Bobby Livingston, a 37-year survivor of skid row, was No. 1 on the list of people most likely to die on skid row's streets. If anyone tested the idea of offering housing with few strings, thought Project 50 director Carrie Bach, right, it would be him. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The searchers carved skid row into quadrants and advanced in small groups, aiming flashlights into the cold.

They moved between nylon tents and cardboard lean-tos in the Toy District, where junkies had stripped the streetlights and left whole blocks in darkness. They roused the human bundles scattered around the tumbledown hotels and freshly painted lofts on Main Street, wasted faces blinking into their flashlights.

They looked in the eastern section called the Bottoms, around the big missions and flea traps, and around the neighborhood's forbidding eastern edge, a zone of industrial warehouses and razor wire known as the Low Bottoms, where even now, hours before daylight, the crack trade was brisk.

The searchers, a couple dozen volunteers and Los Angeles County workers, had orders: Interview everyone living on these streets. Find out how long they've been homeless. Ask about their addictions, their mental and physical health.

Carrie Bach, a 54-year-old nurse with the Public Health Department, was leading one of the teams, a scarf around her neck and a walkie-talkie in her mittens. As her department's homelessness coordinator, she knew skid row better than most. But she felt nervous and a little naive. She had never glimpsed the Boschian tableau that materialized after the warehouses bolted their doors, after the corrugated-metal gates rolled down over the church fronts, cheap-toy outlets and fake-flower shops.

She hadn't seen the pavement scattered with bodies, the spectral shapes swaying against the cinder-block walls, the mounds of garbage screeching with rats. For some searchers, it was too much. They handed back their clipboards and went home.

The canvass marked the beginning of a two-year, $3.6-million plan, launched by county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, to find the 50 people likeliest to die on skid row's streets — the hardest of the hard cases — and house them however possible.

Scuttling decades of settled wisdom, Project 50 would not demand that they quit drugs or stop drinking. Nor would they be required to seek psychiatric help.

Rather than allow the homeless to grind endlessly through the machinery of missions, lockups and hospitals, why not just give them an apartment key? Rather than force them into treatment programs, why not settle them in a room and offer all the help they'd take?

This method, called "housing first," was meant to do more than save lives. The hard-core homeless cost taxpayers hugely in emergency services, and studies showed that putting them in apartments, with access to doctors and counselors, slashed those costs. If it worked on Los Angeles' skid row, that infamous 50-square-block netherworld sometimes called the nation's "ground zero for homelessness," it bore promise of redefining homeless policy everywhere.

As Bach searched the streets that night in December 2007, she found two worn-looking women huddled against a wall and tried in her polite, persistent way to interview them. Suddenly an angry man wearing too much jewelry was standing threateningly in her face. Later, someone explained: their pimp.

For Bach, who would soon be named the project director, much of the next year would echo that encounter: a struggle to decipher a world not her own. She was a grandmother who carried a Bible in her Buick and worked the soundboard of her Presbyterian church. She talked to God in traffic and asked forgiveness when she cursed.

She had narrowly avoided homelessness herself. Her first marriage had ended in destitution, leaving her living in a borrowed cabin in the woods near Big Bear, where she sewed clothes for her three girls and warmed their bedsheets with a skillet on cold nights. She was remarried now, to a sweet, burly man who suffered from manic- depression and took his pills religiously.

She knew she would now confront extremes of despair and uncertainty far beyond her own experience. Over nine nights, she and the other volunteers found 471 people living on the grid bounded by Main Street and Central Avenue, 3rd and 7th streets, which encompassed all but a deserted sliver of skid row. Of that number, 350 people answered detailed questions about their health, habits and psychiatric history.

The list was soon ready, the names studied and boiled down to the 50 worst cases. Many had some combination of addiction, mental illness, chronic disease, advanced age and more than six months on the streets.

Six months: That was the directive from the county chief executive's office. Find everyone on the list and get them housed in six months. In mid-January, the Project 50 team fanned out to the streets and alleys, soup kitchens and missions, clinics and storefront churches.

"Whatever it takes" would be the motto, speed the watchword.

*****

The rooms weren't much, just cell-size efficiencies in a cluster of refurbished downtown flophouses. A bed, a sink, a dresser, tile floor, and windows that overlooked dirty courtyards. Shared kitchens and bathrooms. Halls redolent of cleaning chemicals. Lobbies with vending machines and mounted televisions.