Mean Streets : Skid Row May Be Safer by Day, but Violent Crimes Continue by Night

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Albert is laid out on the sidewalk with blood streaming down his face. Next to him, a puddle of blood, astonishing in its quantity and redness, seeps toward the alley wall. Albert is almost certainly dead or dying. At least, that's the opinion of the crowd in the alley behind the Midnight Mission.

"Hey, man, he's finished," says one man, stepping squeamishly away from the flowing blood.

"No, no, he looks alive to me," says another. "See? The man's breathing."

A thin woman in a flowered dress bends over the assault victim and speaks softly, desperately, into his ear. "Talk to me, Albert," she says. "Say something."

She runs to the entrance of the alley, peering anxiously down 4th Street. Still no flashing lights, no siren. She bends over Albert again and pulls at his bloody shirt. "Say something, honey. You OK?"

The crowd of rumpled Skid Row regulars appears sympathetic, but no one knows what to do. Many are drunk, tottering around and babbling suggestions. Call the ambulance again. Put something under his head. Leave him alone.

"Just let 'em rest there for a minute, he'll be OK," somebody says.

"Don't you understand?" says the woman. "If you can make him talk, he'll be all right. You gotta make him talk."

A few feet away from Albert's motionless body, a bearded man leans lethargically against the alley wall, like a patient propped in a hospital bed. He is eating chicken from a paper container. He mutters something about the injured man. "His own fault," he suggests glumly.

It's more than the woman can take. Exploding in anger and frustration, she unleashes a stream of raw obscenities, dancing around the bearded man like butter on a hot frying pan. He continues eating his chicken.

In the dog days of summer, the sidewalks of Skid Row take on an unbathed appearance. Around the Midnight Mission, a boxy two-story building at 4th and Los Angeles streets, the sidewalks are splattered and greasy, dotted here and there with little accretions of garbage that seem to be bonding with the hot pavement.

As much as the drought-stricken chaparral at the outskirts of the city, the sidewalks seem to yearn for a cool, cleansing rain.

But Skid Row is changing, say police officers from the Central Division.

Despite its continuing bedraggled appearance, this once-lawless stretch of Downtown is becoming, from a law-enforcement point of view, just an average neighborhood, says Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Jerry Conner, the unit's commanding officer.

"You can walk any street down here right now," Conner said emphatically one recent afternoon, "and you're not going to be a victim of anything."

In the first six months of this year (through June 21), the Central Division experienced a drop of almost 7% in reported felonies, from 9,503 in the first half of 1989 to 8,864 in the same period this year. It is the greatest drop reported by any of the Los Angeles Police Department's 18 divisions.

Conner likes to carry it a step further. When it comes to the five "repressible" crimes--robbery, burglary, burglary from automobiles, theft from automobiles and auto theft--his division shows a better than 10% drop.

"No other area in the city is similar," he says proudly.

But interviews with Skid Row denizens and workers suggest that casual violence continues to be an intrinsic part of the fabric of daily--and especially nightly--life in the area.

By late afternoon, the daily tide of factory and warehouse workers in the area begins to pull back, businesses close and a shifting society of drug users, alcoholics and down-and-outers takes over the streets.

In Skid Row after dark, lawlessness, driven by anger and need, seems to come easy.

"It's a combat zone out there," says Ervin Polson, a longtime resident of a San Julian Street hotel. "Go out at night and you can be delayed, relayed, steamed and blocked."

The assault on Albert (not his real name) was just the latest in an assortment of Skid Row flare-ups on a hot Friday night. The list that day included an attack on 6th Street, with an assailant in a fatigue jacket suddenly turning on one of the regulars near the Weingart Center, cutting deep into his arm and hip with a pocket knife.

"He just came up and said, 'You stole my money last night,' " the man said, lying face down on the sidewalk, his jeans pulled down below his hips, as Fire Department paramedics swabbed the wounds.

Clearly, if things are better on Skid Row, they are better for what street criminals call "vics," the Downtown office and factory workers who have been victims of holdups and purse snatchings, not for the area's round-the-clock population.

In fact, as "repressible" crimes are dropping, crimes of violence--homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault--are either holding their own or rising. Murders, for example, are up by almost a third, from 19 for the first six months of 1989 to 25 for the first six months of this year.

"I'm not going to tell you that if you walk around 6th Street and San Pedro at 2 in the morning, you won't become a victim," says Conner, referring to one of the pockets of criminal activity and heavy drug use in the area.

But victims in the Skid Row's predatory environment are usually the homeless themselves.

"At night, it's mostly disputes between the homeless, arguments over the cocaine or the wine bottle," says Sgt. Steve Brock, patrol supervisor for the Central Division's afternoon and evening shift.

