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A fragile fabric on skid row

Clusters of tents and makeshift lean-tos form close-knit communities for many. Even here, there are good and bad neighborhoods.

December 02, 2006|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

WHEN Jennifer Campbell looks at her stretch of Towne Street sidewalk, she sees more than a ragged cluster of nylon tents and makeshift lean-tos. To her, it's a neighborhood, a community of friends who've lived side-by-side for months.

On the right, there's Angela, a.k.a. "Panama," who's fresh out of prison on a prostitution arrest that she says was entrapment. While she was in jail, her fellow Towne Street residents looked after her tent and belongings. Now Panama is watching over the tent of another incarcerated friend.

On the other side is the tent of RJ Brooks, 57, and his wife, Saeeda, 31, who've lived on the same patch of sidewalk since August. RJ is wheelchair-bound and uses an oxygen tank because of chronic respiratory problems, and Campbell says she recently helped him fashion a makeshift urinal for when he can't make it to one of the nearby missions.

A former schoolteacher, Campbell can list the names of all her neighbors and their pets.

"It's just one big happy family," said Campbell, 56. "It's almost like God put us together."

"It's your own little space," said Panama, who said she's even seen tents that contained folding cots and chairs. "Some people make it really homey. They got the radio, the portable TV, everything."

Downtown business owners and police officials don't hold nearly as prosaic a view. To them, the tents -- which range from clusters of tarps and sheets strung between shopping carts to roomy four-person nylon dwellings -- are a law enforcement nuisance and a public health risk.

In October the Los Angeles Police Department began cracking down on crime and daytime camping on skid row, creating a de facto system of good and bad tent neighborhoods.

The good neighborhoods tend to be within a few blocks of the Central Division police station, where the bright street lights and regular police presence provide a bit of security. There, homeless people set up tents each night but then move during the day as police sweep the streets.

The bad tent neighborhoods now mostly lie east of San Pedro Street. There, the tents grow thicker and the scenery gets grimmer -- especially on Stanford and Gladys streets, where much of skid row's hard-core drug action has settled. This is outside the police enforcement zone, so the tents remain day and night.

JOHN and Tracy Evans set up camp most nights halfway between the police station and the Midnight Mission on San Pedro Street. Evenings are spent visiting friends or playing host in their tent, John Evans said, usually over a couple of 40-ounce beer bottles.

Their "neighborhood" on 6th Street is perhaps the best in skid row's tent community -- benefiting from regular street patrols and comparatively little drug dealing.

The nearby mission provides convenient bathroom and shower access.

In exchange, Evans and others must set up their tents each night, then wake before dawn to pack everything up before the police come. They spend their days drifting between area shelters and the nearby park.

When it comes time, they erect their four-person tent with practiced speed, using duct tape to secure some of the ties. They layer in cardboard sheets, baby blue foam pads and several blankets to keep out the chill. Then come the pillows and a battery-powered radio playing salsa music. The tent door always faces a nearby wall for added privacy.

"It's like a house, pretty much," said Evans, a 23-year-old who has lived on skid row for six months because of what he obliquely describes as "family problems."

The next morning, Evans boasted, they can have it all packed tightly away in a pair of wheeled carts within 20 minutes.

"We wake up at 5:30, take down the tent, then go sit at the Midnight Mission just to stay off the streets and stay away from all this ruckus," Evans said.

But staying full time in a shelter doesn't hold much appeal. Most of them would make John sleep apart from Tracy, who's pregnant with his child.

Every morning between 7 and 8 a.m., a phalanx of uniformed officers rolls out from the station, rousting tent dwellers and street sleepers and arresting those found with drugs or paraphernalia, or who have outstanding arrest warrants. For the rest of the day, the skid row denizens are unable to erect tents or lie down; some said that even sitting on a milk crate could bring police attention, depending on the officer's mood.

On one recent morning, the Evanses' next-door tent neighbor, Sherry, slept later than usual. Awakened by a friend as police were already just up the block, she scrambled to start packing. The officers bid her good morning and passed by, seemingly content that she was up and in motion.

John Evans said the heavy police attention in their area the last few weeks has reduced the amount of drug trafficking between Main and San Pedro -- adding to their quality of life and peace of mind. Though some homeless people and activists have labeled the police effort harassment, Evans embraced the police presence.

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