Homeless head downtown

Times Staff Writers

Two weeks ago, downtown boosters and the LAPD were celebrating a milestone: The population of homeless people sleeping on downtown’s streets had dropped to just 700 -- compared to more than 1,800 just six months earlier.

The count came amid a major LAPD crackdown on crime in skid row and the continued gentrification of downtown neighborhoods with new luxury lofts as well as trendy bars and restaurants.

But the results of an LAPD census conducted early Tuesday morning threw cold water on the celebration and served as a reminder of how intractable the homeless problem in downtown remains despite all the progress.


The census showed the first major increase in months in homeless people camping, to 921.

Capt. Andrew Smith, head of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Division, which conducts the count, said the uptick was “definitely something we want to keep an eye on.”

The increase coincides with the closure of most of the county’s winter shelters. Officials had attributed some of the decline in homeless numbers to the fact that transients were taking advantage of those and other shelters -- and that maybe homeless people were leaving the downtown area, which has the region’s largest concentration of social service providers.

Shelters in other parts of the city reported increases in homeless people from downtown after the police crackdown began.

But the numbers released Tuesday suggest that some of them appear to be coming back to downtown.

To some homelessness service providers and critics of the police action, the 30% increase in homeless camps underscores what they have long said: that police enforcement won’t clean up skid row without more housing and other services for those on the streets.

“It is unfortunate,” said Andy Bales, president of the Union Rescue Mission. “Every time you think you may be making some headway on getting people off the streets, this happens. We aren’t providing enough beds and permanent supportive housing to go along with the police presence.”

But there also is a sense that the problem could worsen again. Generally, the downtown homeless population reaches its height during summer, so officials say counts might rise later this year.

The LAPD began counting the number of homeless people sleeping on the streets in February 2006, Smith said, in part to respond to estimates that had put the population downtown as high as 10,000.

Early LAPD counts showed the number of people sleeping on downtown streets climbing from 1,345 at the initial count and to a peak in mid-September 2006 at 1,876, just before the “Safer City” initiative began in earnest.

That effort, which was backed by Police Chief William J. Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, brought 50 additional officers to skid row starting in late September.

Since then, officers have made nearly 6,000 arrests and seen a 30% reduction in crime in the district, Smith said.

Critics have long questioned the methodology of the LAPD’s count.

Jennifer Wolch, a USC professor of geography who has studied homelessness, said it is difficult for anyone to count the homeless -- but even harder with uniformed police officers, who as law enforcement officials may engender fear or suspicion. “These counts, no matter who takes them, are typically flawed,” Wolch said. There are “a lot of places for people to evaporate.”

But the LAPD has persisted, and in November stepped up the regularity of the counts. Every two weeks, in the early morning, a team of LAPD officers has spread out across the division, clipboards in hand, to map the population.

This week was no exception. about 12:15 a.m. Tuesday, Sgt. Tim Shaw addressed 14 officers in the division’s roll call room, all of whom had volunteered to help with the count (they are paid overtime for the work).

“The No. 1 priority is to get an accurate count,” Shaw told the officers. “Save the enforcement action for later unless it’s an emergency.”

Shaw dispatched seven teams across the Central Division, each armed with a spreadsheet. Across the top were categories: Location. Men. Women. Children. Tent. Cardboard. Tarp. The teams would walk and drive their sectors, noting the demographic information so it could be assembled later into a map of the district.

“It gets tiring after a while, but it’s got to be done,” said Senior Lead Officer Mike Fernandez, who with his partner Joe Lopez at the wheel, was assigned to an area north of the 101 Freeway.

At each stop, Fernandez and Lopez would shine their lights on sleeping figures, lift tarps or tap on tents -- and inquire about the number and gender of those within.

The officers, who help with the count every two weeks, said they had been doing it long enough that they have developed an innate sense about where people might sleep in the zone. Hill Street, near Cesar E. Chavez Avenue? Yes: a man curled beneath a striped blanket. Fernandez made a note on his clipboard and Lopez drove on. An alcove of the Aladdin Bail Bonds building, not far from Men’s Central Jail? Yes, this time a gray blanket with a Home Depot shopping cart close by.

Along Olvera Street? Yes. As the officers circled the zone, they counted more than a dozen people sleeping under tents, in elaborately constructed tarp shelters, and on the street, including one woman who slept with her hands clutching a plastic bag over her face.

“We are definitely finding that people are getting scattered out” after LAPD enforcement downtown, Fernandez said. “They are going to Staples Center, Chinatown, a little farther out.”

Estela Lopez, head of two business improvement districts in east downtown, said that in her area, which includes much of skid row, “We see people move from this intersection to that intersection. But we haven’t seen a growth in our area.”

Maps by the downtown company Cartifact, which is working with the LAPD to chart the numbers, show that Tuesday’s count found a concentration of people near the area’s historic core, which historically has been plagued by drug dealing and homelessness.

Officials offered a handful of explanations on why the numbers might have been pushed up: more people released from prison; an increase in undocumented day laborers living on the streets and the closure of 13 of the county’s 16 winter shelters, which are funded by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, on March 15 -- the date of the previous LAPD census. The three that remain open are in Lancaster, Compton and just south of downtown.

“It is because winter shelters closed March 15. They are some 2,000 fewer beds. Now, this isn’t rocket science,” said Carol Sobel, an attorney for homeless plaintiffs. “The people aren’t just evaporating. They just go somewhere else and then come back.”

Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said she was “very surprised to hear the population is up in skid row overnight.”

She said she suspected that police have backed off on their enforcement tactics since recent court filings by her organization and others on behalf of the homeless there, charging that LAPD officers had harassed and unfairly detained and searched homeless people.

Ripston said the homeless might be finding few alternatives for service and shelter in other parts of the region. “I get calls from council members saying, what have you done. They complain about more homeless in West Hollywood and Santa Monica.”

Ripston also wondered what effect a reporter’s presence on the count may have had. “They may have been more accurate because you were ... along,” she said.

Just east of Rosabell Street, under a Gold Line overpass, Lopez and Fernandez parked their car and walked along a narrow path littered with detritus: an old cookie tin, a prescription bottle, piles of musty blankets, discarded newspapers and the skeleton of a broken umbrella.

Lopez lifted a clear tarp and shined his light inside. “How many people?” He asked. “Two?” Fernandez noted it on the clipboard.

Nearby, they noticed a form under a pile of gray blankets; the only hint of the person underneath was a pair of red athletic shoes peeking out. Shoes, Lopez said, are often a hint to gender -- and mean they don’t need to disturb the sleeping figure to complete their count. “It’s a man,” he said.

They noted him on the clipboard, got back in their patrol car, and drove on into the night.