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Skid row in rehab

After decades of squalor, the area is being transformed by the LAPD.

November 18, 2007|Heather Mac Donald | Heather Mac Donald is the author of "Are Cops Racist?" and is a contributor to City Journal, from which this article is adapted.

Until this year, skid row presented a scene of squalor and depravity that had no equal across the country. Sidewalks were impassable, covered with bodies, human waste and infectious bacteria. Makeshift tents and cardboard-box encampments lined the streets. Prostitution and drug use and trafficking were open and shameless.

Even addicts were amazed at the scene. Fifty-year-old Vicki Williams arrived from Las Vegas in December 2005 with a heavy habit. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing," she said. "People getting high on the streets like it was legal. Anything you can imagine, I've observed: Women walking down the street buck naked; people stabbed in front of me."

Employees of the area's export-import businesses and food-processing plants often had to step around feces, discarded hypodermic needles and hostile encampment residents in order to enter their workplaces.

Yet for 25 years, homeless advocates and civil liberties groups fought every effort to restore sanity to the 50-square-block area. Any time the police embarked on a law enforcement campaign, anti-police litigators hauled the LAPD into court. In 1999, the doyenne of downtown homeless agitators, Alice Callaghan, picketed the opening of a skid row drop-in center intended to provide the homeless a path to rehabilitation. Callaghan likened the facility to an internment camp. Officers who tried to get mentally ill, diseased addicts into treatment were accused of harassing the homeless. It was hard not to conclude that the advocates wanted the homeless to stay maximally visible.

Now, the situation has changed. The Los Angeles Police Department's Safer City Initiative -- under which 50 additional police officers were assigned to the neighborhood to reduce crime, fight drug dealing and crack down on quality-of-life offenses -- has begun to bring safety and assistance to people living on the streets and in the SROs and missions. The number of people sleeping on downtown streets declined from a peak of 1,876 in mid-September 2006 to just over 700 in recent months, according to police. "We've broken the back of the problem," says LAPD Chief William J. Bratton.

Yet the homeless industry and lawyers who specialize in taking on the LAPD continue to attack the initiative as a cruel effort to punish the poor. This charge is a grotesque misrepresentation of what is really happening, a mythology that is utterly unsupported by the facts.

Myth: The police are criminalizing homelessness and poverty. Reality: The police are targeting crime.

Before the Safer City Initiative began, skid row was a place of ruthless predation and violence. In May 2006, for example, a mentally ill woman who had repeatedly resisted offers of housing and services was stomped to death by a homeless parolee. Every time addicts trying to break their habit stepped outside, they entered a drug carnival of shameless proportions. Dealers fought for control of turf and terrorized the elderly.

In recent months, under Safer City, that atmosphere has been changing. During the first half of 2007, there were 241 fewer victims of violent crime in skid row, and over 12 months, serious crime dropped by 32%.

Most skid row arrests result from aggravated assaults and drug trafficking -- not from violations of the city ordinance banning sleeping or lying on the sidewalk. Moreover, the police offer everyone picked up for a misdemeanor the option of entering rehabilitation instead of going to jail, as part of a program called Streets or Services, or SOS. (Arrestees who have been convicted of violence in the last five years, are registered sex offenders or have outstanding warrants against them are not eligible for SOS. This modest safety precaution disqualified three-quarters of the misdemeanor arrestees over the last year, a measure of the true nature of the skid row street population.)

Amazingly, almost a quarter of eligible arrestees opt for jail, even though SOS requires a mere three weeks in a rehab-and-housing program in order to purge an offense from one's record. Why? Because the lure of the streets is simply more powerful. Of those who did enroll over the course of the last year, only 16% stayed for the offense-clearing 21 days, and only 1% lasted 90 days.

Myth: The police are abusing the homeless. Reality: The police are the most constant source of help in the area, and the homeless know it.

If the Safer City Initiative were in fact the travesty that critics claim, the reception that Cmdr. Andrew Smith and his officers get when they travel the streets would be far different from the love-fest that currently greets them. One afternoon this August when I walked through the streets with Smith, a wizened vagrant on 5th Street shouted: "Hey, man!" and gave him a fist-to-fist handshake. As a drug bust was enfolding on Crocker Street, a middle-aged woman, reeking of beer, approached Smith. "You got promoted," she beamed. "I thought you did wonderful. The next step is chief."

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