The Reclamation of Skid Row
The LAPD’s efforts are reviving America’s most squalid neighborhood—and the homeless industry is hopping mad.
Drive around Los Angeles’s Skid Row with Commander Andrew Smith and you can barely go a block without someone’s congratulating him on his recent promotion. Such enthusiasm is certainly in order. Over the last year, this tall, high-spirited policeman has achieved what for a long while seemed impossible: a radical reduction of Skid Row’s anarchy. What is surprising about Smith’s popularity, however, is that his fans are street-wizened drug addicts, alcoholics, and mentally ill vagrants. And in that fact lies a resounding refutation of the untruths that the American Civil Liberties Union and the rest of the homeless industry have used to keep Skid Row in chaos—until now.
For 25 years, the advocates used lawsuits and antipolice propaganda to beat back every effort to restore sanity to Skid Row. They concealed the real causes of homelessness under a false narrative about a callous, profit-mad society that abused the less fortunate. The result: a level of squalor that had no counterpart in the United States. Smith’s policing initiatives—grounded in the Broken Windows theory of order maintenance—ended that experiment in engineered anarchy, saving more lives in ten months than most homeless advocates have helped over their careers. The forces of lawlessness are regrouping, however, and Smith’s successes may wind up reversed in a renewed attack on the police.
Before Smith’s Safer City Initiative began in September 2006, Skid Row’s 50 blocks had reached a level of depravity that stunned even longtime observers. Encampments composed of tents and cardboard boxes covered practically every inch of sidewalk. Their 1,500 or so occupants, stretched out in lawn chairs or sprawled on the pavement, injected heroin and smoked crack and marijuana in plain view, day and night. Feces, urine, and drug-resistant bacteria coated the ground. Even drug addicts were amazed at the scene. Fifty-year-old Vicki Williams arrived from Las Vegas in December 2005 with a heavy habit. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: people getting high on the streets like it was legal,” she says. “Down here was like a world of its own. Anything you can imagine I’ve seen: women walking down the street buck naked, people stabbed in front of me.”
The human chaos hid entrenched criminal networks. The biggest heroin gang in downtown Los Angeles operated from the area’s west end, using illegal aliens to peddle dope supplied by the Mexican Mafia. Able-bodied dealers sold drugs from wheelchairs and from tents color-coded to signal the wares within. Young Bloods and Crips from Watts’s housing projects battled over drug turf and amused themselves by robbing the elderly.
A pitiless law of the jungle ruled social relations. “Everyone is out for himself out there,” says Ken Williams (no relation to Vicki), a 50-year-old recovering drug user and ten-year veteran of the streets. “If people see a weakness, they will go for it.” Officer Deon Joseph, who has dedicated himself to bringing safety to Skid Row, calls up on his computer recent photos recording the area’s still-not-fully suppressed violence: facial welts on a homeless woman assaulted by a homeless man while she was drunk and sleeping on Gladys Street; red gashes across a man’s back from a rake wielded by gangsters. In May 2006, a mentally ill woman who had repeatedly resisted offers of housing and services was stomped to death by a homeless parolee. That night, 82 shelter beds were available on Skid Row; a business improvement district’s homeless outreach team could persuade only two people to accept them.
Nonviolent crime also metastasized on Skid Row, fed by government welfare. General relief payments—California’s little-copied welfare program for able-bodied childless adults—arrive early in the month, followed a few days later by federal Supplemental Security Income for drug addicts and the mentally ill. Skid Row’s population and partying spiked around check days. When the money was gone, smoked away in crack pipes or injected into veins, the hustling began. A doctors’ clinic in the Hispanic MacArthur Park neighborhood sent a van out to collect volunteers for Medicaid fraud; it offered $20 to anyone willing to take a fake health exam, and then billed the exams to the government at exorbitant rates. Two food-stamp rings, paying homeless recipients 50 cents for every dollar’s worth of stamps, stole $6 million from federal taxpayers. The spending money handed out in these scams went right back into the drug trade, keeping the homeless addicted and the drug sellers in diamond tooth caps.
