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SKID ROW : ‘Containment Strategy’ of Aiding Residents, Easing Impact on Business District Is Slow and Frustrating

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Lucy hadn’t heard about the strategy for downtown.

Beside a small pile of belongings, the young, homeless woman was curled up on an Olive Street stoop a few doors from the stately Biltmore, which is undergoing a $200-million refurbishment and office tower addition. Across the street, workers were tearing down a building to make way for a new skyscraper. Around the corner on 5th Street, the $1-billion Central Library restoration and office project is planned.

Lucy seems out of place in this booming area of the business district, where office workers throng the streets at noon.

But like many people downtown, Lucy would rather be in the office district than on Skid Row, the 44-block expanse of poverty on the east side of the Central City that is home to an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 residents. Lucy said she feels safer near the Biltmore. “I sleep at the park,” she said, gesturing toward Pershing Square.

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For years there has been concern about the effect that wandering street people like Lucy have on the image of the business district. Eight years ago, Mayor Tom Bradley and the City Council approved a massive redevelopment plan that envisioned a lively, 24-hour downtown with thousands of new residents and an emphasis on pedestrian activity. The presence of wandering street people, which one advisory panel of business and community representatives said “implies physical decay and despair,” was seen as a major threat to the scheme.

To address the problem, the city came up with what some now call the “containment strategy” for Skid Row--a two-pronged effort to push Skid Row east, away from the business district, and upgrade housing, services and job opportunities there to reduce the need for street people to wander about in search of food, money and shelter.

The containment plan was a pragmatic--and some would argue humane--attempt by city and business leaders to manage the problems of the downtown poor. It was an official recognition that the unemployed, the mentally and physically disabled, the bag ladies, the alcoholics and the hustlers who make up Skid Row represent a complex cancer of human need that cannot be cut out with a bulldozer’s blade.

But addressing those needs and reducing the impact of Skid Row on the business district has been a slow, at times frustrating enterprise. After eight years, millions of dollars in investment and an expansion of social services, Skid Row remains a miserable place and street people still fan out through the business district and Civic Center in search of shelter and money.

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The growth in the homeless population, as well as a tough group of street “predators” and drug dealers, has complicated efforts to deal with Skid Row, as has political bickering over which government agency should pick up the tab for services.

At the same time, as redevelopment efforts spread beyond Bunker Hill, the plan for a large, safe haven for the poor in Skid Row is feeling the squeeze of new construction and business activity.

Skid Row social workers fear that the bulldozer may be coming after all and have launched a lobbying campaign to secure the area’s borders.

The booming Little Tokyo district is pushing at Skid Row’s northern edge; the fish-processing industry is growing to the east; a wholesale toy industry is filling many storefront shops within Skid Row, and the city is preparing to drive a wedge of major new development along Main Street, between the west side of Skid Row and the office district.

Once business activity and development begin to break down the negative perceptions about an area like Skid Row, it is “subject to economic pressures that it can’t, over the long term (resist),” said George Rand, a UCLA professor of urban planning who has studied downtown Los Angeles.

Saving the 65 old hotels that form a large pool of some of the cheapest housing in the county--and indeed explain why Skid Row is where it is--is the paramount concern of advocates for the poor. They fear many of the hotels on Skid Row’s borders could be gobbled up by new construction, shrinking the size of the community and ultimately forcing many residents to compete for cheap housing in other areas of the city.

While the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency has committed $10 million to saving hotels in the middle of Skid Row, officials acknowledge that the CRA probably won’t be able to preserve all the 6,000 units in the area. Many need major investments to meet earthquake safety standards, and making those improvements is likely to become less attractive to hotel owners as new development creates opportunities for other uses of their land.

‘The Critical Question’

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“Whether (the effort to save Skid Row) can happen fast enough, before people undercut it, is the critical question,” said Alice Callaghan, director of Las Familias del Pueblo, a service organization that helps families with children relocate away from Skid Row. “If other things begin to happen in Skid Row before you have secured all of the housing, then you’re setting the stage for tearing down the housing.”

One of the biggest threats to Skid Row--officially designated Central City East--is Little Tokyo’s commercial and residential growth. Downtown Councilman Gilbert W. Lindsay, who is strongly pro-development and an important voice in Central City decisions, wants to let Little Tokyo expand south of 3rd Street, Skid Row’s northern border.

“There’s a new city over there, and they’re blocked in and can’t go any further,” Lindsay said of Little Tokyo. “They need to expand. . . . Let the Little Tokyo community move down there, and they’ll rebuild it in a matter of 18 months.”

At the request of a Little Tokyo developer, Lindsay recently sought to amend downtown redevelopment plans to permit luxury condominiums in the northern part of Skid Row--a proposal that advocates for the poor saw as a direct assault on the 8-year-old plan to keep Skid Row a mix of light industrial and low-income residential uses. The CRA quietly persuaded Lindsay to postpone the proposal while another site for the condominiums is sought.

