Dumping Ground and Refuge
For those who know how to navigate L.A.’s Skid Row, it can provide community — but crackdowns have made life even harder.
The Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Division station is a brown brick fortress that consumes an entire block of Skid Row, but it is no match for the rats.
They pop out of burrows in the station’s raised planters at dusk, dozens of them, big fat ones, their gray-brown bodies nearly camouflaged by the bone-dry dirt of their stomping grounds. Humans standing 5 feet away fail to faze them. These rats play by Skid Row rules: live and let live, mind your business.
“They’ve got terrain regard,” says Terrence Robinson, a wiry, 46-year-old Skid Rower with a graying goatee and chin-length dreadlocks, watching the rodents romp on the bare soil late on a balmy night. A truck honking at a jaywalker sends the rats scattering like billiard balls struck by a cue, but only for a second or two. “See?” Robinson says, flashing a white, Chiclets-teeth smile as the rats resume their scampering.
Terrain regard, Robinson explains, means knowing how to act depending on where you are, whom you’re with and what you’re doing. Street smarts, in other words. His father taught him the phrase — “something he picked up in the military”– a long time ago, before one calamity (divorce) led to another (depression) and another (drugs) and Robinson, a former software engineer, ended up sleeping on cardboard on Fifth Street, “The Nickel,” in the heart of Skid Row.
Robinson has lived on Skid Row for some 10 years, which says a lot about his own terrain regard. Without street smarts, forget Skid Row. This village of the damned, 50-odd blocks on the east side of downtown Los Angeles, holds the largest encampment of homeless people in the country — between 3,000 and 4,000 — not to mention several thousand more a step from homeless, in SROs (single-room occupancy hotels). It looks like a third-world shantytown, a refugee camp, a dystopia inhabited by the damaged and desperate.
This situation didn’t just happen. Skid Row is Skid Row because for decades, beginning in the mid-1970s, City Hall steered indigent mental patients, drug addicts, parolees and everyone else no one wanted to the old flophouses and Christian missions that sprang up downtown a century ago, when the country traveled by train and hobos rode the rails. In recent years, L.A. county hospitals have been caught on videotape dispatching mentally ill and elderly patients straight from recovery rooms to Skid Row streets. Just last year, the city attorney’s office collected $1.45 million in penalties from three county hospitals that had dumped patients onto the streets. In one case caught on video, a 38-year-old mentally ill woman was driven to the front of Skid Row’s Union Rescue Mission, disoriented, with no ID, wearing a hospital gown.
The paradox of Skid Row is that it is both a dumping ground and a refuge for the down and out. Between 8,000 and 11,000 people live here, a majority in SRO hotel rooms or subsidized efficiencies. Another 2,500 or so sleep in shelters or Mission beds, the rest on the streets. Whatever their living situation, thousands of people here have found community and support and have planned on staying for as long as it takes to figure out their lives, if not forever. But life on Skid Row, always a trial, keeps getting harder as the city grapples with how to fix it.
The question has plagued lawmakers for at least a decade, only it has become much more urgent. Back when downtown was the city’s embarrassment, a seedy core with crusty-windowed warehouses and roach-infested hotels, Skid Row was just the worst of a bad stretch. Now, 10 years into a rebuilding boom, the warehouses are lofts, the SROs condos, and the bar scene lively with the young and beautiful. Downtown is the hottest property in L.A., Skid Row the outhouse in the backyard that needs to go.
As businesses, and business improvement districts, have sprung up downtown, Los Angeles has tried one plan after another, and one law after another, to clean up Skid Row. All have made life harder for homeless people forced to live on the streets and none have helped mitigate homelessness. Already famous for at least 20 “anti-homeless” laws copied by dozens of other cities, L.A. passed two more last August. The ordinances make it easier for police or sanitation crews to seize a person’s possessions out from under them, shortening the warning period a person has to move it or lose it (encampments or anything else) from 72 hours to 24 hours and the period a person has to move items deemed obstructive to nothing.
