. The poor homeless. Can we admit here and now that nothing has really worked? We shut them up in mental hospitals, where some of them shouldn't be, then dump them out on the streets, where they shouldn't be either. We spirit them away for the 2000 Democratic convention and the 1984 Olympics. We dither ourselves into paralysis, and nothing seems to alter their landscape.

Gary Brownstein, pitying the homeless, peeved at the LAPD, get a load of Lee Baca, friend of the friendless.

The sheriff of Los Angeles County wears a tan uniform, not a white coat. Nonetheless, Lee Baca says often and truly that he runs the world's biggest mental institution--the jails. The spinning turnstiles bring in the homeless on some crime, clean them up and spin them back out onto the street.

The sheriff, who is running for reelection, has become dead-set on doing something different about the homeless. I saw his idea the other day, in a scale model, with little trees and American flags, laid out on a table in the office of Chief Al Scaduto. Eighteen months ago, before Baca assigned this to him, Scaduto says he didn't know from homelessness. When he put on the tan uniform 34 years ago, they were "bums," motley guys whose problem was the bottle and whose cure was a few sober weeks on the county jail farm.

Now it's a different problem, with a different lingo, and Scaduto has learned to speak it: "Being able to help the downtrodden is going to be of benefit to us all."

The sheriff's plan is based in part on a Florida experiment. I call it Club Ted, after the professional homeless activist Ted Hayes. It is a four-acre camp on an old oil well- equipment site behind the jail, where just-released men and women with mental troubles check in for beds, showers and help in open-air tent living, until they find a permanent place. It's exactly the sort of place for those homeless who refuse, according to a nonprofit Shelter Partnership study, to stay in a place with four walls or preaching.

Of course there's some fearful opposition. It's a law of physics and politics: Every action engenders an equal and opposite reaction. The homeless may not like a place that won't let them wander in and out at will. Activists will worry that Club Ted squeezes another wedge out of a homeless-money pie that never seems to get any bigger. Some Chinatown merchants, who might like the idea if it weren't a block or two away, fear the homeless "overflow," the unpleasantries Gary Brownstein sees every day.

One, in a letter to the editor, dismissed it as a "drop-in-the- bucket" solution.

Fair enough. But here's another law of physics: You get enough drops, you fill up the bucket.

*

Patt Morrison's column appears Mondays and Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is patt.morrison @latimes.com.

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