This lawlessness hurt Skid Row’s law-abiding residents the most. The area’s century-old residential hotels and missions house thousands of senior citizens, non-drug-abusing mentally ill persons, and addicts trying to turn their lives around. “The people we serve are very vulnerable,” says Anita Nelson, director of a government-funded nonprofit that rehabilitates and manages single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs). “The elderly and the mentally ill were victimized by the crime and the dealers. When you’re afraid to go into the park, you’re a prisoner in your 120-square-foot unit.” Temptation confronted recovering addicts every time they stepped outside.
With formal controls on behavior almost completely absent, the last vestiges of civility broke down. In 2005, young volunteers for the Union Rescue Mission set out to deliver 4,000 boxes of Christmas food to every SRO in the area. As they tried to navigate the streets, encampment residents cursed them, hurled racial taunts, and mockingly defecated in front of them. The area’s intrepid businesses faced constant assault. “We had to fortify the buildings with razor wire and barricade ourselves in,” a shrimp processor recalls. “The homeless would take or steal anything.” His roll-up door, constantly exposed to bodily fluids, rotted away. In September 2006, the owner of one of the district’s landmark businesses, ABC Toys, caught a typical moment on film: a mail carrier reaches through the store’s gate to drop off letters, when she notices that the man at her feet is shooting heroin into a prominent vein. She flees in dismay without leaving the mail.
This ugly scene was not the by-product of economic dislocations or of social upheaval; it was the consequence of a destructive ideology that turned a seedy neighborhood for the down-and-out into a hell.
Skid Row began as a vital accessory to what was once Los Angeles’s thriving heart, decades before the automobile spread the city across hundreds of square miles to the mountains and ocean. Farmland surrounded what is now downtown, requiring workers for the fields, for the adjacent factories that processed the produce, and for the railroad that shipped it out. Skid Row’s cheap hotels, saloons, and theaters catered to these transient single males.
Though this low-rent district was located just a few blocks from the elegantly sculpted banks and office buildings of Spring Street and Broadway, the two worlds coexisted in relative peace because public order was maintained. Over the course of the twentieth century, Skid Row’s population became older and more disabled by alcoholism, as industrial and agricultural jobs moved elsewhere. The local missions tried to reclaim lives lost to drink, offering a free meal in exchange for attendance at a sermon, but their success rate was never particularly high. Alcoholics congregated on the street in bottle gangs—a group of drinkers who pooled their nickels for booze. Still, if one collapsed at a business’s front door, he stood a good chance of getting picked up by the police for public inebriation.
But in the 1960s, laws against public intoxication, vagrancy, and loitering came under attack in court and in the press, and by the 1980s, the enforcement of such public-order statutes had all but ceased. In 1975, approximately 50,000 arrests took place in Los Angeles for public intoxication, more than half of those on Skid Row; in 1985, the entire city generated only 4,000 such arrests. This enforcement halt was not the humanitarian advance that its architects claimed, says Clancy Imislund, the former director of Skid Row’s Midnight Mission and an ex–Skid Row alcoholic himself. “The police picked up street drunks for their own protection,” he notes. “Sometimes they sent them to a farm north of L.A. for six months. By the 1970s, however, the police started leaving them lying there, where gangs took their money and beat the hell out of them.” A 1971 federal law tried to substitute rehabilitation for the policing cycle, but the success rate of federally funded alcoholism services wasn’t noticeably better than that of the jails, according to sociologist Ronald Miller.
One further change in the legal landscape paved the way for the chaos that would engulf Skid Row by the century’s end. Inspired partly by the then-fashionable belief that mental illness was an artificial construct for oppressing nonconformists, California passed landmark legislation in 1967 that virtually ended the involuntary commitment of the mentally ill. A decade later, hospital professionals were noticing with alarm that patients whom they had no power to hold for long-term treatment were cycling between the streets, jails, and short-term mental wards.
