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Skid Row Life Is Like Night and Day

A police crackdown has scattered the homeless, but they are returning in greater numbers after dark to set up camp on the sidewalks.

October 21, 2006|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

The LAPD's crackdown on skid row encampments is producing some unexpected migration patterns among the homeless that has officials puzzled.

The crackdown, in which police officers allow street camping only at night, appears to have slightly increased the number of tents on skid row at night but reduced the district's homeless population during the day, according to interviews and Los Angeles Police Department statistics.

With fewer homeless people around during the day, some skid row services organizations said they are seeing fewer transients seeking services.

Moreover, there are indications that some of the homeless from skid row are moving into other neighborhoods, including the industrial area to the east near the Los Angeles River as well as into Olvera Street and perhaps even farther west.

LAPD officers and homeless services officials in Venice said they have talked to homeless people in the last few days who said they came from downtown L.A.

There is general agreement that it is too early to say for sure how the LAPD crackdown is changing where homeless people live. But officials agree that the increased police presence has altered the skid row landscape.

"People just scatter when they see the police," said Greg Ware, 49, who uses the skid row shelters. "They're just shuffling people around."

It's been nearly a month since the LAPD deployed an extra 50 officers to patrol skid row. Two weeks ago, the LAPD began arresting some homeless people who were camping on skid row streets during the day.

An LAPD nighttime head count of the homeless there showed the number of tents rising by 37 to 534 and the transient population rising from 1,447 two weeks ago to 1,476.

Police and social services providers agree that during the day, some homeless now avoid skid row, which is 50 blocks roughly bounded by 3rd Street on the north, 7th Street on the south, Main Street on the west and Alameda Street on the east.

LAPD Capt. Andrew Smith said some homeless people are moving to the east past San Pedro Street, then returning to skid row at night to sleep. Other skid row denizens have sought refuge to the north around Olvera Street.

An encampment has sprung up next to a church on Main Street near Cesar Chavez Avenue, close to Chinatown. There also are reports that some homeless people have moved as far south as 12th Street. There are no exact numbers because the LAPD doesn't do homeless counts outside of skid row.

Catherine Morris of the L.A. Catholic Worker soup kitchen and relief agency said she has noticed a drop in the numbers of people eating at the soup kitchen or visiting the clinic, a sign that there are fewer homeless people around during the day.

Andy Bales, president of the Union Rescue Mission, said the police presence is making the area safer, but it's not reducing the homeless population.

"The number of tents isn't dropping; they are just moving." Bales said. "On the days the police don't go out, the tents do return."

Another question for officials is how far the homeless are migrating.

In Venice, police and social services groups say that anecdotal evidence suggests a modest rise in the homeless population.

Though some of the homeless have told those officials they used to live downtown, it's unclear whether the crackdown was a factor in their move west.

"There is definitely an uptick here, and Santa Monica is also reporting more people," said Rhonda Meister, executive director of St Joseph's Center, a homeless provider in Venice.

The LAPD's decision to allow camping at night in skid row while cracking down during the day has been opposed by some downtown community organizations, who fear the city is setting a bad precedent.

"The sign is out and we're Motel 6," said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn. "The area is attracting people to sleep here without any threat of arrest."

Lopez said the decision is making the place an attractive nuisance.

"Last night we had a bunch of tires dumped here. People who want to get rid of things dump here," she said. "It is the broken windows theory in reverse and windows are getting more broke here."

LAPD officials offer a more optimistic picture. With the additional officers, the department has removed scores of homeless encampments and recorded 600 drug arrests in skid row alleys.

Although the last LAPD homeless count found small increases, officials said there are signs of progress.

The homeless count had been rising steadily since spring. But when the new officers hit the streets, the count made a dramatic drop, from 1,801 in September to 1,447 in early October.

But homeless advocates said the increased policing doesn't get to the larger problem in skid row: a lack of homeless shelters.

Becky Dennison of the Los Angeles Community Action Network believes that the decline in the homeless count is due to police arresting people for minor offenses, which send them off to jail briefly.

But at the end of the day, she doubts that policing alone will do much to alter the skid row tent cities.

"The number of people in tents has been relatively the same," she said.

richard.winton@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.

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