Sweep of Squatters Is Given Credit for Making Skid Row Safer, Quieter and Cleaner
When the squatters were evicted from Skid Row, they took many of its problems with them, police and area business people say. Since the June crackdown on sidewalk shantytowns, police report dramatic decreases in crime and the business community raves about the “rejuvenated” look.
The streets, which once bustled with up to 1,000 people living in 13 encampments, are much quieter today, people who work in the area say. While drug dealers continue to sell from seedier street corners and unemptied trash clogs gutters in many places, most agree that the area is cleaner and safer than it was six weeks ago.
In the aftermath of the sweeps, police cite a 20% decrease in the four most common crimes as proof that the homeless contributed to a rising crime rate. Skid Row business people, who had complained loudly about the problems accompanying the influx of the homeless, express satisfaction with the transformation.
Nothing but Praise
“The change was really dramatic,” said Lauri Flack, executive director of the Central City East Assn., a group representing about 40 of the area’s businesses, mostly small wholesalers and other businesses. “I think it really improved the area surrounding the businesses, and I’ve heard nothing but praise from the owners.”
After the sweeps, the small businessmen and their employees are no longer confronted by the flood of jeers, leers, panhandling and harassment that were prevalent before, Flack said.
“I’m hearing about a lot less fear and seeing less friction,” she said.
Responding to pleas from the business community, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates announced the sweeps in May to combat the “intolerable situation” on the homeless encampments. In announcing the June crackdown, Gates linked the encampments to a 28% rise in crime and the deterioration of the area.
On June 4, after weeks of bickering and debate inside and outside City Hall, the sweeps began. By the next morning, the Skid Row shantytowns were gone. Later, Mayor Tom Bradley set up an “urban campground” nearby to help house those displaced.
Dick Merry, whose family runs Holly Sea Food on Towne Avenue, said the improvement was almost immediate. At times, the proximity of the large Towne Avenue “Love Camp” made the street unbearable, he said.
“You can’t imagine the day-to-day smell,” he said. “You couldn’t open the front door or turn on the air conditioning sometimes.”
“The streets are 100% better, no question,” said Ray Welch Sr., president of Crest Printing on the corner of 4th Street and Towne Avenue.
“Let’s face it, they hurt us,” he said. “If it stays this way, we can operate. And we want to keep it this way.”
Keeping the sidewalks clear is a primary concern for the business people, many of them fearing that the homeless may try to move back when the city’s massive outdoor shelter closes in mid-August.
“I don’t want them back on the street,” said Bill Merry, who runs W.R. Merry, a wholesale seafood business on Stanford Avenue. “They have to go someplace and I feel for them. But it’s not a good idea to have them outside a place where you sell fresh fish.”
The police promise that the shantytowns will not return. Coinciding with the sweeps, police assigned one full-time unit to patrol the area and make sure they do not.
“One thing that the people can absolutely count on is that the streets will stay as they are today,” said Police Capt. Rick Batson of the Central Division.
By removing the encampments, the opportunity for trouble in the area was reduced, he said.
“They were places that fostered and added to the crime problem in the area,” he said. “The (homeless) people were not the whole crime problem. The fact that they were out there set a climate for the increase in crime.”
Before the sweeps, crime was up 19% from August last year, Batson said. By enforcing the sidewalk ordinance, the police “set another standard of conduct,” he said.
After the sweeps, burglary, robbery and auto theft have decreased significantly, he said. And despite a 29% rise in auto burglaries, there has been a 1% total decrease in the amount of crime to date over the same period last year, Batson said.
Fewer Violent Crimes
At the same time, violent crime has taken a sharp downturn, something police say is a spinoff of the sweeps. Eighteen people have been killed on Skid Row this year compared to more than 40 the year before, Batson said. Moreover, there have been no killings in more than two months.
“That’s a world record for us,” Batson said. “We can’t remember when we’ve gone that long.”
Even some of the social service providers, many of whom fought the sweeps, agree the streets have become safer.
Clancy Imislund, director of the Midnight Mission at Los Angeles and 4th streets, said cleaning out the shantys removed the “predatory element.” The sweeps separated the “true homeless,” traditionally alcoholic and often mentally ill, from the volatile, sometimes drug-crazed “new homeless,” he said.
“The people who were sleeping on the street, the cardboard boxes, most of them were not the typical homeless--the afraid, desperate people,” said Imislund, who has worked on Skid Row for 14 years. “There is less of the young criminal element on the street.”
Many Seeking Help
While there are noticeably fewer homeless people on the streets, service providers say the demand for aid has barely diminished. At the Midnight Mission, Imislund said he continues to serve 1,500 meals and provide 140 beds a day. At the Fred Jordan Mission on the corner of Towne Avenue and 5th Street, the same 250 meals are being served daily, but there has been a modest decline in the number of guests, said Mike Greer, director of inner-city ministries.
“It hasn’t had a big effect,” he said. “Other than the overnights, we haven’t seen any change at all.”
On the other hand, Rev. Joe Hill, who runs the Emmanuel Baptist Rescue Mission on East 5th Street, said about 30 fewer attend the evening meal and service and only 40 of the 65 beds are filled each night.
But others are disturbed by what they see happening on Skid Row, charging that the homeless have been pushed underground by heavy-handed police actions.
John Dillon, director of the Chrysalis Center, a self-help organization, said the police view anybody on the street as a criminal, and as a result law-abiding poor people are “freaking out.”
“The street people, who aren’t the most stable in the first place, can’t figure out how they should react,” he said, echoing others’ concerns.
Dick Merry said he is unsure what should be done for the homeless, but knows that the business community should not bear the brunt of the problem.
“What are we supposed to do for these people?” he asked. “We know the answer wasn’t letting them sleep on the streets.”
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