By the early 1980s, a new Skid Row population had emerged: drug addicts, overwhelmingly black, often mentally ill, who camped out on the streets. The era of the “homeless” had begun. This population was younger, more hostile, and more predatory than the old Skid Row rummies were; it brought in its train a criminal element that hadn’t previously existed downtown. “In the seventies, I’d rather have my daughter walk through Skid Row than on Hollywood Boulevard,” recalls Imislund. “Some of the alcoholics slept outside because they didn’t want to clean up. They may have looked dangerous, but they weren’t.” The “homeless” were a different matter. Local crime jumped 28 percent in 1986 alone. “I started with my mommy and daddy 50 years ago; it was not this bad, uh-uh,” says Rosy Rios, who runs a ministry in the area. “All [the older Skid Row alcoholics] did was drink they wine and talk about what they did in France. Now they all into they heroin. This place is running all the time. . . . Most of these guys are sex offenders. This is the place you can hide away.”
An Urban Land Institute study warned in 1987 that the “invasion of the homeless” was threatening the older SRO population and local businesses; stronger police protection was essential, argued the institute. The recommendation failed to take into account a second new population invading Skid Row: homeless advocates. Some of the same groups that had challenged public-order laws and pushed for the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill now seized on the resulting homeless for a host of ends, including a right to housing and further restrictions on the police. A made-for-the-media “tent city” erected by sundry homeless advocates outside City Hall in December 1984, for example, sought to end workfare and job-search requirements for welfare recipients—measures that had nothing to do with why people were on the streets.
A third new population sprang up around Skid Row, however, that would repeatedly clash with the homeless advocates over public safety: immigrant entrepreneurs. The eastern section of downtown adjacent to Skid Row, known as Central City East, had retained some food-processing and cold-storage businesses from the days of the ranchos, but most of its warehouses and factories were abandoned. In the late 1970s, a lone Chinese family spotted potential in the area, with its dense network of freeways leading to the Southland’s ports and airports. Charlie Woo and his three brothers started a toy import-export business, and encouraged customers to become competitors by leasing space in the Woos’ newly acquired warehouses. “People thought we were crazy to enter this blighted area and then to promote competition,” says Shu Woo, one of the brothers, “but we wanted to create a gravitational center that would draw customers in.” Today, the Woos’ several multimillion-dollar toy companies are surrounded by about 500 other toy, electronics, and novelty enterprises, which generate nearly $1 billion in annual sales.
Other new downtown business districts formed in the 1980s—a fish-processing industry, flower wholesalers, and a fashion district—creating a fascinating array of small, pastel-colored stucco facilities under the bright California sky. As Los Angeles slipped into recession in the early 1990s, Central City East enjoyed one of the best growth rates in the city—and achieved it against enormous odds. Residents of the sidewalk encampments defecated on the new enterprises’ doorsteps, set up heroin-shooting galleries outside, and jeered owners’ efforts to clean up the sidewalks. Only the most intrepid employees were willing to work there. Many prospective hires, arriving for job interviews, simply drove on by.
The city government did little to nurture these pioneering entrepreneurs and usually opposed their interests in favor of the burgeoning homelessness complex. Periodically, the anguish of Central City East’s employers and workers would inspire a local police captain to try to bring order to the streets, but the efforts always proved short-lived.
In 1987, for example, Police Chief Daryl Gates announced plans to enforce the city’s defunct ordinance against sleeping, lying, or sitting on the sidewalk, setting off a firestorm within Mayor Tom Bradley’s administration and outside of it. Actor Martin Sheen penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times yoking the sidewalk law to America’s “useless nuclear arsenal” and worldwide starvation. Gates received “stinging letters,” he says, from the West Side, Los Angeles’s sylvan enclave for Hollywood moguls and other titans. “I told the writers, ‘If you want the homeless to pitch a tent, I’ll give them your address. If you’re so anxious, let them camp in Brentwood.’ ” No one took him up on the suggestion.
