By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007
LOS ANGELES -- Drug addicts called it "The Show." Every day and night, with no freezing weather to slow it down, a circus of prostitution, crack-smoking and schizophrenic collapse played out on the streets on Los Angeles's Skid Row.
Four thousand homeless people thronged 50 blocks in easy view of the city's proud civic institutions -- the banks, the Los Angeles Times, City Hall. Often desperately drug addicted, mentally ill or both, they slept in homeless shelters or under tarps tied to shopping carts that lined the sidewalks. Some just lay down on the urine-soaked ground when they got tired.
Hospital vans dumped the indigent from gurneys to the gutter, causing scandals periodically when they were caught on videotape. The local fire station's paramedic team was the busiest in the country. Skid Row, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton has said, was "the worst situation in America."
Things are changing. Last year, a combination of police strategy, newspaper exposés, political will and loft-building developers pushed Skid Row to the top of the city's agenda. The result is a controversial -- but unquestionably effective -- crackdown.
In the latest application of the "broken windows" approach Bratton famously applied to New York, police are targeting petty crimes to discourage violent crime and other serious violations.
"The behavior on Skid Row was 'anything goes,' " said Capt. Andrew J. Smith of the area's police station. "Personally, I think we need to have the same standards of behavior as they do in Brentwood or West L.A.," well-heeled parts of the city.
Since the police department's Safer City Initiative began in September, an extra 50 police officers have worked Skid Row. Trees are trimmed for better lighting. Police write tickets for jaywalking and public urination and have made more than 1,400 drug arrests. During the daytime, they enforce an ordinance against sleeping on the sidewalk.
Now a dark smudge about five feet high stains the buildings like a bathtub ring, showing where tents and tarps used to be. Violent crime in the first week of March is down 36 percent from last year; property crime is down 38 percent. Half as many people now sleep on the streets there as did five months ago, a police census found.
A pair of social workers staff the police station, urging drug addicts to enroll in rehab programs instead of going to jail. The city attorney's office is investigating patient-dumping cases with an eye to prosecuting hospitals that leave patients on the street.
Whether the crackdown is a blessed relief or a harsh attempt to criminalize homelessness depends on who is talking.
Business owners love it. Skid Row is home to processing plants and storage facilities that supply seafood to major retailers and fine restaurants. Workers there must spray their shoes with alcohol when they come to work because of excrement on the ground outside. Conditions in the area have cultured tuberculosis and drug-resistant staph infections.
"This first step has given us hope," Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Association, a business group, said of the Safer City Initiative.
As Smith took a walk through the neighborhood recently, longtime residents of subsidized hotels approached him to thank him for making the area more livable.
But some who run shelters and programs for the homeless in the area say police harassment is chasing away people who need help. Those advocates say Skid Row became so troubled because of a decades-long policy to concentrate the region's homeless services in one area.
Mark Casanova, executive director of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, said the new policy is only dispersing the homeless.
"We're doing nothing but cutting off access to services," he said at a recent Los Angeles Police Commission meeting.
There are also complaints of police harassment. The American Civil Liberties Union is asking a court to extend an injunction that bars police from stopping and questioning Skid Row residents without cause for suspicion.
"The police just say, 'You can't be here anymore,' " Shannon Snyder said as she sat on a curb last week. Snyder and her boyfriend and their cats have lived on Skid Row's streets for 10 months. "They say, 'You have to move.' When we say, 'Where do we go?' they say, 'We don't know.' "
Public defenders are upset because drug arrests that once would have sent an addict to a rehab program are now being charged as dealing. "It seems that the goal is to send these people to state prison," said Rigoberto J. Arrechiga, a public defender who handles Skid Row felonies.
Arrechiga and others point to new housing developments along the edges of Skid Row as a motivation for the crackdown. "Who wants to pay a million dollars for a loft and see homeless people sleeping on the street?" he asked.
Civil liberties complaints are not unusual with the "broken windows" approach, but Los Angeles police are well trained, said George Kelling, a criminologist at Rutgers University who developed the theory with social scientist James Q. Wilson of Pepperdine University. Kelling, a consultant to Bratton, said an influx of middle-class residents would not necessarily be bad for the area's poor.
"You want to make sure gentrification isn't driving people out and the missions aren't driven out," Kelling said. But "when people are moving in and grocery stores are moving in, that means jobs. Economic development is not something you want to sneer at."
Some observers believe the changes on Skid Row will be short-lived as long as homeless services are concentrated there. Michael Dear, a professor of geography at the University of Southern California, points out that one-third of the city's shelter beds are on Skid Row.
He said only 25 of 88 cities in Los Angeles County spend money on homeless services. The rest, Dear said, offer "Greyhound therapy": a bus ticket to Skid Row.