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Homeless vendors sell beer on the streets — and dodge police

LAPD says sidewalk salesmen use skid row's clutter to hide their merchandise. A recent court ruling bars police from seizing their belongings.

September 06, 2012|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times
  • LAPD Officer Deon Joseph tries to wake a man on skid row. Joseph, a nemesis to the beer vendors, says beer and drugs help drive skid row crime.
LAPD Officer Deon Joseph tries to wake a man on skid row. Joseph, a nemesis… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

At 10 a.m. on a recent weekday downtown, suited workers were riding elevators up skyscrapers on Bunker Hill. Down on the sidewalks, loft-dwellers, coffee cups in hand, walked their dogs.

At the corner of 5th and San Pedro streets, a few steps from the drug and alcohol rehab center, the local soup kitchen and the patch of sidewalk where he bunks most nights, Josh Richard was selling beer to other homeless men.

One by one, his customers approached, handing over $1.50 for cans of Colt 45, Steel Reserve or Heineken that he kept hidden in a blue cooler beneath a shopping cart. Government checks had arrived a few days before. Business on skid row was good — as it has been all year.

It wasn't so long ago that police would have quickly closed down Richard's business and chased him away from this corner.

But recently, the dynamic shifted. A federal court order last year blunted the Los Angeles Police Department's authority to seize objects from the sidewalks, a ruling that was upheld this week on appeal. At the same time, the number of people sleeping on skid row's streets has increased, by 70% since 2010 to about 1,200 total. Crime is up as well.

Some blocks have become clogged with encampments built from shopping carts, baby strollers, wheelchairs, blankets and tarps. As long as the possessions can be moved, advocates argue, the homeless are not obstructing the sidewalk.

Richard is one of several homeless beer vendors who police say take advantage of the cluttered conditions to hide their operations.

Though the LAPD can no longer seize unattended property of the homeless, officers are still trying to crack down on illegal beer selling, and that has created a cat-and-mouse game on skid row.

The burden for that task has fallen on officers such as Deon Joseph. A burly veteran beat cop on skid row, Joseph has made it his mission to take on Richard and the other beer vendors.

The vendors typically work in small crews, Joseph said, using clusters of shopping carts to conceal their operations and lookouts to watch for police. One group has even gone so far as to send people into the LAPD station on 6th Street to ask whether Joseph is on duty.

Officer Joseph is on a first-name basis with some of his beer-selling adversaries: Josh, Rick, Shark. "I know pretty much everybody and what they're doing," he said.

The illegal beer sales only exacerbate the grim atmosphere on skid row, Joseph says. Residents at nearby shelters and single-room occupancy hotels have complained about the stands, saying the operators are drunk and rude to women.

Joseph recently tried to reason with one of the vendors, explaining to him that he was selling beer on a street where addicts were trying to rebuild their lives. But the vendor wasn't interested.

"That seems to be the mantra of all these guys who are out there on 5th and San Pedro: 'We're here, we're going to make money, we've gotta do what we've gotta do,' " Joseph said. "It's simple supply and demand."

When officers make arrests, the vendors are usually back at work after a few days in jail — or replaced by others eager to take over the turf. So Joseph takes a different approach: to be a constant presence, shooing the vendors away and burying them in warnings and citations.

Richard says he's not worried. His hunch is that in the daily chaos and crime of skid row, Joseph and the LAPD will find more pressing tasks.

"Here's the thing about the cops — they try to control it, but they can't be two places at once," Richard said. "They can't catch us all."

::

Richard, 27, first arrived on skid row in 2002 as a drug dealer, fresh out of Washington High School in South Los Angeles. Back then, the area was considered the West Coast's leading drug bazaar, and city officials struggled to deal with both the huge homeless population and the crime.

"There were tents everywhere back then," Richard recalled."You couldn't even walk down the sidewalk."

Richard was arrested for the first time in 2003, after a police horse on Spring Street sniffed the cocaine he was carrying. Over the next seven years, he was convicted of five different offenses, ranging from drug possession to assault and burglary, and spent three years in prison.

When he was released in February, Richard returned to skid row and noticed a beer vendor who seemed to be doing good business. By the end of the month he'd gathered some old friends together and taken over the spot.

On a recent morning, skid row was bustling with activity and the beer business was brisk.

Richard was wearing a white tank top, baggy blue shorts and black slippers, greeting customers just a few feet from where he sleeps most nights. Tattoos covered his neck and biceps; a Newport cigarette dangled from his mouth.

Richard's friend, Mo, watched over the cooler, telling Richard the number of cans and bottles left inside. Most of the men who help with the operation are compensated with free drinks. Richard kept an obsessive eye over the supply.

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