COVER STORY : A Far Cry From Skid Row : As More Women and Families Join the Ranks of the Homeless, Many Are Shunning Downtown for Safer Areas

IN PICO-UNION, A FAMILY and two couples sit beside cardboard lean-tos that are part of a string of ramshackle shelters lining the sidewalk of Shatto Street.

Miles away in South-Central, a tree house and three shacks sit on an abandoned corner lot on Grand Avenue near Imperial Highway, where a couple cooks food over a makeshift grill and a man sits on a chair amid old tires and thigh-high weeds.

As the face of Los Angeles' homeless population changes from predominantly single men to families and couples, where they seek shelter has shifted dramatically.

Just as those with homes aspire to move to more desirable neighborhoods, many without homes are avoiding seedy, downtrodden areas in favor of more stable environments.

Specifically, they are seeking to stay away from the gritty streets of Skid Row, bordered by 3rd Street to the north and 7th Street to the south, from Main Street east to Alameda Street, and are settling as best they can in communities such as Pico-Union, South-Central, the Eastside and Echo Park. Although there have been homeless people in those neighborhoods for years, their numbers are escalating.

"I wouldn't walk Downtown in that area daytime or nighttime strictly for the fear that some moron who's strung out on something would kill me for a cigarette or some money," said Eri (pronounced Eddie) Burns, 37, who lives in an encampment off 9th Street just west of the Harbor Freeway. "It's cleaner here. It's safer."

There is no exact number of homeless people living on Skid Row, but officials at Shelter Partnership Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides support services to more than 200 homeless shelters and social service agencies working with homeless people in the county, estimate that more than 50% of the homeless people in Los Angeles are on Skid Row. The organization's report for the 1992-93 fiscal year estimated that as many as 40,000 homeless were on the streets of Los Angeles on any given night.

Some outreach workers believe that, in a couple of years, the homeless in communities surrounding Downtown will outnumber the homeless of Skid Row.

"If there's a neighborhood within this city, there's a homeless encampment there," said David Bryant, a project coordinator for the city Community Development Department's Mobile Ombudsman Program. "You can find homeless everywhere. They're hidden in these places, but the more you look, the more you find."

Across from the Hubert H. Humphrey Health Center on Main Street in South-Central, three large abandoned buildings shelter dozens of homeless people who have cleaned up the site and put curtains in the windows. On 3rd and Bixel streets in Temple-Beaudry, the site of the defunct Bunker Hill West development project overlooking Downtown and Echo Park is home to dozens of encampments under shrubs, behind rocks, or out in the open.

"The story is rather simple: People become homeless and tend to stay where they are unless they're obliged to move," said Michael Dear, a USC geography and urban and regional planning professor who co-authored "Malign Neglect: Homelessness in an American City" with USC geography professor Jennifer Wolch.

"If they need services, they go to Skid Row. But they may feel that Skid Row is dangerous, so they move back toward their social network," Dear said.

Although distance from the Skid Row area means relative safety and seclusion, it falls short in access to social services, especially general relief and health care. In addition, people living in the outlying neighborhoods still encounter hustlers, thieves, drug addicts and the mentally ill who frequent Skid Row.

Some homeless drug addicts chose the surrounding communities over Skid Row to avoid harassment from police, some experts and service providers say. In several alleys in Westlake, in the middle of the afternoon, drug addicts openly smoke crack outside their encampments.

But for the most part, people in areas not traditionally associated with homelessness have set up social networks in which they look out for each other, clean up the property and establish as much of a sense of normalcy as possible.

"In Downtown L.A., wherever you stay, every morning you have to be up at 7 a.m. to take down your cardboard shelter," said Christine Scott, who lives beneath the Hollywood Freeway near the Men's Central Jail with her partner, Darryl Scott. "Away from Downtown, you can have a space built the way you want."

In their 20-foot-long, three section shelter, Eri Burns and her companion, Bill Matthews, 48, have set up the closest thing to home that they can get. There is a living room and kitchen, a bedroom and a storage closet. Theirs is the largest and sturdiest lean-to of the dozen encampments on the Golden Avenue site. Burns and Matthews are the cleanup patrol.

