A fragile fabric on skid row

Times Staff Writer

WHEN Jennifer Campbell looks at her stretch of Towne Street sidewalk, she sees more than a ragged cluster of nylon tents and makeshift lean-tos. To her, it's a neighborhood, a community of friends who've lived side-by-side for months.

On the right, there's Angela, a.k.a. "Panama," who's fresh out of prison on a prostitution arrest that she says was entrapment. While she was in jail, her fellow Towne Street residents looked after her tent and belongings. Now Panama is watching over the tent of another incarcerated friend.

On the other side is the tent of RJ Brooks, 57, and his wife, Saeeda, 31, who've lived on the same patch of sidewalk since August. RJ is wheelchair-bound and uses an oxygen tank because of chronic respiratory problems, and Campbell says she recently helped him fashion a makeshift urinal for when he can't make it to one of the nearby missions.

A former schoolteacher, Campbell can list the names of all her neighbors and their pets.

"It's just one big happy family," said Campbell, 56. "It's almost like God put us together."

"It's your own little space," said Panama, who said she's even seen tents that contained folding cots and chairs. "Some people make it really homey. They got the radio, the portable TV, everything."

Downtown business owners and police officials don't hold nearly as prosaic a view. To them, the tents -- which range from clusters of tarps and sheets strung between shopping carts to roomy four-person nylon dwellings -- are a law enforcement nuisance and a public health risk.

In October the Los Angeles Police Department began cracking down on crime and daytime camping on skid row, creating a de facto system of good and bad tent neighborhoods.

The good neighborhoods tend to be within a few blocks of the Central Division police station, where the bright street lights and regular police presence provide a bit of security. There, homeless people set up tents each night but then move during the day as police sweep the streets.

The bad tent neighborhoods now mostly lie east of San Pedro Street. There, the tents grow thicker and the scenery gets grimmer -- especially on Stanford and Gladys streets, where much of skid row's hard-core drug action has settled. This is outside the police enforcement zone, so the tents remain day and night.

JOHN and Tracy Evans set up camp most nights halfway between the police station and the Midnight Mission on San Pedro Street. Evenings are spent visiting friends or playing host in their tent, John Evans said, usually over a couple of 40-ounce beer bottles.

Their "neighborhood" on 6th Street is perhaps the best in skid row's tent community -- benefiting from regular street patrols and comparatively little drug dealing.

The nearby mission provides convenient bathroom and shower access.

In exchange, Evans and others must set up their tents each night, then wake before dawn to pack everything up before the police come. They spend their days drifting between area shelters and the nearby park.

When it comes time, they erect their four-person tent with practiced speed, using duct tape to secure some of the ties. They layer in cardboard sheets, baby blue foam pads and several blankets to keep out the chill. Then come the pillows and a battery-powered radio playing salsa music. The tent door always faces a nearby wall for added privacy.

"It's like a house, pretty much," said Evans, a 23-year-old who has lived on skid row for six months because of what he obliquely describes as "family problems."

The next morning, Evans boasted, they can have it all packed tightly away in a pair of wheeled carts within 20 minutes.

"We wake up at 5:30, take down the tent, then go sit at the Midnight Mission just to stay off the streets and stay away from all this ruckus," Evans said.

But staying full time in a shelter doesn't hold much appeal. Most of them would make John sleep apart from Tracy, who's pregnant with his child.

Every morning between 7 and 8 a.m., a phalanx of uniformed officers rolls out from the station, rousting tent dwellers and street sleepers and arresting those found with drugs or paraphernalia, or who have outstanding arrest warrants. For the rest of the day, the skid row denizens are unable to erect tents or lie down; some said that even sitting on a milk crate could bring police attention, depending on the officer's mood.

On one recent morning, the Evanses' next-door tent neighbor, Sherry, slept later than usual. Awakened by a friend as police were already just up the block, she scrambled to start packing. The officers bid her good morning and passed by, seemingly content that she was up and in motion.

John Evans said the heavy police attention in their area the last few weeks has reduced the amount of drug trafficking between Main and San Pedro -- adding to their quality of life and peace of mind. Though some homeless people and activists have labeled the police effort harassment, Evans embraced the police presence.

"It's actually a big improvement.... It feels like the air is cleaner. The dope used to be like a smog cloud," Evans said.

THE homeless encampment along Towne Street is a definite step down from the quiet order of the Evanses' 6th Street abode.

Towne is far from the worst street in skid row. But it's decidedly more dense -- with 15 to 20 tents of various sizes and conditions. There are fewer cops and more drug dealing there, and the camps can remain up for weeks at a time before police order them removed. Still, it's better and cleaner than streets farther east, such as Gladys and Stanford, where the smell of urine and filth is pervasive and dozens of tents block whole sidewalks.