All these crackdowns have earned L.A. the top spot in the “Meanest Cities” lists compiled by national advocacy groups. They’ve also cost the city time and money as the laws are successfully challenged by advocates for homeless people. (In August, for example, the city agreed to pay $1.1 million to lawyers who successfully challenged a 2010 police crackdown on more than 200 people who, after losing their homes in the housing crisis, began sleeping in their vehicles.)
But as L.A. lawmakers now publicly admit, the crackdowns have done nothing to put a dent in L.A.’s homelessness. In fact, L.A. has more people literally sleeping on the streets than any other city in the country. In January 2015, the city’s count found 26,000 homeless people, 12 percent more than the year before, and more than the entire population of a small city — Ashland, Oregon, say, or Brattleboro, Vermont. The vast majority of them, 85 percent, had no shelter beyond blankets, tarps or tents. As Angelenos know too well, more people are living on the streets, under bridges and in doorways, in nearly every neighborhood, than ever.
In late September, when L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and several City Council members stood on the steps of City Hall and declared “a state of emergency” over homelessness, as if it were an earthquake or a flood, they vowed to stop punishing people with no choice but to live on the streets. (In 2014, the latest numbers available, out of $100 million the city spent addressing homelessness, $87 million went to policing.)
Officials also promised to find an extra $100 million in 2016 to address the crisis.
Both those promises have already proven too hard to keep. A city budget analyst report released in January estimates that ending homelessness in L.A. will cost twice what city officials pledged in September, or at least $200 million a year over 10 years. The report recommends what housing activists have said for 30 years: Homelessness is solved through long-term government spending on permanent housing combined with social services that address individual needs. Meanwhile, earlier in February, a group of housing advocates stood on the steps of City Hall and called on officials to honor the promises they made to stop treating homeless people like criminals. While politicians wrestle with how to adapt the ordinance on seizing property, activists and homeless people say, police are taking and destroying tents and other property — the entirety of a person’s possessions in some cases — left even for a few minutes on the streets.
The crackdowns have continued and so has the pressures from the new downtown, rebranded with a spiffy nickname (“DTLA”) in the tradition of all gentrifying neighborhoods. Skid Row residents cursed with self-awareness will discuss how unwelcome they feel on streets they once owned. For one, there are few public spaces to sit. For another, private security guards hired by local Business Im
provement Districts patrol the streets, telling them they can’t rest here or stand there. Police also still enforce the city’s daytime ban on camping. Crack of dawn every morning, weekends excluded, Skid Rowers know that police may come around to tell them to pack up their tents. L.A. allows camps from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. as a compromise reached with homeless advocates who successfully challenged its anti-camping laws as cruel and unusual punishment for people with nowhere to live.
The irony is that trying to survive the streets is punishment enough for living on them.
Already this year, hypothermia claimed one Skid Row resident, 60-year-old Barbara Brown, who was found soaked in her blanket cocoon on the street on Jan. 7. She had refused offers to take her to safe shelter from outreach workers, police and friends.
Yes, she had friends. Skid Row’s big surprise, hidden from the commuter cars that barrel past its fringes, is its community. Spend enough time on its grimy streets and you might see neighbors meeting for soup and salad at the Hippie Kitchen, the free cafe run by members of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker three times a week in a garden setting with picnic tables and flowering trees. Or a group gathering at Gladys Park to listen to a preacher with a megaphone summoning “the largest recovery community in the country” for a jazz jam. There are women who meet to window shop at the cheap knickknack shops along 6th Street, the corridor that acts like a dividing line between the row and the new, cleaned-up downtown. You also see people watching each other’s tents, carts and backs. Someone always seems to be inquiring about a person they haven’t seen in a few days, because on Skid Row, everyone knows that a person who goes missing (“MIA”) might be in jail or a hospital or dead.
People are still talking about Skid Row’s most high-profile recent killing, and its aftermath. Charly “Africa” Keunang, a 39-year-old mentally ill man from Cameroon, made headlines when he was shot to death by several LAPD officers last March 1 in a confrontation taped by witnesses and shared on social media around the world. After 11 months of investigations, the Los Angeles Police Commission found that all officers involved “followed department policy in the use of deadly force,” a bitter pill for Skid Row residents who witnessed the confrontation themselves. The officers had said they feared for their lives when Keunang reached for a rookie officer’s holstered gun.
