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Homeless Often Take a One-Way Street to Skid Row

L.A.'s dumping ground for the down and out nears breaking point as people keep pouring in.

November 30, 2002|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

On his release from Chino state prison in July, broke and with no home to go to, Demetrious Williams got on a bus and headed for downtown Los Angeles. The career burglar had previously lived in the Crenshaw area and the Inland Empire, but he had only $200 in "gate" money and needed a quick place to shower and sleep. There seemed few alternatives but skid row, where more than 60 social agencies crowd a 50-block expanse.

Months later, out of work and with few prospects, he is still downtown at a homeless agency on a forbidding stretch of skid row, trying to dodge drug dealers and crime that could land him back in prison.

"If you don't have family very close or friends, you have nowhere to stay but the streets," said Williams, whose thick eyebrows and mustache are flecked with gray. "In prison, I heard about the services word-of-mouth. A lot of people know about skid row."

Although parolees like Williams are not the only faces of skid row, they symbolize how the central city area has become a dumping ground for the region's down and out.

State officials estimate that 2,000 parolees are on downtown streets, but the area also draws out-of-work families with children, emancipated foster kids, poor workers led to the area's low-cost single-room hotels, ex-cons who can't find work and criminals who see the row as a sort of Wild West show into which they can blend.

Now, however, business owners, police and even some advocates say conditions have gotten out of hand and that other law enforcement agencies, hospitals and charities must stop sending to skid row the troubled people the rest of Los Angeles County can't handle.

Part of the new scrutiny is altruistic, a response to increasing numbers of homeless living in squalid street encampments. Ambitious redevelopment plans and an influx of upscale loft residents also are major driving forces, say business leaders and advocates.

The Central City Assn., which represents business interests, recently proposed laws to prohibit sidewalk encampments and stricter ordinances banning public urination and defecation. City Councilwoman Jan Perry has already introduced motions to restrict the homeless from sleeping in front of businesses and to limit outdoor meals, following the passage in Santa Monica of similar ordinances.

Law enforcement agencies last week conducted sweeps of skid row, arresting about 200 for parole violations and other crimes.

The Los Angeles Police Department's Central Division created a special team to tackle street problems such as trash bin fires associated with the homeless, enlisting a neighborhood prosecutor from the city attorney's office.

"It's time for all of those who share a concern about the homeless and about our neighborhood to look at this crisis in a new way and do something about it," said Central City Assn. President Carol E. Schatz.

For years, the concentration of social services on skid row has attracted more and more homeless people, who in turn have attracted more services.

Besides those in hotels and shelters, at least 4,000 may be on the streets, city officials say. Now there is virtually nowhere else in the city for the destitute to turn, heating up tensions with business owners in the toy, flower and garment districts and even on Bunker Hill and in South Park.

It is an environment that feeds on itself, experts say. Service providers in the area recount tale after tale of out-of-town police cars letting transients out on sidewalks in the middle of the night and of parole officers wanting to leave newly released offenders at their doorstep.

Hospitals release indigent patients, sometimes in wheelchairs or stretchers, on a regular basis at the Downtown Drop-In Center, a 24-hour facility operated by the Volunteers of America on San Julian Street, said its director, James C. Howat.

And police agencies deliver drunks picked up for public inebriation from across the county to a separate VOA program on nearby Crocker Street, he added

"They are at a loss to know what to do with them," Howat said. "This is probably the only area of the city where there are services for them."

The area is also a magnet for the so-called day visitors -- drawn from East Los Angeles, the Valley, the South Bay and South-Central -- to do drugs or shoot craps on the street with little risk of being caught.

"The homeless service network is an important part of the city's work, but difficulties arise when you get too many people concentrated in one area, which is what is happening in downtown," said Michael Dear, a USC geography professor who has studied homelessness.

Skid row's notoriety spreads beyond city boundaries.

In 1996, Jacksonville, Fla., cops infamously put a homeless man on a bus to L.A.'s skid row. The disabled Vietnam vet ended up being taken in by LAMP, an organization for the mentally ill homeless. The group helped him obtain his veteran's benefits.

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