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A Polished Big Apple Gives L.A. Ideas

An Angeleno delegation seeking a model for cleaning up skid row sees hope in Times Square, as well as a dauntingly different set of circumstances.

January 28, 2006|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Los Angeles Police Capt. Andrew Smith walked north on 8th Avenue, past the bright lights of Times Square, and dreamed of what downtown Los Angeles could be.

The streets around him were bustling with shops, restaurants and people -- but there was not a single drug dealer, or homeless person, in sight.

"This is what I picture downtown looking like," Smith said. "You don't see people lying on the street, or in physical distress, or screaming at the top of their lungs."

Smith was in New York to understand why.

The police captain, along with representatives from downtown Los Angeles' business, law enforcement, political and community service organizations, walked the streets of New York this week, looking for answers to the skid row riddle.

They found New York's example to be both inspiring and daunting.

They saw firsthand how government, business, police and social services agencies could come together to find shelter for homeless people and gentrify areas known for blight and grime.

But they also went away believing that L.A.'s job might be harder than New York's.

New York's homeless population had been spread out through all the city's boroughs rather than concentrated in one area, as L.A.'s is. More of L.A.'s homeless population is facing issues of mental illness and addiction than is New York's. And the jurisdictional issues between city and county that have long plagued Los Angeles are nonexistent in New York, where all homeless services fall under the purview of city government.

"They've done what we've been talking about wanting to do," said state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who organized the delegation, gesturing toward the flashy neon of Times Square as he walked. Cedillo said he remembered coming to the area in the mid-'80s and early '90s, when it wasn't so bright or safe. "The change is organic, authentic," he said. "They took the pieces out, reorganized them, and put it back together."

New York famously cleaned up Times Square in the 1990s. More than $1 billion has been poured into the area for shelters, housing and cleanup. Times Square saw a 68% decrease in crime between 1992 and 2005. Once a cluster of sex shows and run-down buildings, it is now a bustling city center and tourist destination. The biggest problem now facing local business owners is congestion.

The 30-member delegation of mostly downtown L.A. leaders included City Council members Jan Perry and Bill Rosendahl, developer Tom Gilmore, county Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen, ACLU head Ramona Ripston and former county Supervisor Ed Edelman, now Santa Monica's homelessness czar.

The group got lectures from academics, visited with the nation's largest supportive housing developer, listened in on a session of community court and huddled with representatives from the city of New York's homeless services and criminal justice divisions. They noted the level of cooperation between the many parties involved in New York's solutions and wondered aloud whether it could work in Los Angeles.

One motivation for the trip was to build support for several pieces of skid-row-related legislation that Cedillo hopes to introduce in the next few weeks. They include a statewide prohibition on the practice of "dumping," in which law enforcement officials transport outside of their jurisdiction people in need of drug treatment, mental illness or homeless support services, a problem that has long plagued skid row; the creation of a downtown recovery zone that would prevent anyone convicted of selling narcotics in L.A. County from entering skid row and its immediate surroundings; and a requirement that the Los Angeles County sheriff release inmates back to the areas where they live or were arrested, rather than in downtown Los Angeles.

Rutgers professor George Kelling, a consultant to the LAPD on issues of crime reduction, said that in New York, where he had been working on crime prevention since the late 1980s, "The problem wasn't homelessness. It was a culture of lawlessness that had been permitted to develop there."

There are, however, significant barriers for Los Angeles County to overcome: The jails are so crowded that those arrested for minor crimes are often released only a few hours later. That might make it harder for Los Angeles to follow New York's lead in using aggressive policing to get low-level criminals off the streets.

As the delegates looked to New York, though, most said they felt hopeful that the impediments could be overcome. And they got motivation from their New York counterparts.

Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, told the delegates that "with the right combination of strategy, policy and leadership, none of these problems is intractable."

The Citizens Crime Commission is an independent nonpartisan organization working to reduce crime and improve the criminal justice system in New York City.

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