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Joy is permitted on Fridays

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Thirteen-year-old Kevin Cedano steps onto the stoop of the Ohio Hotel.

"Watch out for the doo-doo."

The words tumble out through the peach fuzz on Kevin's upper lip. They come with no hint of judgment, or pain. He might as well be warning you about a pothole or a low-lying tree branch, though the deposit has been left outside his home, and not by a dog but a woman in a blue cardigan who is now toddling off down Ceres Avenue in Los Angeles.

Kevin lives on skid row, where the streets, despite the recent efforts of the Los Angeles Police Department, remain littered with the detritus of failure and addiction and poverty -- half-eaten cans of baked beans; spilled suitcases; the occasional corpse.

It seems almost frivolous to worry about playtime. But kids must be kids, even here. So over the last two months, city officials, skid row advocates and police have hatched a plan that seems radical only here: to let children play in a park, once a week.

For as long as anyone can remember, tiny Gladys Park has been ceded to grown-ups.

These days, scores of homeless people and addicts gather there in relative peace, to sleep, to play cards. But at times, the park has degenerated into a "crime orgy," said LAPD Officer Deon Joseph, who has spent 10 years patrolling skid row. Not long ago, a heroin enterprise left behind piles of colored balloons used to package drugs.

Now, on Friday afternoons, a phalanx of police cars pulls up to the park shortly after noon.

Adults are cleared out. Officers pick over every blade in the tiny section of grass, on a hill overlooking a colorful mural and six palm trees, to make sure there aren't any stray syringes. Then they open the green iron gates, this time for kids only.

"They don't have any place to play," Joseph said. "This is one place for them to come and get away from everything."

There is a greater sense of community on skid row than one might think: a three-on-three basketball tournament, street-side domino rivalries between old friends.

Still, the district's 50 square blocks are believed to be home to 400 registered sex offenders and 3,000 people on probation or parole for violent crimes or drug charges. According to some estimates, though no one knows for sure, half the residents have some form of mental illness. Just a few blocks from Kevin's hotel, there is a woman known to all as the Doctor because she can find a vein for intravenous drugs when even the most hardened junkie has given up.

Authorities concluded long ago that this was no place for a kid to grow up. But even though hundreds have been relocated in recent years, there are still at least 150 children on skid row. For many, the future is dark.

Kevin's parents met at the Ohio Hotel; both work there, his mother at the front desk and his father as a handyman of sorts. It is the only home Kevin has ever known.

The $100-a-week hotel is hidden away in a forbidding pocket of skid row known as the Bottoms, away from most missions and social services agencies. There are few commercial enterprises in the area other than seafood distributors; on hot days, the streets smell like squid.

Conditions at the Ohio have improved in recent years, but city documents filed during a recent review of the district's 40-odd residential hotels alleged drug deals, "nightly fights" and "used condoms in the bathroom."

Even now, a hand-written sign next to the front desk, just a few feet from Kevin's apartment, is meant to ward off troublemakers: "Sí, su visita es problemática." Yes, your visit causes a problem.

Outside, it's no better.

"¡Todos son animales!" a tiny, hunched woman, clearly mentally ill, screamed at Kevin one recent afternoon after he walked outside. "You're all animals!"

Every day, Kevin is besieged from the moment he steps outside. People want him to try heroin or sell crack, or they just want a quarter. He's been thrown to the ground and beaten by young men incensed that he won't join their gang.

"I have to just let myself get beat up," he says softly, staring at his shoes. "If I fight back, I will change. Isn't that right?"

Still, he earns decent grades at Hollenbeck Middle School. His specialty is math; he's taking algebra and recently got an A. He serves as an interpreter so his parents can speak with building inspectors. He wants to play football in high school. He fills notebooks with sketches of TV characters and he's hand-written a two-volume story about a man who protects the world despite losing his memory in battle.

Relegated to playing alone on the roof of his building, Kevin has long been desperate for a place to run and, he acknowledged, for friends. But he was skeptical of the park program. He'd been burned before.

Five years ago, when he was 7, he was hauled before a bank of news cameras while city officials promised to bring an unprecedented wave of community support and family services into skid row. Standing next to him at the news conference was then-City Council member Antonio Villaraigosa, who pledged to clean up -- "not just talk about it, as we are known to do, but do something."

"They didn't do nothing," Kevin said recently. "So I'm going to have to see this with my own eyes."

One Friday in January, the gates of Hollenbeck Middle School opened; a sea of 2,300 children in white shirts and dark blue pants spilled out. Most boarded buses along Soto Street to ride into Boyle Heights. Kevin shuffled down the block to Whittier Boulevard to catch the No. 18 bus back toward skid row.

The bus crested the 6th Street Bridge over the Los Angeles River. City Hall came into view, and the brilliant afternoon sun cascaded off the glass towers of downtown L.A.

He got off at 6th Street and Central Avenue, crossed on foot through an industrial area and then neared home, stepping over an abandoned high-heeled shoe and past an old man sifting through a dumpster, singing to himself.

Kevin walked into the park. Inside were five police officers, four park counselors -- and seven kids. Kevin made eight.

It's not easy, officials have found, convincing kids who've been effectively home-bound that they can suddenly start playing outside.

"What are you up to?" asked Officer Stephen Nichols, 49, an 11-year LAPD veteran and one of the officers overseeing the program.

"Nothing," Kevin said quietly.

"Well," Nichols said, "hang out for a while. This is your park."

Kevin plopped down on a bench, not bothering to take off his backpack, not convinced that there was anything for him here.

Soon, a few more kids filed in, then more, until there were 65 kids inside, a few whom Kevin knew from school.

Someone started a blacktop soccer game.

"Hey, little man, you want in this game?" a parks worker asked him.

"Nah," Kevin said. "I'm good."

He stood and watched for 20 minutes. It seemed, for a moment, that he might have forgotten how to play, how to be a kid.

Suddenly, he dropped his backpack to the ground and walked toward the game.

A kid pointed toward one of the goals. Kevin assumed the post, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his sweat shirt.

He deflected one shot off the outside of his right foot, but a second shot sailed between his legs. Then another.

"¡En tu masca!" shouted the lanky boy who scored the goals. It's a colloquialism they use to one-up one another; it translates loosely to "In your face."

Kevin allowed himself a smile, put the ball in front of him, passed to a teammate and took off toward the other goal.

Around him, children were squealing and tumbling, and balls were flying through the air. The sun was starting to set. Outside the gates, the streets were heating up; it would soon be another night on skid row. But inside, at least for the moment, it looked like any other park, and Kevin looked like any other kid.

scott.gold@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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