City’s Skid Row cleanup cluttered with red tape, harassment claims

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORESurfer attacked by shark near Channel Islands calls rescue a ‘Christmas miracle’Welcome to Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Lying on a flattened piece of cardboard next to a dirty curb strewn with trash and filth, 46-year-old Zachariah Hunter scratches the scabs that pepper his varicose-veined legs and mumbles somewhat incoherently about why he doesn’t feel well. Nearby, a boom box blares Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” as Hunter tries to sleep. “I just wanna forget,” he says. Who wouldn’t want to? Your first impression is the stench – intensified by the afternoon heat and the tragedy of human misery that quickly overpower the senses. Rotting food, discarded plastic cups and plates, yellow police tape and old newspapers litter the trash-lined streets. Decrepit buildings have been shuttered, and virtually all the local businesses are gone. On a week of spooks, goblins and Dia de los Muertos, it is all too tempting to call this a ghost town. Except that there are people milling about, broken and with nothing to do or seemingly to aspire to – people for whom dreams have faded, for whom these dysfunctional streets are symbolic of their littered lives. It is a snapshot of a drama that takes place daily at the doorstep of a gated, gray fortress that could be any heavily fortified U.S. Embassy abroad. Hunger, poverty, homelessness, addiction, depression, unemployment, lack of health care. Call them the seven deadly sins of a society some have described as a city with a dystopian future of palaces for the affluent and squalor for the poor – the expanding gap between the haves and the have-nots, conditions one associates with Mexico and many parts of Latin America, India and Asia. It is Hunter’s neighborhood. To some, Skid Row may look different, as it will from the picture windows of the designer lofts on the drawing board for many of the streets east of Los Angeles Street. In fact, it may be gone by then, or, at least, largely relocated – gentrified, sanitized or simply “cleaned up,” the politically correct term that has come into usage. “They want it cleaned up. Some of us, we’re feelin’ it,” Hunter says. “If they gimme more trouble, I’ll just go to the beach in Santa Monica. “I just need a place to sleep.” It goes by the name of the Skid Row Safer City Initiative, a program launched a month ago amid great political fanfare, with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa promising to crack down on “the drug dealers and other criminals that prey on the homeless to reverse the culture of lawlessness on Skid Row, while leading those who need help to housing and services.” But the upshot of the program, in which the Los Angeles Police Department deployed 50 more police officers to Skid Row, is what the homeless themselves say has been a punishing campaign to keep the homeless from downtown – from the missions, the shelters and the streets they call home – during business hours. It begins every day, shortly after 6a.m., when the homeless leave their cots, their tents or their makeshift lean-tos. Almost immediately, they are confronted by LAPD officers, shooing them on their way, or worse. On a recent morning, James Wills stepped outside the Midnight Mission on Sixth Street – the imposing fortresslike building where he had slept the night before – to enjoy his first cigarette of the day. A few minutes later, he says, he was given an $85 citation. “They gave me a ticket for throwing away my cigarette butt,” says Wills, 52. “I said, `You can’t be serious,’ and the cop said, `Are you trying to be a wise guy?’ I thought they were gonna take me in. I don’t want that kind of trouble.” By 9 a.m., 45-year-old Denise Marquandt, who grew up in Simi Valley but now lives in a tent across the street from the Midnight Mission, says that she had been rousted from her bed no fewer than three times by police officers. “They said they were going to continue doing this until they got the results they wanted,” she says. “Can you imagine, where you live, being harassed by police three times before 9a.m. each morning?” Later that day, just across the street, another homeless man was pushing his red shopping cart down the sidewalk when two police officers confronted him. “You can’t have a Staples cart,” one of them told the man. Police then confiscated the buggy and emptied the trash bags containing the man’s worldly possessions. They found what they determined to be a crack pipe, then called for backup while they handcuffed and arrested him. Up the street, several red shopping carts – the Staples placards removed – were lined up against a cyclone fence. “If he had taken the Staples name off the cart, he wouldn’t have been stopped,” says Metra White, a homeless woman who had watched the arrest from a distance. “How can you target one area when you don’t target the rest of the city?” asks Wills, smoking another cigarette. “You can’t target Skid