Stories about the dangers of the neighborhood seem exaggerated once you’re on its streets. Skid Row is less scary than advertised, and more sad.
On just one block of Skid Row, San Pedro Street, say, you find people lying in tents, under tarps and on cardboard; tripping through the middle of the street in drug-induced stupors; sharing crack pipes; shooting up; drinking 40-ounce cans of malt liquor; prostituting themselves; talking to themselves; fighting with themselves and fighting with others, real or imagined.
Walking the streets, you confront need at every turn. Many residents get around in wheelchairs or use walkers, canes or crutches. In one snapshot moment on San Pedro Street, a woman with one leg, a man with one arm and another man with no legs wheel themselves down the street in tandem. A very old woman with an Albert Einstein shock of white hair lugs four overstuffed shopping bags in her hands and falls face down on the curb, flailing, before people notice and rush to help her. A man with the elephant man disease, his head as big as a hornet’s nest, sits at the very edge of the corner, elbows on his knees and hands on his face, as if trying to hide from the world.
The most haunted and haunting faces might be those of the full-time prostitutes, aged beyond the point of guessing how old. They wear hooker outfits, halters and hot pants and miniskirts, that expose sores and scars and bruises and burns, every bad day of their lives.
On every street of Skid Row, you also meet ordinary people whose lives took a tumble. They lost their livelihoods, and homes, to the kinds of calamities — drugs, illness, a brush with the law — only rich people can weather, and sometimes, not even them. These are the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God Skid Rowers, living on the streets while trying to clear their wreckage. Such is the paradox of the place, that it is both a dumping ground for society’s Untouchables, and a refuge for those dealt a bad hand.
Like a small village, people notice newcomers, walk up to strangers and introduce themselves. People want to tell their stories. One young man in an immaculate white undershirt, black warmup pants and black Nikes says he wound up in a tent after serving jail time for “possession, etc.” Now he is training for a boxing tournament, he says, standing guard outside a green Coleman pup tent. “You can save money this way,” he says, pointing to an open van where volunteers from a church are handing out bagged lunches.
You meet plenty of self-styled preachers in the neighborhood as well, including “Kat,” a 51-year-old woman who said Jehovah sent her to Skid Row, and Jose Villalpando, a 61-year-old man who said God sent him to spread the word of Jesus.
“I’ve been here 10 years, witnessing,” Villalpando said, standing in front of his family-size tent, alone at the end of an otherwise lively street. “This is as dark as life gets. I’ve seen knife fights, I’ve seen all kinds of horrible things. But God told me to come and spread the word and he would protect me, and he does.”
Occasionally on Skid Row, you meet someone like Terrence Robinson.
Robinson glides around Skid Row on Rollerblades he bought with earnings from recyclables, handing out books and other goodies he finds to people he thinks can use them. Ten years on Skid Row, eight of them clean, he says, and he’s still here. He earned six figures once, could again. What keeps him from returning to that world he cannot say.
He sleeps a few hours by day and “works” by night, trolling DTLA for any treasures he could sell, swap or recycle. Hanging out with Robinson, Skid Row starts to look like a community. He’s popular. People come up to him, high-five, offer him food. “You can’t go hungry on Skid Row,” he says, passing yet another giveaway.
On a Friday, near midnight, he might be waiting for the trendy bars in Little Tokyo and the Arts District to close so he could scavenge the sidewalks for anything interesting patrons leave behind.
Suffering the small indignities homeless people face every day don’t bother him, he says, waiting at the Central Division police station for the nightlife to end.
“That wall right there on the station is what really bothers me,” he says, pointing to a mosaic mural of police and community life on the side of the station. All of the faces in the mural are white. Robinson, like a majority on Skid Row, is black.
“Now that,” he says with his irrepressible smile, “is one irresistible metaphor.”
Evelyn Nieves is an independent journalist who focuses on covering under-covered communities and social issues, especially
poverty in the United States.
Co-published with Salon.