Declaring Skid Row's sidewalk encampments "a situation that is intolerable," Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates announced Thursday that hundreds of homeless campers there had seven days to get off the streets or face arrest.
Bolstered by a statement of support from Mayor Tom Bradley, Gates said his officers posted 50 notices warning that, starting Thursday, city ordinances on sidewalk use will be enforced in the area bounded by 3rd, 7th, Alameda and Main streets.
The announced crackdown renews a controversy that erupted last February when police officers, firefighters and street maintenance workers started sweeps of the Skid Row street camps, loading clothing, furniture and other belongings into city dump trucks.
Although the previous sweeps concentrated on makeshift lean-tos, stoves and appurtenances of camp-style living, the new raids will aim at the homeless themselves.
In announcing the sweeps, Gates suggested that the sidewalk shantytowns, which have been increasing on Skid Row for three years, were responsible for a 28% increase in crime in the area in 1986.
"That community has a right to see that laws are enforced, and I'm going to enforce them," Gates said at a press conference. "I don't care what anyone says."
He has little sympathy for what he termed the "so-called homeless," Gates said. A minority are truly in need, he said, adding: "The vast majority are there because of their indulgences. . . . These people could be given a limousine ride to another area. . . . They'd come right back here. This is where they want to live."
Gates said, however, that unlike the earlier sweeps, during next week's raids, police officers "will provide vouchers for . . . single-occupancy rooms. . . . Those who are not moved by next Thursday will have the alternative of taking a chit and moving their belongings . . . or being arrested."
The Municipal Code prohibits people from keeping property on sidewalks or interfering with pedestrian traffic, according to the city attorney's office. Violations are misdemeanors punishable by a $500 fine or up to six months in jail.
However, the city attorney's office appeared to view any arrests with concern.
"We want to enforce the law also but don't feel we can enforce the law by victimizing the victims of poverty," said Reginald Dunn, chief of the criminal branch of the city attorney's office.
"The office of the city attorney will look over very carefully any cases brought to us for filing," he added. "We will not file any cases unless it is clearly demonstrated that the person arrested was notified of a viable alternative to living on the street."
Several homeless people in Skid Row camps and providers of social services condemned the action, saying the campers are not totally responsible for the increase in crime. They charged that the homeless are being blamed for the city's inability to provide alternatives to living in the street.
The director of Skid Row's Inner City Law Center, Nancy Mintie, said, "Jailing the homeless is not going to make the homeless problem go away."
Bradley said he endorsed the sweeps. "I support the LAPD's plan to clean up Skid Row," he said in a statement Thursday, adding, "My concern is to ensure that alternative shelter is available for those people who now sleep on our streets."
The mayor said he will meet with Mike Antonovich, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, and other city and county officials today "to marshal all our resources to provide shelter."
Change of Position
The mayor's change of position became part of the controversy over the February sweeps.
Bradley said he had taken part in planning the raids as a means of dismantling the camps. However, after a group of public-interest attorneys filed suit charging that the sweeps were a violation of the rights of homeless people, the mayor said he had not been involved in the raid and had confused them with another cleanup campaign.
Within a month, after a Superior Court judge ordered that the city give 12-hour notice before conducting a sweep, and the controversy failed to die down, the raids dwindled into little more than sidewalk and street washings--until now.
Sources close to the mayor said Thursday that the idea of resuming the sweeps was hotly debated at City Hall, with Bradley favoring the action, and others, including at least one of his closest advisers, warning that the raids are wrong and potentially damaging politically.
Critics of the sweeps believe that the basic issue is the lack of alternative housing available to the homeless.
Earlier this year, a study of homelessness on Skid Row done on behalf of the Community Redevelopment Agency found that about 2,100 homeless sleep in downtown shelters on an average night and that about 1,000 people were sleeping on Skid Row streets.
Andy Raubeson, executive director of the Single Room Occupancy Housing Corp., which provides 610 units in four hotels, said Thursday that he has "approximately 65" vacancies.
Less Housing Available
"If you don't have housing for 1,000 people, then how can you begin arresting them?" asked Alice Callaghan, director of Las Familias del Pueblo on Skid Row, a family service center.
Housing has decreased on Skid Row over the last few years, she said, as the Single Room Occupancy Housing Corp. has closed five hotels, with about 900 rooms, for rehabilitation. Raubeson said those rooms would be available within a year.
The issue of alternative housing, Gates said, "is not the Police Department's problem. . . . There are other agencies that have that responsibility. It's not our responsibility. My responsibility is to maintain order and peace."
The largest street encampment, with about 80 people, is on Towne Avenue, between 4th and 5th streets; 41-year-old T. Lee said he is there because "I can't find a job. And if I get a relief check, it isn't enough to pay rent in a flea-bag hotel."
Another camp member, who uses the name Karmal, said he is on the street because "there's drugs and prostitution in the hotels." The street is safer, he added.
A camp leader, Adam Bennion, said: "We'll go to jail."