Moving with a shuffle, Jimmy turned up in late December near Alvarado Street and Glendale Boulevard -- a new face among the established groups of Echo Park homeless and the latest in a series of migrants from downtown.
“Everyone’s just kind of scattering in all directions,” said Jimmy, who declined to give his last name. “Hollywood, Elysian Park, down to the beach.”
The 62-year-old former construction worker used to camp downtown near 7th and Spring streets.
But last fall, Los Angeles launched a major crackdown on crime and blight around skid row, rousting homeless people who camped on streets during the day and deploying 50 additional officers to focus on crime.
The campaign has resulted in a distinct migration of homeless people out of downtown, significantly reducing skid row’s transient population but also putting more strain on homeless service providers in Echo Park, South Los Angeles, Hollywood and Santa Monica. A head count last month by the Los Angeles Police Department found 875 people living on the streets, a 35% drop from the 1,345 counted about the same time last year. The drop is even more pronounced when compared with last September, when the count was nearly 1,900.
“Half the population that I’m used to seeing downtown is not there, so they’re going somewhere,” said Chris Van Winkle, director of the Dream Center’s Under the Bridge program, which passes out food downtown daily.
While shelters and homeless service organizations in Pasadena, Glendale and the San Fernando Valley report no noticeable uptick in numbers, shelters to the south and west -- the places skid row denizens can directly reach by bus and by foot -- tell a different story.
“It’s been a nightmare,” said Brenda Wilson, president of New Image Shelter near the Los Angeles Coliseum. “We’re beyond bulging. Food and supplies are way over budget.”
Wilson, a 17-year veteran of local homeless services, said the situation at her shelter worsened soon after the LAPD crackdown began last fall. The 400-bed shelter was suddenly overflowing, and Wilson had to hire security guards to turn away people at the door.
“We were turning away 200 people a night,” she said. “It’s overwhelming -- more than we can stand.”
Most of Los Angeles County’s homeless services organizations are in skid row -- and it remains to be seen whether the homeless who have left will eventually come back.
Officials said they expected the police presence would lead to more arrests but not reduce the overall homeless population, which they said is benefiting from safer streets.
“There’s a nomadic element,” said Orlando Ward of skid row’s Midnight Mission. “You have no home, no anchor. You will go where your needs can be met: food, shelter, drugs. Whatever the case may be.”
Both Ward and Capt. Andy Smith of the LAPD’s Central Division believe it’s hard to separate facts from perceptions.
“What I think is happening is people are just noticing it more,” Smith said. “I’ve been getting calls from as far away as San Diego, saying they’ve got our homeless.... Everybody can’t be getting them.”
But several area shelters and service providers see a direct link between the downtown police crackdown and their increased demand.
“We’re putting down a solution in skid row that affects everyone else,” Julie DeRose, director of homeless services for St. Joseph Center in Venice. “We’re overwhelmed with the amount of outreach we’re doing right now.”
In Hollywood, the homeless outreach center run by the Church of the Blessed Sacrament normally deals with 30 to 50 people per day, offering food, clothing, showers and medical referrals. Now they’re averaging 70 per day, and center Director Yolanda Lichtman has extended the hours to keep up with increased demand.
“I understand the reason they don’t want them downtown,” she said. “But where do they think these people are going to go?”
The influx has also created a competition in Hollywood for prime sleeping places on area streets.
“They’re fighting for spots,” said a Hollywood bicycle officer, who declined to give his name. “I don’t know if it’s because of what they’re doing downtown, but there’s a lot more coming up here.”
Robert Nudelman, a community activist and past president of Hollywood Heritage, a preservation group, said he’s seen a distinct increase in homeless camping in his neighborhood and worries that solving a problem in downtown is causing problems in other districts.
He believes the crackdown is being fueled by the boom in lofts and condos in downtown Los Angeles but says residents of Hollywood should not have to pay the price.
“This is a short-term solution because it doesn’t solve the problem,” Nudelman said. “It gets the problem out of the way [in downtown]. But it just jumps somewhere else.”
The newcomers are a particular strain in Hollywood, which boasts several shelters and service providers for homeless and runaway youths but relatively few for adults.
David Wilson, 60, arrived in Hollywood about Jan. 25 after police and private guards rousted him from his usual spot on 5th Street and threw away whatever belongings he couldn’t carry, he said. “I’m not gonna get arrested. I’ll stay up here if they’ll let me,” said Wilson, who gets around in a wheelchair after being hit by a car.
Since leaving downtown, he’s been back once to check on a friend. “It’s like a ghost town now,” he said.
One of Hollywood’s only adult emergency shelters, a 65-bed facility run by People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH, is constantly full, said Joel Roberts, the organization’s chief executive. But the real boost in Hollywood’s homeless population is being felt by the center’s outreach staff.
“On the street, we’re definitely seeing an increase,” Roberts said.
Shelters in Santa Monica and Venice say they have also noticed an uptick.
“We’re the end of the line from downtown. When they get off the bus, they’re right down the street,” said Patricia Bauman, project director with OPCC, a network of services and shelters for homeless and low-income people based in Santa Monica. It was formerly known as Ocean Park Community Center.
But OPCC Executive Director John Maceri said he won’t be sure whether the moves are permanent until the weather warms. Winter usually brings movements in the homeless population in part because the government opens seasonal shelters.
The arrival of those extra beds Dec. 1 helped relieve some of the new overcrowding at New Image and other shelters.
“But on March 16, when the winter shelters close, there’s going to be a major, major crisis,” Wilson said.
Several homeless providers said city leaders need to start thinking about how the police crackdown in skid row is affecting other neighborhoods.
“I call it the leaf-blower mentality,” PATH’s Roberts said. His organization runs shelters in Glendale and West Los Angeles as well as the one in Hollywood. “If you increase the law enforcement but don’t increase the amount of housing and services, then you’re just scattering the same population around the county.”
Back at Echo Park, Jimmy said he likes his new environs. He said he left downtown because he felt harassed by the extra police officers and the newly enforced ban on sidewalk camping.
LAPD officials credit the crackdown with an 11% decline in crime, citing more than 1,000 drug arrests since September.
The effort had a ripple effect to the west.
Echo Park residents and rangers in nearby Elysian Park said they’ve noticed a significant increase since last fall in the number of homeless encampments. They said the city needs to figure out what to do.
“But we don’t want to just run them out the way they’re doing in downtown,” said Christine Peters, a member of the Greater Echo Park-Elysian Neighborhood Council. “We really need increased services, we need more shelters and we need to come up with money.”
Begin text of infobox
875 - LAPD’s Jan. 15 count of people living on skid row streets.
1,876 - The count Sept. 18, 2006.
1,345 - The count Feb. 21, 2006.
Source: LAPD’s Central Division