Gates’s enforcement effort resulted in a 20 percent crime drop in the first month and a total cessation of homicides over two months—a “world record for us,” according to a local commander. The city had passed out housing vouchers to anyone who would take them and created a tent city where people could get assistance with jobs (almost no one accepted the job offers). Nevertheless, the sidewalk policing initiative fell before elite opinion. Lawlessness returned to Skid Row.
A pattern in the advocates’ efforts soon emerged: the more the government and philanthropy spent on helping the homeless, the louder the charge that nothing was being done. By now, public and private entities have spent $350 million on homeless housing downtown without quieting the activists.
In 1999, the doyenne of downtown homeless agitators, Alice Callaghan, picketed the opening of a Skid Row drop-in center providing people with showers, a place to sit or lie down, and various services that would start them on the path to rehabilitation. Callaghan, an ex-nun and ordained Episcopal priest, likened the 24-hour facility to an “internment camp.” The problem? A drop-in center reinforces the idea that “anyone still on the street is on the street by choice and not because of a lack of options,” she told Mother Jones magazine in 2001. “The language of rehab and programs and community is the velvet glove on a puritanical and punitive fist,” she added.
The exertions of the homelessness industry long ago passed into the realm of the surreal. Estela Lopez, director of Skid Row’s business improvement district, the Central City East Association (CCEA), had to negotiate in a judge’s chambers the arcane question of whether feces in a plastic bag constitute “property.” Defending the property label were lawyers from the prestigious law firm Morrison & Foerster, who, along with the ACLU, had sued CCEA over its efforts to remove encampment detritus from the sidewalks in front of members’ businesses.
On Skid Row, such efforts at cleanliness take on titanic significance. In 2006, CCEA concluded that its usual street sweeping couldn’t keep up with the area’s filth and disease. To help business owners fulfill their legal obligation to keep the sidewalks in front of their properties clean, the association would hire a power-cleaning truck to wash the pavement. (The resulting runoff was anticipated to be so toxic that CCEA also paid to vacuum it up before it poured into the storm drains.) The association sent out notices for two days in advance, asking encampment residents to pack their possessions up during the operation, after which they would be free to return to the same spot on the sidewalk.
Abuse! cried the advocates, who showed up en masse to protest. Sidewalk cleaning was another tactic, they said, in the “criminalization of homelessness,” a ubiquitous slogan used to discredit any effort to apply rules and laws evenhandedly in areas colonized by vagrants. A member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker movement lay down under the cleaning truck to block its advance. “If you see street cleaning in any other neighborhood, you don’t see [a] police presence,” groused Becky Dennison of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA Can). Dennison is right: police don’t routinely accompany street cleaners elsewhere. But only on Skid Row have psychotic drug addicts, whom the police have been prevented from removing to safer quarters, been known to attack the workers.
When Police Chief William Bratton took control of the LAPD in late 2002, vowing to clean crime out of Skid Row through the application of Broken Windows policing, the ACLU launched a litigation war to stop him. For the advocates, the stakes had never been higher. A few developers had started converting empty office buildings in adjacent areas of downtown to lofts; the activists seized on this revitalization of Los Angeles’s historic core as proof that the evil capitalists were seeking to afflict the poor. In March 2003, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the department’s efforts to track down the hundreds of violent parole violators and absconders in Skid Row encampments who were driving up violent crime. And in an even more ambitious lawsuit, Jones v. City of Los Angeles, the ACLU charged that application of the city’s ordinance against sleeping or lying on the sidewalk violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The majority of a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel agreed in April 2006, and the police halted their mostly desultory efforts to enforce the sidewalk law. The ACLU handed out leaflets on the Jones decision to encampment residents, some of whom waved them tauntingly in police officers’ faces. Skid Row got worse than anyone could have imagined.
