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Certainly Not Child's Play

From his family's toy company on skid row, Shu Woo takes photos and videos of homeless drug addicts shooting up. He thinks the situation is only getting worse.

September 26, 2006|Ashraf Khalil and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Shu Woo runs visitors through a grim digital slide show of life in the heart of skid row.

Through the plate-glass window and steel security grate of his family's ABC Toys company on San Pedro Street, Woo has taken dozens of photos and video clips: homeless drug addicts "cooking up" heroin and injecting themselves on the sidewalk right in front of their building; a man injecting a woman in the veins of her neck; another man urinating on the storefront in broad daylight.

But the photos that move Woo to near rage come from Sept. 22.

They show a female U.S. postal worker about to reach through the gate to the company's mailbox. In the foreground at her feet, a man jabs a syringe into a bulging vein. The photos clearly show the woman looking down, realizing what's happening and quickly fleeing without leaving the mail.

"Of course, she's not going to climb over somebody shooting up to deliver the mail," said Jack Woo, Shu's brother and co-owner. "In 25 years (downtown), I never called the police once. But it's getting out of hand. When you cut off my mail, what's left?"

Mail service has been interrupted a few times at the toy company because of the drug problems. The addicts, Shu Woo said, are fine shooting up in public with people watching -- and in his case -- photographing them.

"They don't care if I see them," said Woo, who opened his business in 1979. "Maybe they want me to see it, like 'What can you do about it?' "

For the Woos, both veterans of the downtown district and its long-standing homeless population, the last several months have seen the situation deteriorate to unprecedented levels. Both say the summer of 2006 has witnessed an increase in both the number of homeless downtown and the extent and openness of the downtown drug market.

And one of the most visible signs of the rising drug trade is the needles that litter the streets of skid row.

Downtown community activists and business owners said the problems of ABC Toys -- one of the more established and well-known firms in the Toy District -- have become a symbol of skid row's decay.

"It's the latest in the series of desperate phone calls I've gotten from downtown store owners," said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn.

The concern comes as the LAPD is beginning a crackdown aimed at reducing crime on skid row by deploying an additional 50 officers to the area.

But even police officials said the needles present problems.

"There are a lot of dirty needles out there and people waving them. Disease is a major issue in skid row," said Capt. Andy Smith, commanding officer of the Central Division.

Smith's officers have received special training on how to avoid getting stuck while patting down suspects or searching the area -- a serious concern in an area where hepatitis A and HIV are common.

Still, he said three or four officers have been wounded by syringes, usually when a suspect has it tucked into his waistband or pocket.

Smith said the ABC Toys incident was the first he's heard of mail carriers unable or unwilling to complete their rounds on skid row. In previous years, the post office has refused to deliver to parts of South Los Angeles during times of heightened gang violence.

But Smith described the Woos' mail problem as an isolated incident and promised: "With the addition of 50 officers, it is going to be a lot safer down here."

The Woos' perception that homeless problems have worsened seems to be backed up by LAPD statistics. Before April, an LAPD count found 1,345 homeless people living on skid row and 187 tents. A July 25 count found 1,527 homeless and 539 tents, and a Sept. 18 count found 1,876 homeless and 518 tents, according to LAPD Chief William J. Bratton.

Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last week urged the City Council to approve a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union to a lawsuit that had blocked the LAPD from removing homeless encampments. The compromise would allow homeless people to set up tents at night on skid row but permit police to take them down during the day.

The City Council, however, rejected the settlement, saying it feared such a deal would open the door to allow homeless encampments in other parts of the city. Despite the setback, Bratton has vowed to crack down on skid row's huge drug trade with the extra officers.

The new contingent of uniformed officers started work Sunday as part of the Safe City Initiative focusing on skid row. The mayor's office, the Police Department and the city attorney all promise a serious crackdown on drug activity downtown, along with a multi-agency effort to clean up the streets and get help to law-abiding homeless who want assistance.

On Monday, the effects of the new campaign were visible in certain areas of skid row. San Pedro and San Julian streets were noticeably cleaner and less cluttered. But large tent encampments still stretched along Towne and Stanford, especially between 6th and 7th streets.

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