Lindsay, who said the Skid Row plan is not “worth a nickel,” has drawn considerable criticism by calling for creation of a large poor farm--possibly in Saugus--where Skid Row residents and services could be voluntarily relocated. “They could get the work they need. . . . They would get fresh air and a better life and soon they would be rehabilitated back into the mainstream,” the councilman said.

Mayor’s Re-Evaluation

Bradley, too, appears to be re-evaluating the downtown strategy.

Bradley said he sees potential for commercial growth in the north part of Skid Row. “The area to the north of 5th Street is going to be available for development,” he told The Times. The mayor also said he wants a fresh look at the downtown strategy. Bradley said he wants a clearer plan for “making the (redevelopment) move east” across the Central City and will appoint a new task force to review the city’s efforts.

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Jim Wood, chairman of the redevelopment commission and the mayor’s chief strategist on Skid Row, was more direct. He said Bradley “wants things to happen. He’s prepared to give (the redevelopment agency) a chance to demonstrate we can balance these (competing business and preservation) interests.

“But in the absence of that, I think he’s going to get as militant as Gil (Lindsay)” in favor of allowing commercial development to proceed on its own course, Wood said.

Concerned about development pressures, Skid Row activist Callaghan and Jill Halverson of the Downtown Women’s Center are trying to speed up and expand the Skid Row hotel preservation effort. With a promise of CRA financing assistance, the women are seeking churches and temples that will buy the buildings, bring them up to code and operate them.

Hotel Owners Leery

However, some hotel owners are anticipating new development and higher land values and don’t want to sell, Callaghan said. “Even the talk of Little Tokyo moving has already impacted the housing,” she said.

Losing the hotels doesn’t bother Lindsay. “I’m not trying to save them. They’re a disgrace to the city of Los Angeles and hellholes to live in,” he said.

But the city’s redevelopment agency has already poured tens of millions of dollars into Skid Row, and Bradley has insisted that the result has been “a fantastic amount of progress.”

Nearly 600 low-cost Skid Row housing units and 500 shelter beds have been built or rehabilitated in recent years. Another 1,000 shelter beds and hotel units are in various stages of refurbishment and development. The nonprofit Single Room Occupancy Housing Corp., which the redevelopment agency created to spearhead the housing improvement drive, hopes to have one-third of Skid Row’s hotel units under its control in the next five years.

The CRA-created, nonprofit Skid Row Development Corp. has developed two light industrial centers, which are intended to create local jobs and generate funds to help pay for operations of emergency shelters.

Emphasis Questioned

While the CRA’s approach has received praise from many Skid Row activists, some complain privately that the agency has emphasized expensive and high-profile projects that may not reach many of the neediest. For example, some have questioned how many jobs will actually be created for area residents.

The Skid Row Development Corp.'s first, $1.5-million light industrial center has about 100 workers. Martha Brown Hicks, president of the corporation, estimated that less than 30 new jobs went to Skid Row residents.

A second, $2.7-million light industrial project was opened recently, and Bradley proudly told the dedication audience and the news media that 60% of the expected 300 jobs in the building would go to Skid Row residents. But in an interview, Hicks revealed that that figure is probably not realistic and that the proportion of jobs ultimately held by Skid Row residents will probably be closer to 30%. “There are a lot of success stories, but that is not the majority,” she said. “It’s a tough population to get employed and have any rate of retention.”

The agency has also assisted private service organizations obtain facilities.

Relocation of Mission

A major piece of the containment effort is CRA’s plan to relocate the Union Rescue Mission several blocks south and east, away from Main Street. The mission, one of the largest private shelters in the area, attracts large crowds of homeless each day into an area near the Civic Center where the Bradley Administration hopes to stimulate new development with a huge new state office building and other new public and private investment.

Some Skid Row activists who once endorsed the containment concept, however, now fear that it may be inadequate. They say that increasing numbers of the Southland’s poor and homeless are ending up in Skid Row and that facilities there are overloaded.

They say the city and county must begin to develop service and housing centers in the suburbs that will reduce the pressure on the Central City area. “The policy of containment doesn’t work anymore because of the numbers of homeless,” said Gary Blasi, a legal aid attorney who represents many street people. “It worked until Reaganomics, until five or six years ago.”

“I’m dubious about a containment policy that doesn’t really address people’s fundamental needs,” the lawyer said. “How can we say we’re dealing with the problem when there are no (public) showers or toilets?”

One reason street people still wander about downtown is there are not enough shelter beds available downtown, evidenced by the long lines of people competing each day for space in missions. One recent city effort to move and re-establish a shelter ran into strong opposition from expanding Skid Row businesses whose owners claimed that it would increase crime and thwart their revitalization efforts.

Danger a Factor

Also, some street people, particularly the mentally ill, don’t appear able or willing to make use of the services that are available. Lucy, the woman living near the Biltmore, said she was released from a state mental hospital four months ago. She seemed only vaguely aware of services in Skid Row.