Enter Andrew Smith. He had become captain of Central Division, the police jurisdiction responsible for Skid Row, in April 2005, determined to “change the culture of chaos,” as he put it. Smith had no doubt that the anarchy did not represent an unavoidable consequence of poverty, as the advocates alleged. “People were here because they chose not to conform to ordinary standards of behavior and the laws of the land,” he says.
Smith’s ambitions required a lot of additional officers. The area represented the “granddaddy of all order maintenance problems,” says Chief Bratton. The department’s perennial manpower shortage, however, as well as the ongoing litigation over police power, forced Smith to put his plans on hold. Instead, he organized a demonstration project for Main Street, where a homeless colony was strangling a nascent commercial and residential rebirth. Smith assigned existing officers to foot beats, put up security cameras, and started enforcing the narcotics laws and, to a very limited extent, the ordinance against sleeping on the sidewalk. The encampments disappeared; legitimate street life arose in its place.
The advocates struck back. Officer Lenny Davis walks Main Street; like all Skid Row cops, he often has a shadow. LA Can, the most radical antipolice outfit on Skid Row, sends out its members to film the police. Davis never knows when a videographer will trail him, or when a specious complaint, filed by someone coached by the activists, might hit him. “Our back is against the wall,” he says in frustration. “We don’t know what to do to make them stop making complaints.” Yet despite thousands of hours of accumulated tape, LA Can has yet to publicize any footage showing the police abuse that it and the ACLU allege is so common.
Finally, in September 2006, Smith got the additional officers he needed. A graphic series on Skid Row by a Los Angeles Times columnist in late 2005 and a widely publicized video of a hospital ambulance abandoning a mentally ill patient to the streets gave Bratton the political cover to assign an entire graduating class of 50 new recruits to the area. Crucial support came from the city attorney and the local councilwoman, both of whom bucked Los Angeles political traditions to fight for sanity in Central City East. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa broke with his own past as president of the ACLU of Southern California to back the cleanup. Even though the ACLU litigation was still tying the city up in legal knots, Chief Bratton signaled the go-ahead for the Safer City Initiative (SCI).
Four mornings a week, Safer City squads blanket Skid Row’s most intractable blocks. Much of their effort targets quality-of-life issues—discouraging public drinking and littering, stopping sales of counterfeit merchandise, nabbing illegal dumpers. “The key to SCI is perception,” Smith says. “Do people feel comfortable coming down here? We talk to the homeless and ask them what still needs to be done.” When SCI began, the sanitation department was picking up six tons of trash dumped illegally on the streets every day; by August 2007, that amount was down to two tons. Some of that garbage comes from misguided do-gooders, who hourly drive into the neighborhood to unload bags of clothing and unneeded food onto the sidewalk before making as fast a getaway as possible. “If I see one more plate of salad next to someone’s turd, I’ll kill someone,” laments a City Hall aide who has worked to clean up the area.
Because of the Jones litigation, the police department allows nighttime encampments but asks people to pack up their belongings in the morning. Despite the brouhaha over sidewalk enforcement, the department has arrested only a handful of the most recalcitrant campers who set up in front of restaurants or new businesses and refuse to leave. Every one of those arrestees—if he has no recent history of violence—gets the option of shelter and services as an alternative to jail, as is true of every other misdemeanor offender on Skid Row. But few of them qualify, since most have violent records; even fewer accept the services; and a vanishingly small number complete the 21-day alternative to jail time.
Yet the mere possibility of enforcement has had a major effect. In September 2006, there were 1,876 people sleeping on the street and 518 tents; in early June, there were 700 people and 315 tents. “We’ve broken the back of the problem,” says Bratton. “We’re controlling behavior with the ability just to move people along. You need to interrupt the cycle where they never leave and collect mountains of stuff in a very short time.” The police no longer find dead bodies in the tents, rotting unnoticed for days or weeks.