Thin-faced, unflappable Brock is the first police officer on the scene behind the Midnight Mission. He shoulders his way through the crowd and looks Albert over. "What kind of drugs was he using?" he says, directing the on-lookers to move back.

Albert's friend is outraged. "This man doesn't do anything, " she says. "He doesn't even smoke marijuana."

Brock wrinkles his nose distastefully. "Well, he's drunk," Brock says.

When paramedics finally arrive, they raise Albert to a sitting position. "Where'd they hit you, Albert?" one of the paramedics says.

The victim opens his eyes and looks around uncertainly, like Jake Lamotta after one of the Sugar Ray Robinson fights, his face mangled and bloody. The paramedics raise his shirt and check his arms, looking for wounds. All they find is a jagged gash over his eyebrow. One of them cleans Albert's face and wraps gauze around his head.

Nobody, including Albert, can remember anything about the assault, except that a man flung him down so hard that his head bounced on the pavement.

A bystander woozily appraises Albert, sitting up now with a bandage covering the top of his head. "His only problem is he drinks too much," says the bystander.

By most accounts, Skid Row is a social sink hole that exerts a kind of gravitational pull on drunks, addicts and misfits. It's easy to fall in, hard to climb out, say local homeless advocates.

"The permissiveness becomes very attractive," says Mike Neely, director of the Homeless Outreach Program (HOP), whose workers attack the AIDS plague by walking the streets, handing out bleach (to clean drug users' hypodermic needles) and condoms.

"You can spend all your money frivolously on drugs or wine," he explains. "Find a place to sleep on the sidewalk, and there's no stigma attached to it. The next day, you can eat five or six times (at free meal programs). If your clothes get ragged, you just go get some more."

HOP operates out of a 6th Street storefront, a big room with battered desks and folding chairs and a door leading onto the street. "It's kind of an extension of the street," says Neely, who, like the rest of the staff, is a former Skid Row street person.

The homeless stumble in to ask for assistance in obtaining shelter or applying for welfare. Many just come to perch for a few minutes on a chair.

A woman in a baseball jacket was there the other day, bemoaning what she said were the predatory practices of Los Angeles men.

"I don't play that way," she said, reeling slightly in her seat. "I'm from Detroit."

"How do you play it?" asked Neely.

"First of all, I don't take nothin' from no man. Nothin'. Second, if we do share something, I'm the one that buys."

Staff members looked at each other knowingly.

"I need somethin', I go jack somebody up," the woman continued. "That's right. I jack him up. First, I say please. If I don't get it, I hit him with a pipe."

Everybody in the room was, by now, sizing up the pencil-thin woman.

"See, I don't look strong, but I got body weight," she said, standing up. "I weigh 135 pounds. Put that behind a 20-pound pipe and you can do somethin'."

"Tell me this," said Neely, with a look of amused disbelief, "what kind of stuff do you smoke?"

"I don't smoke no dope," the woman said emphatically. Then she looked around sheepishly, the expression on her face conceding that she has been indulging in the bravado of a drug user. "I don't smoke dope. I shoot dope."

Lately, drugs are the all-consuming concern of much of the Skid Row population, says Neely. Around 5th Street and Crocker--the "Nickel," as locals know it--crack users smoke openly, passing lighted pipes back and forth on the sidewalks. On San Julian, heroin users duck into doorways and empty lots to inject themselves.

"I'm sick, I'm sick, I'm sick," said Ed Tolbert, a rangy man with a slight limp, who sprang off his perch on a milk crate on San Julian to cadge money from a passer-by. "I shoot drugs. That's the barometer, the spoon that stirs the coffee. It's not where my heart lies, but I've been doing it for 25 years."

Ironically, the flood of crack and heroin into the area may be helping to reduce the crime rate, Neely says, explaining that the drug users are forcing out the alcoholics. "There's a younger, stronger population here, which means there are fewer people to victimize," he says.

Nevertheless, those who work with the street population steel themselves for the Skid Row "pay days," the days when relief checks from the Department of Social Services and Social Security arrive.

With money comes drug activity, says Dennis Krueger, services coordinator at the Midnight Mission.

On July 16, the semi-monthly day that Aid For Dependent Children checks arrived, two Midnight Mission employees were robbed at knifepoint, one of them beaten and stabbed. Early the next morning on a patch of Los Angeles Street sidewalk directly in front of the mission, a 65-year-old man allegedly was stomped and kicked by 21-year-old Clyde Slaughter in a dispute over a blanket, police said.

The elderly victim, still unidentified, died last Tuesday, and Slaughter has been charged in his death.

Many crimes go unreported, say homeless advocates. "Just because they stop advertising doesn't mean it isn't happening," says Arzina Robinson, one of Neely's workers and a former street person who dropped out of the scene three years ago. "Wherever there's drugs, there's crime. People are still getting hurt or killed out here."