"It's clean because we keep it clean," said a 30-year-old Chicago native and Towne Street tent-dweller who goes by the name Griff. Many of the street's residents make money or support their own habits with small-time dealing. A regular stream of visitors rolls through asking "Who's working?" and searching for "candy" (cocaine) or "chiba" (heroin).

But Towne Street residents take pride in the distinction they see between their street and Stanford, one block away.

"There's drugs [here], but they don't do it in the open and they don't get out of hand," said RJ Brooks, who spends his days in his wheelchair tearing through a stack of paperback books and spy novels.

Towne Street, he said, even boasts a modified form of neighborhood watch; the neighbors sometimes band together to kick out troublemakers. "It's quieter and more mellow here. It's the people that come from other streets that are a problem," he said.

RJ and Saeeda Brooks met on skid row. Raised in foster homes in Detroit, Saeeda had been abandoned on skid row by a former boyfriend, and RJ took the younger woman under his wing.

Both have served recent stints in jail: Saeeda for stabbing the ex-boyfriend, RJ for possession of drugs that Saeeda says he was holding for her.

The couple recently managed to keep a $350-a-month apartment in Hollywood for more than a year. Still, Saeeda said she "hated" the apartment. She and RJ were the only black people in the building, and she was hesitant about bringing their friends over to visit. She squabbled with the landlord over little things like bringing her bicycle indoors.

"They wouldn't let me enjoy myself the way I like to," Saeeda said.

When RJ spent a week in a hospital, she moved straight back to skid row. They were evicted in August for late payment and have been living on Towne Street ever since.

Nearby, Jennifer Campbell and her husband, Michael Johnson, have camped on the same patch of Towne for more than four months -- and their shelter bore obvious signs of that continuity.

On a recent morning, Campbell sat on floral-patterned cushions surrounded by jugs of water and juice, ice coolers and containers of yogurt. A wooden pallet topped with soup cans and a porcelain candlestick served as her table; when it rains, the pallet becomes the shelter's floor, with plastic tarps laid underneath and stretched overhead.

Breakfast that morning was a large metal tray of what looked like rice pilaf -- donated catering leftovers from a downtown movie set. "We eat excellent," Campbell said. "Yesterday they brought a delicious salad."

The open-air home (enclosed tents make Campbell claustrophobic) is bordered by shopping carts and chairs hung with blankets and plastic tarps. A wheeled chair rolls away to serve as the door. Inside is a pack rat's collection of shoes, handbags, clothes, a broom and a ukulele.

"This is a closet over here," she said, then pointed to a bicycle in the corner. "That's the garage."

Despite the civic pride on display, life in the Towne Street tents has its darker side.

On a recent afternoon, Griff, a hulking 250-pounder, engaged in a violent outdoor screaming match with his wife, Summer -- repeatedly striking the weeping woman on the legs with a tent pole. He later said the argument was about Summer taking too much time on her "dates" with other men, which provided income for the couple.

RJ Brooks says theft is common among the tent-dwellers, although he mostly blamed outsiders and drug addicts.

"It gets treacherous at night. I get scared," said Saeeda Brooks. "It's hard to find a true friend out here."

The drugs, unsanitary conditions and lack of basic healthcare take their toll as well. Saeeda has hepatitis C and a staph infection. RJ recently ran out of oxygen for his tank, and his health is deteriorating rapidly. He has regular breathing attacks, and Saeeda fears leaving him alone for long.

"I know he doesn't have that much longer," she said.

A week after a reporter's visit to Towne Street in early November, Campbell and Johnson were gone. Their neighbors say both were picked up for drug possession on Stanford Street.

Brooks and other Towne residents tried to pack up Campbell's shelter to prevent it from being tossed by the police. In the process they made some upsetting discoveries. For starters, the area was filled with rotting food and maggots.

Even worse, Brooks discovered that some of the theft problems weren't the work of outsiders after all. Amid Campbell's jumbled piles, he found his missing watch and a pair of Saeeda's boots.

The tents annoy many police officers, who say they provide a cover for drug dealing and prostitution.

By law, officers can't enter or open a tent without permission from the tenant or probable cause to suspect illegal activity inside.

"I asked one woman could I come in her tent, and she said in five minutes," said Officer Deon Joseph, a veteran of skid row policing. "When I got a look, there was $2,000 in a bucket and cocaine resin under the rug. What is $2,000 doing in a skid row tent?"

Griff, the Towne Street resident, confirms those suspicions. In between hits on a glass crack pipe in his tent, he described his and his wife's daily routine.

"We get up, my girl goes out and turns tricks, we get dope and smoke in the tent all day," he said.

"I like being homeless," he added. "No rent, no bills, no neighbors, no rules. My way, all the way."

ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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