Measured by crime statistics alone, the Safer City Initiative’s results have been remarkable. Major felonies on Skid Row plummeted 42 percent in the first half of 2007, the largest decrease in all of Los Angeles. There were 241 fewer victims of violent crime in that period. In downtown as a whole, the murder rate dropped over 75 percent. This crime drop has coincided with the decline in the street population, suggesting that the encampment dwellers weren’t engaged exclusively in “life-sustaining activities,” as the majority in the Jones decision foolishly put it. But other markers of social progress have improved as well. Drug overdose and natural deaths were down over 50 percent through June 2007; emergency medical incidents requiring EMS response were down 17 percent.
The Safer City Initiative has also worked with stepped-up narcotics enforcement. The increased arrests under SCI allowed the police to move up the organization chart of the ruthless Fifth and Hill heroin gang, which operated out of Skid Row; SCI cameras caught the license numbers of Fifth and Hill middlemen, leading to the crucial March 2007 takedown of gang kingpins.
Though the advocates refuse to budge from their untruths about police abuse of the homeless, the homeless themselves know better. If the Safer City Initiative were in fact the travesty that the elite cop-haters claim, the reception that Commander Smith and his officers get when they travel the streets of Skid Row would be far different from the love fest that currently greets them.
As Smith drives down Fifth Street, a toothless man shouts out: “Hey, man!” and walks up to Smith’s squad car to give him a fist-to-fist handshake. “Where are you?” the elderly alcoholic asks. “I’m everywhere, Larry,” Smith responds. Larry mumbles something about Smith’s recent promotion from captain to commander, and concludes, “Way to go, Smith!” Farther down the block, another bedraggled man leaves his post at a wall and accosts Smith: “How’s your father doing?” he asks. Smith spots another acquaintance. “Mr. Jackson! Hello, Mr. Jackson. How many watches you got on?” Mr. Jackson presents his scrawny wrist: “I got on four,” he replies proudly. You can’t get far on Skid Row without encountering a young woman with sunburned cheeks, pale eyes, and deeply chapped lips, who spends her days circling the area. She flags Smith’s car down. “Hey, how you been?” she asks, slurring her words. The two engage in a surreal exchange about the woman’s pet white mouse, which she concludes by volunteering: “I’m going to stay on drugs for a while.”
There are several things to notice about Smith’s interactions. First, many of his greeters should be receiving mental health care but are too ill to seek it. The police would love to secure them that assistance but cannot, thanks to the advocates’ ongoing campaign against involuntary commitment. In fact, when officers call an ambulance to help deranged and severely ill people get physical care, chances are that LA Can’s cameras will switch on, accompanied by charges of “harassing the homeless.” Second, unlike the advocates, Smith knows the names of the homeless, because he has spent so much time trying to improve their lot by enforcing standards of behavior and getting rid of the criminals in their midst. Third, if Smith’s officers were acting thuggishly, Smith wouldn’t enjoy such a procession of goodwill.
But no need to work from inferences. It’s easy enough to observe the cops themselves doing their work. Deon Joseph has devoted the last nine years of his life to fighting the forces of lawlessness on Skid Row, a battle he records eloquently on the LAPD blog. As this massively muscled, low-key officer ambles down San Julian Street, once the heart of Skid Row decadence, he encounters a pretty young woman with a bike. “I’ve been avoiding you,” she says sheepishly. Joseph had put her into a housing program, but she absconded. “When I was in the program, it added value to my life. I had a TV, a DVD player, but I got bored.” Joseph inquires if she has drugs on her and asks to see her fingertips, which tell whether someone is using crack cocaine or selling it. “I’m going to give you a second chance,” he says. “If you see me on the street—and this is real—don’t be afraid to holler on me, because I know people make mistakes.”
A string of elderly ladies in wheelchairs are drinking out of paper bags. In response to Joseph’s question about the contents of her bag, a senior citizen with three nose rings replies: “I ain’t drinking no beer, I’m drinking whisky. You caught me slippin’.” Joseph takes a beer from a man’s hand and pours it out. “There’s no drinking in public on my block. It’s how I keep crime down.” The drinkers accept this intervention without protest.