"They live like pigs around all that garbage down there (in Skid Row). I wasn't raised to live like that, and I won't," Matthews said. "This is the only place we've got, and we have to take care of it."

Burns and Matthews have lived in the encampment for the past year and a half. Burns, originally from Daytona Beach, Fla., said she ran into financial problems when her ex-husband, a drug addict, used up all their money. They ended up on the streets.

Matthews left a job as a plumber in New York City two years ago and started traveling around the country until his money ran out. Now he survives on occasional handyman jobs. Burns, who worked as a legal secretary and paralegal in Florida, has not been able to find work.

"I tried in every hotel, law firm and fast-food restaurant," she said. "And I would see these people throwing my application right in the trash can. They wouldn't hire me because I'm homeless. I'm not asking for a lot, but I'm asking for a start for a way out of here."

Moving into one of 18 fiberglass domes that are scheduled to be set up at 9th Street and Golden Avenue, near Burns' encampment site, by November will be her first step toward moving off the street, she said. The white domes are part of a pilot project created by Ted Hayes of Justiceville/Homeless U.S.A. to move homeless people out of ramshackle encampments.

"These domes should be put all over the city, because there are homeless people living in places all around this city that could use these types of shelters," Burns said.

In Lincoln Heights on the Eastside, a small park beside the railroad tracks is home to about a dozen illegal Mexican immigrants each night. Some are day laborers and others are in transit, waiting to hop the next freight train to Northern California.

"It's very hard. When there's no work, you have to sleep on the street and . . . it's dangerous," said Jose Quintero, 19, who came from Sinaloa, Mexico, in June with his friend Marco Lopez to find work as day laborers before heading to Washington to pick apples. They had made the trip before, sleeping in the park with other homeless Latinos.

But this time, there have been problems. Lopez can no longer work because of an accident in June. He was on his way to Los Angeles, riding beneath a freight car when he fell beneath its wheels, severing his left leg. Even if he could work, there is little employment for day laborers.

For weeks Lopez, 22, sat depressed on a mattress in the park, hoping for a way to get back to Mexico. Quintero continued to look for work to get enough money for them to head back to Sinaloa.

Most homeless Latinos, either newly arrived or longtime homeless in the city, migrate from Skid Row because of the language barrier as much as the danger, said Father Richard Estrada, executive director of Jovenes Inc., an Echo Park-based homeless outreach agency for teen-agers and young adults. Many go to the Eastside, ending up near Hollenbeck Park or at the Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights, which feeds about 150 men a day and provides shelter to about 90 men a night.

"There are a lot of Latinos sleeping in the streets because the assistance is not there," said Haydee Sanchez, program director at Jovenes. "They don't receive any assistance, so they have no help."

About 40% of homeless people in the county receive some form of general relief benefits. Gary Brown used to be one of them.

A 40-year-old man whose sun-beaten face looks leathery and aged, Brown has lived on the streets of South-Central Los Angeles since he walked out on his wife and children more than a year ago. Burns said he left because he lost his job operating a forklift and could no longer support his family.

He stayed in Will Rogers Memorial Park at Century Boulevard and Central Avenue for nine months while living off disability and unemployment checks. But the checks ran out six months ago, Brown said, and now he relies on panhandling, soup kitchens, friends and sometimes family. He will not go to Skid Row shelters for help.

"They ask you too many questions: why you don't have a job, why you lost your job," Brown complained, as he sat in front of an abandoned house on 103rd Street where he would spend the night.

"They have too many rules. And I'm the type of man who lives by my own rules."

Along 103rd Street and near the Nickerson Gardens projects in Watts, homeless people are tucked under freeways and homes. Brown pointed out three abandoned houses on 103rd Street that he had stayed in for a night each.

"I could show you under freeways, under bridges, in parking lots, everywhere down here. (The homeless) are all over and the number ain't going down," Brown said.

People living in these obscure spots are often overlooked by service agencies Downtown or near Skid Row, especially when it comes to medical care, some providers say.

"These people are ignored because they're not counted, nor is there any (political) advantage in reporting them, so they are out of the loop in terms of receiving services," said Dr. James Mays, who runs a private health clinic in South Los Angeles and provides health care to the homeless in that area.

