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No Celebration on Skid Row

Business owners and others say a city proposal to outlaw daytime tent cities will do little and may make matters worse.

September 20, 2006|Ashraf Khalil and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

From the vantage point of her family's Sensy Gifts store, Yvonne Song has witnessed the daily push and pull of the downtown district's struggle with its burgeoning homeless problem.

Almost every morning, she and her sisters arrive to find residents of Los Angeles' skid row asleep in front of their metal security door.

Invariably, she finds the storefront littered with crack pipes and human waste.

"We don't really mind them sleeping here if they just pick up after themselves," said Song, whose family has owned the storefront on 5th Street for eight years. "I just don't like the drug paraphernalia and the excrement."

So Song and others who live and work around skid row don't share the excitement many city officials are expressing over a proposed settlement to an ACLU lawsuit challenging the way authorities police skid row.

Although Police Chief Bratton says the settlement would allow the city to push forward with a cleanup of skid row, Song doubts it would significantly alter the area's bleak landscape.

"Nothing will change for us," said Song. "They're already here every day."

The compromise, which the Los Angeles City Council will consider today, would allow police to arrest people camping, sleeping or lying on skid row sidewalks between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. It would also prohibit encampments at any time within 10 feet of a business or residential entrance.

The rules would prevent homeless people from creating tent cities during the day. But they would also essentially establish a zone -- bounded by Central Avenue and Los Angeles, 3rd and 7th streets -- where homeless people could sleep on sidewalks at night.

"It's a Band-Aid on a gaping wound," said Richard McDowell, an artist and downtown resident who has placed mock street signs around downtown proclaiming areas such as "Heroin Row."

"Nobody's actually doing anything to help these people."

Some worry the rules could actually make things worse. Will more homeless people flock to skid row at night because they can set up tents without government interference?

Orlando Ward of the Midnight Mission said he doesn't know but wants the city to find out before pushing forward.

"I wish they could do this for a while before they sign anything," Jones said. "Are we going to have two different skid rows -- one before 6 a.m. and one after 6 a.m.? We are going to have to wait and see."

The agreement would end a four-year stalemate that Bratton said has stymied his department's effort to clean up skid row.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city in 2003 on behalf of homeless people arrested for sleeping on the streets of skid row. A federal appeals court in April ruled in the ACLU's favor, saying the Los Angeles Police Department cannot arrest people for sitting, lying or sleeping on public sidewalks in skid row. Such enforcement would amount to cruel and unusual punishment because there are not enough shelter beds for the city's homeless population, the court ruled.

For now, private security guards working for the business group Central City East Assn. remove apparently abandoned tent encampments.

On Tuesday, a group of private officers left warning tags on a makeshift tent made out of several shopping carts draped in a tarp at 4th Street and Towne Avenue.

When they returned several hours later and found the tent still unoccupied, they took it apart, loaded the contents into plastic trash bags and hauled them to their warehouse.

"The goal is to keep the streets clean," said Vicky McCormick, the security operations manager.

Kitty Ford, a resident of skid row since 1990, emerged from her tent across the street to challenge the confiscation.

"If they're not here, you don't have no right to take it," she said. "What if they're at work or something?"

The workers firmly dismissed her with an "OK, ma'am. Have a nice day."

Central City East Assn. President Estela Lopez said her group had hoped the city would win a ban on camping in skid row.

"What we are concerned about is putting this into law making this an area you can sleep at night. You're sanctioning people living on the street," Lopez said. "This is the policy of containment."

She and other critics say it's inherently unsanitary to allow people to sleep on the streets. "You are putting encampments around food manufacturing businesses with all the threat of disease that follows," Lopez said.

Bratton on Tuesday defended the settlement, saying it would finally give the LAPD the tools to clean out the homeless camps during the day. The department plans to add 50 officers to patrol skid row in the weeks ahead.

"The problem right now is we cannot move those tents at anytime down there," Bratton said. "So literally they have set up encampments.... So the idea is we will be able to go in at daytime and get them off the sidewalks so store owners can clean the area. That is a significant improvement over what the conditions have been since this court injunction came down."

Bratton also said critics need to understand that the injunction limits what the LAPD can do.

"If they can come up with a better idea, I'd like to hear it -- other than bulldozing them all out of there. I am sorry, but the court is not going to allow that," Bratton said. "We all would like to see it gone."

At Sensy Gifts, Song isn't expecting much from a settlement. She's noticed an increase in the number of homeless people in recent months, which LAPD head counts of homeless on skid row confirm.

Song says she just tries to accept the situation.

"Every morning when I get here," she said, "it's like 'Good morning, time to get up,' and I shoo them away."

ashraf. khalil@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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