The people who would most benefit from observing this complex web of formal authority and personal connectedness are L.A.’s liberal judges, who demonstrate complete ignorance about how the police operate in a community like Skid Row. Officers’ rapport with addicts and the mentally ill has no counterpart in the anti-cop bar and its supporters. Only the police are out there every day, trying to nudge people who have fallen out of normal society back into it, and putting themselves (and their families) at risk of infectious disease in doing so. The cops know the rhythms of the sidewalk: that people lying there in 110-degree heat are selling dope, or crashing from a cocaine binge, or drinking, not enduring the unjust conditions of poverty.
Officer Joseph passed out hundreds of flyers for work at a Long Beach plant. A mere four people sought jobs there; the rest preferred to stay on welfare. Still, he’s currently negotiating with the owners of a massive downtown development project, L.A. Live, for additional job offers. Joseph spends hours away from his family writing police reports to educate judges and district attorneys about the connections between street disorder and crime. “I put in everything I know, and then in several minutes they plead it out,” he says wearily.
As the Safer City Initiative progresses, the advocates of disorder are running scared. “Today, Skid Row’s streets are strangely empty,” opined Ramona Ripston, the executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, in April 2007. Actually, what was “strange” was the chaos that had engulfed them just months previously. And so the homeless activists are preparing what they hope will be the deathblow to SCI, and to the Broken Windows theory behind it.
For this final push, the unreality of antipolice propagandizing has reached record levels. A new lawsuit against the police filed by Carol Sobel, an attorney who has made a career of suing the police for the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild, charges that low-income Skid Row residents have become prisoners in their own homes because of a police “war” against them. Sheer nonsense. It was the drug carnival before SCI that held Skid Row’s law-abiding tenants hostage in their apartments; the dismantling of that free-for-all has liberated the hardworking poor, the elderly, and the infirm to use the area’s public spaces. And many of the people who remain on the streets want more policing, not less. Jimmy, a middle-aged convict from Alabama with a self-confessed “violent temper,” says he has “seen a lot of things change” since getting out of prison in 2003 for attempted murder. As he stands on San Julian Street with a group of other loafers on a hot August afternoon, he observes: “There’s less crime, women are not getting harassed the way they used to.” But Jimmy has some advice for the police: “They need to be here in the middle of the month; they are missing some things that are going on.” As for Sobel’s charge that no one dares use the streets for fear of the police, the most cursory tour through Skid Row reveals that, though the worst of the encampments are gone, plenty of people—like Jimmy—feel perfectly safe to loiter all day and night on the sidewalks.
A parallel ACLU lawsuit repeats the false claim that the police have a policy of stopping and violently searching people for no reason at all. One of the area’s fiercest police foes has unwittingly refuted this claim. Casey Horan, director of a facility for the mentally ill, told the Los Angeles Times in August 2006 that 90 percent of the people on the street were engaging in misdemeanor crime. Far from harassing innocent people, in other words, the police ignore the vast majority of violations on Skid Row, which occur nonstop. The accusations against the police that the ACLU solicited for its suit from street people, often unnamed, are absurd on their face. They are contradicted in the record by numerous other homeless individuals and service providers testifying to compassionate, lawful police behavior. “The LAPD contacts me several times a day,” says a six-year resident of the Gladys Street sidewalk. “They ask me how I’m doing and if I am okay. They are my friends and they are good to me.” Yet a federal judge, Dean Pregerson, has already ruled provisionally in favor of the ACLU on the flimsiest of grounds.