Robinson moves comfortably through the crowds on the Nickel, greeting old friends with hugs and hand squeezes.

"You can get trapped out here," she says. "It's real simple to stay here."

Tommy, a shirtless, shoeless man carrying a bottle of window cleanser, shuffles into the HOP office in sooty sweat socks to bum a cigarette.

"How's your shoulder?" says Neely. Tommy displays a knob on his shoulder the size of golf ball, a jutting, foreshortened piece of a damaged clavicle.

"Can't do nothing about that," Tommy says.

Someone asks how he broke the bone.

"Fell down the stairs from the third floor," he says. "It was from when they was trying to rob me. I had $7 in my pocket. Nobody's taking my money." He rubs the knob on his shoulder as if he were polishing a doorknob. "Got gangrene in the bone, and the doctors cut out three inches. They had me wrapped up like a mummy."

Tommy is a kind of walking police blotter. Besides the shoulder, he has jagged knife scars along his rib cage. "That happened eight months ago," he says. Someone stole his shoes while he slept the previous evening, he says. None of the crimes were reported to the police.

When it comes dealing with predators, street people advise, the guiding principle is: Avoid them; when they victimize you, try to forget it.

"You don't want to appear in court, because you have to live out here with these people," said Alethea Rabon, who has been living on Skid Row for 12 years.

Better yet, find safe harbor for the night in a mission or a shelter. Many street people spend most of their waking hours scheming to find, as one homeless man put it, "three hots and a cot" for the next day.

There are more than 2,200 available beds in Downtown missions and shelters, with usually an overflow clientele vying for them, even in warm weather, a spokesman for Shelter Partnership said.

Among the most prized are the 140 beds at the Midnight Mission, where residents are fed, checked for lice and given sanctuary--but never two nights in a row--on mattresses that feel as if they have been stuffed with sand.

'A lot of places have that poverty smell of disinfectant and urine," says Clancy Imislund, director of the mission. "But we take great pains to keep the place clean."

A night at the Midnight usually begins in the mission's "reading room," a large area with molded plastic chairs, where no one but a few staff members does any reading. Mostly, the frequenters just sit and wait, watching videos on a television set. All the chairs are occupied.

"The worst part of being out here is there aren't any facilities," says Canova Hubbard, a recently released state prisoner. "There's no place to go. They don't want you up on Pershing Square, and only so many people can sit in these little parks around here."

Rory Adams, the reading room's bearlike enforcer, ensures that there's no lolling in the aisles ("Find a seat there!" he booms over and over) and that people keep their shoes on. "Nobody wants to smell your feet," he says, walking through the room, spraying air purifier from an aerosol can.

"Let up for one minute and it's all over," Adams says.

At 4 o'clock, he directs the mission's diners to the alley. A half hour later, the door to the dining room is opened, and the diners are ushered in, one by one.

The Midnight Mission serves 1,650 meals a day. It's pedestrian cuisine--on this day, noodles in meat sauce, a scoop of lettuce, a cup of lemonade and a small container of yogurt--consumed in a few minutes, with no accompanying conversation.

Then the boarders, a dozen or so at a time, climb a flight of stairs to the barracks-like dormitory, where a staff member checks them for lice with an ultraviolet light. After a shower, some go immediately to bed. Others pull grooming materials out of plastic shopping bags and rub lotion into their feet and arms, trim their beards or pick ruminatively at their toenails with clippers.

"This is it--the best mission in L.A.," says a tall man named Al, leaning luxuriantly back on his pillow.

Most of the boarders attend a crowded evening Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where hard candies, cookies, coffee and cigarettes are passed out. "This is breakfast and lunch tomorrow," says one young man, carrying away a double fistful of hard candies.

A pair of young men from the same South-Central neighborhood, gratified to see familiar faces, compare notes.

"What you been doin'?" asks one.

"Puffin' (smoking crack)," says the other. "Puffin' like crazy."

"Me, too."

"Why you come to this?"

"I needed cigarettes." They both laugh.

Yet both listen with concentration to the accounts of the group's panelists, particularly a man who describes the death of his own father on Skid Row. "They came around, knockin' on the cardboard (shelter) and nobody moved inside."

The boarders return to their beds, still munching on cookies and candies as the lights go off at 9 o'clock. Most are out of the building long before the 6 o'clock wake-up call, hustling to line up at the next shelter.

At 5:30 a.m., the sidewalks are cluttered with cardboard lean-tos. Albert, who had refused the offer of the paramedics to take him to a hospital emergency room, is under there somewhere.

Late the previous evening, he was sitting on a box in the alley, sharing a wine bottle with friends, the white bandage almost covering a pair of dazed, troubled eyes.

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