Row for breaking laws that you don’t enforce somewhere else.” White, originally from Phoenix, is even more to the point of what some homeless people think. “Someone in this city,” she says, “doesn’t want the poorest of the poor in the city.” LAPD denies harassment Los Angeles Police Department officials deny they are harassing transients on Skid Row, insisting their enforcement has been consistent and they are simply trying to address the problems unique to that area. Shopping carts bearing merchants’ names will always be confiscated and returned to the rightful owners, said Sgt. Lee Sands, a media relations representative. “We have focused on the (criminal) elements that prey on the homeless so that they don’t become victims,” he said. But Skid Row complaints about the cleanup initiative and the trashing of belongings they temporarily leave behind have reached City Hall, where the City Attorney’s Office last week issued a legal opinion on dumping the personal belongings of the homeless. The City Council also is studying how best to identify city streets that need cleaning up, as well as finding new places for the homeless to store their belongings. It would seem paltry action for a city that only 10 months ago Villaraigosa called “the capital of homelessness in the United States of America.” “It dwarfs the homeless problem anywhere in the state,” the mayor said in the wake of a report that estimated the number of homeless at more than 48,000, “and the city of Los Angeles is ground zero for it.” But today, the issue of homelessness borders on becoming a bureaucratic nightmare on top of a human tragedy. Last week, the Bush administration’s homelessness czar, Philip Mangano, criticized previous attempts to deal with Skid Row’s problems and called for “strategic solutions for those living on the sidewalks of the entertainment capital of the world.” City Council members complain that transients being flushed from Skid Row are showing up in the neighboring areas they represent. Villaraigosa himself says the 3,600 transients packed into the few square blocks east of downtown that compose Skid Row make it the “highest concentration of homelessness anywhere in America.” The mayor used the opening last week of a new housing complex for the homeless to call for “a new vision for Los Angeles to end homelessness starting at ground zero here on Skid Row.” Villaraigosa and other officials are convinced that the key to solving the problems of Skid Row is housing and public services, and his remarks that day at times resembled an evangelical prayer meeting with homeless residents in the audience voicing “amens” to his proposals. But just try telling that to the homeless looking for jobs, as Assembly Speaker Fabian Nu ez did when he arrived at the event – and got into a brief debate with a homeless man who insisted that having a job was more important to him than a temporary shelter. “I don’t care about the housing here,” said 67-year-old Jerry Bokassa, who was carrying a sign that read “I Want A Job.” “If I could find myself a good-paying job, I could find myself a decent place.” The inherent logic of what Bokassa says is missed most, though it’s the essence of what President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal used in the 1930s to fight the hunger, the unemployment and the economic depression that were then killing the spirits of men and women. `Each day, you start over’ Inside the Midnight Mission, they are simply seeking a bed for the night. They have begun to line up, like Harvey Moore, for the cots rationed out nightly. “If you’re lucky, you get one,” says Moore, 41, who has been homeless for three years. Then, each morning, Moore has to leave the mission, with all his belongings in tow and take them to a storage facility provided for the homeless several blocks away. That or find a place closer by to store them during the day. “You can’t leave your belongings on your cot or in the mission,” Moore says. “If you do, they get thrown out. “So each day, you start over. You take your things with you, store them, then retrieve them and line up hoping you’re one of the lucky ones who gets a bed for the night.” The really lucky ones are those like 52-year-old Kennie Walker, an ex-convict who has a full-time bed at the Midnight Mission because he’s enrolled in one of its substance-abuse recovery programs. “The Midnight Mission isn’t really for the homeless but for those in the drug-treatment programs,” Walker says. “But there’s so many homeless on the streets that it tries to help as many as it can by giving those a place to sleep.” Those who are even luckier than Walker are people like Tyrone Taylor, 57, who have moved from temporary shelters to the newly opened 87-unit Rainbow Apartments, aimed at housing transients who have kicked past addictions. Kathy Stewart is trying desperately to become one of those. She is unusual on Skid Row because she is one of the few who are upbeat and confident of a better future. “I want to be famous,” she says. “One day, I’m going to be president of