According to a recent study by the Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness, 75% of homeless people living in encampments around the Downtown area did not have Medi-Cal and had limited access to health care facilities. Mobile outreach clinics, such as those operated by the Watts Health Foundation, seek to fill that need, providing basic preventive care to the homeless in Skid Row and throughout South-Central Los Angeles. On a recent afternoon, several physicians visited the site of Ted Hayes' housing domes to treat those living in the adjacent encampment.

Charles Draft, who lives minutes from the domes site, skipped the free medical visit. Drafts, 35, thinks less about his health than about hustling a few dollars each day. At Blaine and 8th streets, Drafts rummages through piles of bicycle tires and old bike frames that he collects and repairs. He makes a few dollars a day selling those, while his wife, Cindy, 39, panhandles across the street. Unlike other homeless, the Drafts' home, a wooden lean-to, is overhead, secluded in the branches of a large ficus tree.

The Drafts became homeless three years ago after hospital bills for Charles' back problems and a drug habit exhausted their money. They have lived in different spots in the area abutting Westlake and Temple-Beaudry and have been in their treehouse since February.

The small structure is cozy, with a battery-powered radio and a television run off power lines from an adjacent parking lot. A piece of foam covered with old clothes and a tie-dyed sheet is their bed. Food and a few dirty clothes hang from the branches, as does a crucifix.

It is all part of "survival college," jokes Cindy, who said she has been trying for months to get a job. A soiled, folded resume shows her credentials--secretary and receptionist for law firms and hospitals. But Cindy will not settle for just any position.

"I'm not going to work for $4 to $6 an hour," she said. "I graduated from college. I want a real job. I know I can do it.

"Just because I'm homeless doesn't mean that I'm not smart or can't do work that people give me. But I do need a chance," she said.

On the other side of town, all Darryl and Christine Scott want is a chance to move out of their plywood shanty in the underbelly of the Hollywood Freeway near the Los Angeles River. (They are not married, but she uses his last name.)

The couple have been homeless for a year and a half, first as squatters in an abandoned building, then as they constructed a weatherproof shack under the 4th Street bridge. Whatever money they made was spent on crack.

They stopped using drugs five months ago--both going cold turkey--after Christine, 24, found out she was pregnant. Most of their food comes from social service organizations. Darryl makes a few dollars washing cars and trucks in the floral and produce districts Downtown. They are trying to save enough money to get off the streets by the time Christine has the baby in a couple of months.

The two had been in or around the shelters of Skid Row for several years. Darryl, 35, had been in and out of shelter drug rehabilitation programs since 1991. Christine lived in front of the Union Rescue Mission on Main Street for two years.

It's easier on the street than in the shelter, the two said. Because they do not have a marriage license, no shelter will allow them to stay together. Because Darryl spends all hours of the day and night washing vehicles, he would constantly miss shelter curfews. More important, staying where they are now is more stable than on the streets of Skid Row, Christine said.

"You can have pets without police harassing you," she said, holding her two kittens, Tiger and Ted. "And in the wintertime, you don't have to sit around until 5 o'clock and then have to sleep on a wet floor. We have our bed, our own home."

A double bed is the centerpiece of their "home," built like many other encampments with layers of plywood, tarps, plastic bags and old blankets. A large paint barrel serves as the bathroom.

Darryl has tried unsuccessfully to persuade Caltrans workers to supply a trash bin so he and some other homeless people living under the freeway can clean up the festering garbage strewn along the railroad tracks beneath their shack.

"People automatically think all homeless are drug addicts and dirty people, but we're not," he said. "We like our place clean and want to keep it that way. And we want to work."

If the Scotts do find a way off the streets, it is guaranteed there will be someone else to take their place, said Bryant of the city's Community Development Department.

"The worst is yet to come," he said of Los Angeles' homeless problem.

On the Cover

Eri Burns, 37, originally from Daytona Beach, Fla., heats water for tea on a makeshift stove.

Burns has built a shelter just west of Downtown, where she has lived for a year and a half.

Like many other homeless people, Burns, who lives at the encampment with her partner, Bill Matthews, makes a point to avoid Skid Row, where drug abuse, theft and other crimes are common.

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