And, as in Lucy’s case, the danger of Skid Row, where street robberies are commonplace, pushes some out. Many observers say the situation has gotten worse in recent years as a tougher group of street people who prey on the weak has grown and as violence has accompanied increased drug dealing.

“You have a larger population for the criminal element to prey upon, which creates a larger criminal population,” said Nancy Mintie, an attorney with Skid Row’s Inner City Law Center. “It’s just too dangerous” for some people to stay in Skid Row, she said. “You’d be crazy if you weren’t scared down here.”

Police say they are doing the best they can with the manpower available. “We have officers out there making arrest after arrest after arrest, and I don’t see it going away,” said Sgt. Robert Griffin, a watch commander for six years in the Central City area.

“One of the reasons there are so many (street) people in Pershing Square is it’s probably one of the safest open places in the city,” Blasi said.

Skid Row Park

It was an effort to reduce the number of street people in Pershing Square that led to one of the most visible and embarrassing pieces of the containment plan--the $1-million Skid Row Park. The park was initially hailed as a pleasant place for Skid Row residents to gather in their own neighborhood. But it has become a grim, forbidding place, overwhelmed by the homeless who sleep on tables and cook in barbecues. In recent months, police and social workers say, a rough group of street people has dominated the park, and many of Skid Row’s poor avoid the place.

“It’s a travesty to call that thing a park,” said CRA’s Wood, after visiting the facility recently. Several days ago, police cleaned out shanties that had been built in the park, and Wood announced that he is considering asking the city to temporarily shut the park down so it can be “reclaimed.”

Haggling over which branch of government should pay for services has further complicated efforts to make Skid Row more habitable--and thus make it more likely that the poor would have their needs met there, and not wander through the rest of downtown.

The CRA has invested primarily in creating jobs, long-term housing and emergency shelters. Private funds also have been raised to pay for the operational costs of many shelters and social services.

But city officials and Skid Row activists charge that the county, which has legal responsibility for the welfare of the poor, has not shouldered its share of the costs.

County Board Reluctant

The conservative Republican majority of the county Board of Supervisors--Pete Schabarum, Mike Antonovich and Deane Dana--has no allegiance to Democrat Bradley, however, and has never fully embraced the mayor’s Skid Row strategy. The conservatives have repeatedly rejected pleas to help fund the city’s Skid Row shelters, saying the county’s general relief program, which provides monthly grants to the homeless who regularly meet job search and community service requirements, is adequate.

Claiming that the homeless are a state and national problem, the conservative supervisors have generally tried to get the mentally ill and the disabled into state and federal aid programs.

“There is an unlimited demand out there,” Schabarum said. “It seems to me the inclination is one of ‘throwing more money at the problem,’ hoping that it will go away. It won’t. As a matter of fact, it is growing.”

Critics of the board say its policies have contributed to the problems in Skid Row. Street people from all over the county are funneled to the cheap Skid Row hotels used in the county’s emergency housing program.

Once there, however, the indigents find that their county aid--$228 per month--will not pay a full month’s rent in many hotels.

Many Move Each Month

Toward the end of the month many move to missions or the streets.

At any given time, thousands of others have had their aid cut off for 60 days because they failed to meet eligibility requirements, a practice that has been criticized by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury and advocates for the poor.

Supervisor Ed Edelman, a liberal whose district includes Skid Row and who has contributed some of his own district funds to shelters in the area, said, “The question is, Are we satisfying our legal obligation (to care for the poor)? I don’t think so.”

Whether the county is meeting its obligation to care for the poor, some think that the city’s redevelopment agency must commit more money to solving Skid Row’s problems.

San Fernando Valley Councilman Ernani Bernardi, a longtime critic of the agency, said the CRA should fund shelters and other social services before it funds the large office buildings and middle-class residential projects, which it has chosen to emphasize downtown.

New Fund Created

In some recent behind-the-scenes arm-twisting, Bernardi forced the CRA to create a new $1.4-million-per-year fund to help pay for day-to-day operations of homeless shelters.

The unusual action came after Bernardi threatened to bog down the Bradley Administration’s showcase Central Library project by resurrecting an old lawsuit challenging how redevelopment funds may be used.

Wood charged that Bernardi “blackmailed” the agency and warned that the fund is a dangerous precedent because it shifts responsibility for funding shelter operations from the county to the city.

But Bernardi said: “The county is copping out. . . . All I know is I wanted that money (to help the homeless).”

Vision Threatened

Wood stresses that the CRA is committed to creating the same safe and sanitary, low-income community in Skid Row that was envisioned when the plans for downtown were drawn eight years ago.

But as one part of that plan becomes a reality--and more and more commercial development is drawn downtown--the vision of a safe haven for the poor in Central City East appears increasingly threatened.

Lee Holthaus, director of the Union Rescue Mission, predicts that Skid Row will be “quite a bit smaller” in several years.

Jeff Dietrich, an organizer of the Catholic Worker soup kitchen and longtime activist in Skid Row, thinks “it’s a losing battle. The forces we’re going up against are pretty monumental.”


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