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L.A.'s urban parks: for the homeless too?

The new small parks include features that homeless advocates say are meant to harass. But managers contend they just want to prevent people from living there.

August 31, 2013|By Gale Holland
  • Homeless men get some sleep at Father Serra Park, across from Union Station.
Homeless men get some sleep at Father Serra Park, across from Union Station. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Dawn was breaking when three scruffy men in dark clothing trudged past Grand Park's bubble-gum-pink benches and into its purple-tiled bathrooms to wash up.

The early-morning ablutions have become a daily ritual for homeless men at the 1-year-old park across the street from Los Angeles City Hall. But their presence has done little to dim the appeal of the $56-million, county-owned venue, as office workers, loft-dwelling professionals, curious suburbanites and, yes, the homeless flock to evening concerts, public ceremonies, fireworks shows and farmers' markets.

"I went to the opera the other night," said Tom Hackett, 60, a former garbage collector from upstate New York and one of the regulars at the homeless bathroom lineup. "I've never been to an opera."

The situation isn't so harmonious in other downtown parks, however, as officials' efforts to make the facilities more welcoming to the new urbanites have spurred claims of harassment by skid row advocates.

These efforts have also led to homeless nudged out of one park simply relocating to others blocks away — a reminder that even as much of downtown crackles with new, upscale condos, bars, restaurants and stores, the central city's revival still depends on maintaining an uneasy truce with one of the nation's largest concentrations of people living in the streets.

"It's a game of cat and mouse," said UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, who has studied homelessness in Los Angeles, "except the mice have nowhere to go."

In the last year, the city and county have opened or planned several new public spaces, including Grand Park, Spring Street Park, an Arts District park and a parcel next to Grand Park to be developed and managed by the city. They join parks that have welcomed visitors for many decades, including Pershing Square, the grassy grounds of City Hall and the historic sites near Olvera Street that mark the city's founding.

Park managers at Spring Street and Grand Park included extensive regulations and design elements to discourage homeless people from camping out. Grand Park's open spaces, stretching 12 acres from Bunker Hill to the foot of City Hall, in the shadow of the criminal court building, offer few hiding places for prostitutes or drug users. It's also farther away from skid row than some other parks, keeping the homeless count comparatively low.

But five blocks south, a resident describes Pershing Square, the city's original central park, as a "day-care center" for homeless people. The city is trying to change the park's character with a whirlwind of movies, concert series and farmers' markets.

"The homeless need somewhere to sit and be," said Kevin Regan, a park administrator. "We just aren't going to let them live there."

Skid row activists call it harassment.

A Los Angeles Community Action Network activist known as General Dogon leads a weekly patrol at Pershing Square and other downtown parks to monitor what he says is widespread intimidation of the poor and homeless.

Dogon pointed out concrete seating in the shade that had been cordoned off with yellow police tape. A chain blocked access to the lawn. Restrooms in the underground garage are off-limits to anyone without a parking ticket, and cafe tables with umbrellas where homeless people once rested are hauled out only for the noon concerts and other activities.

Police patrol cars park, sometimes two abreast, on the concrete plaza around the fountain, and officers stop people for loitering, Dogon said.

"How do you loiter in a park?" Dogon said.

Park officials said the seating is tied off for cleaning or so farmers can store their crates during market days. The grass is off-limits to protect the sound system or to prepare for concerts.

Police and city officials deny any bullying campaign, saying their enforcement efforts are directed at illegal activities.

"We welcome anybody from anywhere into any of our parks," said Rick Coca, spokesman for Councilman Jose Huizar.

"The key is keeping the area in a way that can be used by all," said Los Angeles police Capt. Horace Frank, who heads the downtown detail.

Police stepped up their presence at Pershing Square last year in response to complaints after Occupy Los Angeles was forcibly ejected from the City Hall lawn, Frank said. Remnants of the group disrupted the farmers' market, urinating on walls, grabbing food samples and demanding spare change, the market manager said.

As Occupiers drifted away from Pershing Square, a rowdy encampment arose outside El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, home to Olvera Street and the site of the city's founding. People partied to all hours and tossed needles over the wall into La Plaza de Cultura y Artes — a museum focused on the contributions of Mexican Americans in Southern California — said Father Richard Estrada, the parish priest at nearby La Placita church.

"It was like a tent city all day long," he said.

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