Returning Tuesday from its holiday break, the county Board of Supervisors was easing into its first meeting of the new year -- until homeless activist Ted Hayes grabbed the podium and began shouting.
Wrapped in an American flag, Hayes chastised the lawmakers for what he called the unsanitary and unsafe conditions crippling skid row in downtown Los Angeles. He pointed to the recent death of a sleeping homeless man who was hit by an out-of-control police car that jumped a curb in Baldwin Hills.
"You are responsible, Board of Supervisors!" Hayes shouted, his graying dreadlocks quivering with anger. "Your county health department has allowed the city of Los Angeles to run an illegal outdoor shelter."
For the better part of a century, the streets of skid row have provided a crude habitat for thousands, many of them mentally ill or drug-addicted. They live in tents that rattle in the wind, scrounging food and often relieving themselves in the gutter.
Hayes, the founder of Dome Village, a homeless encampment of white fiberglass domes near the Harbor Freeway, challenged county leaders to open public buildings as housing for the homeless and to clean up what he called the filthy portable toilets approved by the city several years ago.
"I'm more than willing to ask the health department to go out and inspect the outdoor toilets," Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said mildly.
But Hayes refused to leave the microphone. "There is no reason you can't, today, get those people off ... sidewalks!" he shouted, pounding the lectern. "No more excuses!"
"He's never satisfied unless he can stage a public situation," Supervisor Gloria Molina said. "This isn't something that you do by standing up and shouting about it."
About a dozen activists for the homeless began shouting, "Can't take no more!" until sheriff's deputies escorted a few of the loudest hecklers from the room.
The agency that oversees skid row's 26 portable bathrooms, meanwhile, said they are as clean as can be expected for toilets whose users sometimes rip off the seats and occasionally light them on fire.
"We spend quite a bit of money keeping them as clean as we can. But they get tremendously heavy usage," said Mitchell Netburn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. The city pays $325,000 annually to service the toilets.
"The major problem, obviously, is a lack of housing and services," he added. "If we had enough of that, we wouldn't need toilets on the street."
Back at the county Hall of Administration, as Burke moved to bring the contentious meeting to a close, Hayes interrupted to demand that the session be adjourned in memory of the homeless man killed by the wayward police car.
"You forgot his name?" Burke said. "Well, you remember his name, we will adjourn in his memory."
His name, according to the coroner's office, was Billy John Combs Jr. He was 43.