the United States.” Stewart, 30, admittedly has been an alcoholic and drug addict since age 10, when her mother first offered her cheap booze. She says she now has been clean and sober for two months, so maybe there’s still something intoxicated about her outlook. Then again, she’s an actress. She claims to have had a speaking part in “The Fan,” which starred Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes. And a Kathy Stewart indeed is listed among the film’s credits. “I could have joined SAG (the Screen Actors Guild),” she says, “but I used the money on drugs.” Now, Stewart is trying to turn it around, for the sake of her three children, who live with a relative. She says she attends Los Angeles City College, wants to make something of herself, and – remember those lofts they’re building with Skid Row in the shadows? “I’m trying to improve myself,” she says, “and we have some nice lofts coming in down here.” Told those lofts will be expensive – a 480-square-foot studio condo in Bunker Hills Towers not far from Skid Row listed for $399,000, and the average price for a new home in the city is $545,000 – and likely not affordable by anyone who has recently been homeless, she remains euphoric in her hopes. She is also not alone in seriously eyeing those lofts. Several residents of Skid Row also mention the lofts and allude to two Nov.7 ballot initiatives – Proposition 1C and Measure H – whose provisions for helping the homeless with housing has been convoluted into a belief that the upscale housing planned nearby is for them. “There’s Section 8 you can use (for the lofts),” Stewart says, referring to the federal program of housing assistance to low-income renters and homeowners but in specifically designated areas and housing costs. But then, there are reasons that many of the homeless now find themselves on Skid Row. Bad luck for one. Emotional issues sometimes. Substance addiction in most instances. Addicts try to recover Around the corner from the Midnight Mission, the Union Rescue Mission sits on San Julian Street next to several hotels and shelters housing tenants in drug and alcohol recovery. Peggy June May, 51, who moved to Los Angeles from Dublin, Ga., three months ago, wanders the street, having been recently put out on restrictions by the Midnight Mission. “I threw a crack pipe at police,” she says, but doesn’t want to elaborate. Up the street, at the Angelus Inn, dressed all in blue with her long raven hair neatly parted, Johnnie Stutts looks like an aging country music queen. “I’m a recovering addict,” says Stutts, 59, a former security guard from East Texas. She has lived at the Angelus Inn for eight months, but she says she lives under no illusion. “Is it dangerous down here? Yes, of course,” she says. “I’m all for bringing the cops here, but they should also bring them here at night. That’s when it’s truly dangerous. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Outside on San Julian, you have to watch the puddles on the street. They appear to be puddles of water, but a passer-by stops to warn: “Watch where you step. Those are puddles of urine.” You keep coming across Harvey Moore, who is surprisingly eloquent in talking about the dreams he had when he came to Los Angeles from Massachusetts in 1995, and how a layoff from a switchboard operator job and a subsequent eviction led to a downward personal spiral. “Emotionally, the way you deal with being homeless is a lot of praying and a lot of personal willpower,” he says. “You keep thinking there will be a big break, but it never comes along, just as it doesn’t for many others who are homeless.” Back in front of the Midnight Mission, James Wills is still smoking and fuming about the littering ticket he got that morning. It may be that the citation was a fruitless exercise for the police. A City Attorney’s Office spokesman said the courts will usually waive the fines for people who can prove they are indigent, or allow them to do community service. With Wills is his pal, devoted Dodger fan Eddie Lopez, 55, who says he fears reprisals if he talks but then goes ahead and speaks his mind. “They don’t want people to live on the streets, but they won’t build any more shelters.” Told there are more shelters in the planning stages, he shakes his head. “Do you know how many homeless there are on the streets?” Across the street, the only business open in the area, the Nam Nam Food Mart & Restaurant, is suddenly barraged by a group of homeless people seeking a snack to hold them until they can scrounge up dinner somewhere. The female cashier flashes a smile of gold-capped teeth as she greets one regular and then focuses on a question she has been asked. “What’s it like to work here?” she says, repeating the question. Then, flashing the gold once more, she throws her head back and erupts into a hysterical, almost eerie laugh. “Don’t forget,” Johnnie Stutts says. “You’re in Skid Row.” [email protected] (818) 713-3761160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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