What may be the most lethal assault on Skid Row policing, however, is only now revving up. For months, UCLA law professor Gary Blasi pelted Commander Smith with demands for all e-mails, transcripts, and supervisory notes relating to SCI, as well as for reams of police data. (The demands stopped only when Smith told Blasi that he’d have to come to Central Division and make copies of the material himself, because officers were spending too much time on his requests.) Blasi is preparing to charge that the enforcement of misdemeanor laws on Skid Row is discriminatory and ineffective. A centerpiece of his argument is that, as of summer 2007, the SCI squads had made only 16 arrests for violent crime. Therefore, Blasi’s reasoning goes, they’re not targeting real crime but merely trying to “ethnically cleanse” downtown to make way for gentrification.
Blasi’s complaint strikes at the heart of the Broken Windows theory, for he is attacking the validity of going after low-level lawlessness, such as public drinking or graffiti, to reduce crime and the fear of crime. For the advocates, observes Chief Bratton, “any arrest that isn’t for a felony is per se harassment.” But the enforcement of laws relating to civil behavior—mostly through warnings, rather than arrests or citations—has been essential to undercutting the identity of Skid Row as a place beyond ordinary rules of human conduct. Says Officer Joseph: “The idea that because people were homeless, they had a right to break ‘minor’ laws . . . has led to nothing but death, disease, and despair.” Equally important, misdemeanor enforcement has driven away drug dealers, who can no longer hang out all day, littering and jaywalking.
Sadly, the influential are listening to Blasi. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, whose 2005 series on Skid Row galvanized the city, wrote a Blasi-inspired column in August denouncing the enforcement of jaywalking laws on Skid Row. Lopez quoted President George W. Bush’s homelessness “czar,” Philip Mangano, who ludicrously called Safer City “shameful,” based on no knowledge of Skid Row or of the police’s efforts to salvage it. Blasi’s research has also made waves among Mayor Villaraigosa’s aides at City Hall. L.A.’s crime drop—including that of Skid Row—stands as the sole accomplishment of the scandal-plagued mayor’s administration, but Villaraigosa’s advocate roots may yet prove a stronger lure.
The city’s policymakers should be under no illusions: if they dismantle the Safer City Initiative, the only people they’ll help are drug dealers and other street criminals. SCI has improved the lot of Central City East’s workers, of course, but the greatest beneficiaries have been the homeless. “The police have really improved things,” explains street habitant Kharo Brown. “The crack is thinning out. It is getting really hard to find. Crack doesn’t have a conscience. These people do crazy things on crack”—including attacking Brown. More subtly, Commander Smith and his officers have changed the area’s culture. This year, for instance, when volunteers delivered Christmas food baskets to every poor SRO tenant, street residents didn’t harass them.
The Safer City Initiative is about not poverty but behavior. “I don’t care if 125 people are hanging out on San Julian if they are obeying the law,” says Deon Joseph. Nor is it about lack of housing. The advocates will deny to their last breath the reality of “shelter resistance”—that is, the refusal of vast numbers of the homeless to take advantage of shelter and other housing options. The advocates have crafted a host of logical sophistries to dismiss the phenomenon, which anyone can test for himself by offering the homeless a place for the night or by asking the formerly homeless why they didn’t get off the streets. Here’s what you’ll hear: “I didn’t want help because I didn’t want to conform to the rules,” in the words of Ken Williams, who came from Long Beach to Skid Row a decade ago to indulge his crack and alcohol habit.
The inevitable next lawsuit will be a terrible waste of resources. “It’s unending,” says a city attorney. “We don’t have 500 attorneys to put on these ACLU attacks.” Regardless of the outcome of the suit, it will slow down the progress made to date. “Every time we get sued, it sets us back,” says Joseph. “It makes officers unsure of what they can do and creates confusion where criminals fester.”
Skid Row is hardly a paradise. There are still sights that you would never see elsewhere in the city; apart from the devoted businesses, it remains in some ways a world apart. Spend time there and you start to wonder which is real: the world of responsibilities fulfilled and discipline adhered to, or the world where you can watch months and years go by from a perch on the pavement. Yet the overall improvement of Skid Row is one of the greatest vindications to date of the power of policing to improve lives. It would be a tragedy if the advocates succeeded in reversing that success.
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