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Storage Bins a Lifesaver for Homeless

Free warehouse near skid row allows street people to stash their valuables. Local merchants contribute to the effort.

April 20, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

The loss over the years of precious links to family and home often weighs on Victor Scott.

"All of my personal belongings, important papers, pictures of my family, things you can't replace," said Scott, 59, who has lived on the streets of downtown Los Angeles' skid row for four years.

"Addicts will take your stuff looking for anything they can sell. Things that are nothing to them, they will discard them -- but they mean the world to you."

But Scott feels more at ease about what remains of his modest belongings -- blankets, tarps and camping gear -- because of a new storage facility designed to help transients and homeless people at no charge.

The warehouse at 7th Street and Central Avenue is proving to be a convenient and popular option for people who otherwise face the unwieldy task of ferrying and guarding belongings on some of the city's most inhospitable streets.

"This place is free, it's safe. The people here are understanding. It's a lifesaver," Scott said at the storage site this week.

The sight of homeless men and women trudging along sidewalks with overloaded grocery carts is still common on skid row, as are bedrolls that seem to be in every doorway.

But the city recently cracked down on sleeping on sidewalks and police are more insistently enforcing quality-of-life infractions with frequent sweeps of the area. Untended bedding, clothes and other belongings are subject to confiscation and dumping.

That is where the storage facility comes in. It is a collaboration of the Central City East Assn., which represents area business interests and which funds and manages the operation; the city attorney's office; Los Angeles police and Chrysalis, an employment agency for the homeless.

The facility, homeless people say, extends their options for entering a shelter, looking for a job or even keeping doctors' appointments, because they have somewhere to store their belongings. And business owners say they are seeing less refuse cluttering sidewalks and alleys.

The 20,000-square-foot facility has been open daily since December, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. It offers 100 green bins, each holding 95 gallons, for storage for as much as a week, with the option of weekly renewal.

"This is something we thought the private sector could do," said Tracey Lovejoy, executive director of Central City East Assn., which spends about $3,600 a month to run the storage operation. "We tried to make it as secure and as dry as possible, to respect their stuff."

At 7:45 on a recent morning, the nondescript building looked as busy as a checkroom at an airport or train station, with a line of people hauling backpacks, duffle bags and grocery carts.

Chris Thorn, 47, was sorting through a brown leather satchel on rollers, pulling out thick sweaters and other winter clothing to store in anticipation of warmer weather.

Thorn said she has been homeless for a year and has been staying at the Midnight Mission, where there is limited space for belongings.

"It's especially important to have someplace to store clothes for when you get a job," said Thorn, who says she occasionally does painting and construction work.

Nearby, Ruby Simmons, 61, struggled to maneuver a grocery cart overflowing with blankets, sofa pillows, purses, comforters, books, toiletries, an umbrella and a knob-ended, sturdy stick that she said is useful for walking or protection.

Even after filling a bin, Simmons had a cart full of blankets, clothing and her westerns and mystery novels to keep with her.

Simmons was nonplused when asked what she considered the most important of her belongings, some of which she has had since moving from Missouri more than 30 years ago.

"I got the pillows from a minister who was giving stuff away. You'd hate to lose any of it," said Simmons, who has been homeless off and on for years and was recently living on the street. She said she hopes that, in another year, when she reaches retirement age, Social Security will provide enough for a hotel room or apartment.

The bin of Leo Arellano, 28, is empty except for a few clothes and papers. A laid-off dry-ice packer, he was at the facility recently looking for some unemployment documents he stored and picking up a couple of music CDs and a book, the late columnist Jack Smith's "God and Mr. Gomez" -- signed by the author -- that he had found in a box of books on nearby Maple Street. He planned to read it while riding the bus.

Arellano is staying at the Union Rescue Mission and said he is luckier than most people because he can leave many of his belongings with his mother in South-Central Los Angeles.

He said he has found it best to travel light on skid row, although he wishes he had pictures of his two young sons, who live in Stockton.

"It's rough, but what I see is that you get treated the way you treat people," he said. "Sometimes cops will tell you to get up and move, but I'm hardly in one place too long."

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