L.A. leaders are crafting new plan to help homeless on skid row

In their latest census, Los Angeles police counted more than 1,700 people living in tents and cardboard boxes in the 50-block skid row area. Above, people sit and walk on South San Pedro Street.
In their latest census, Los Angeles police counted more than 1,700 people living in tents and cardboard boxes in the 50-block skid row area. Above, people sit and walk on South San Pedro Street.
(Jabin Botsford / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles officials are developing a new strategy for taming pervasive homelessness on skid row, easing up on arrests for petty offenses while concentrating mental health, medical, housing and sanitation services in the long-troubled swath of downtown.

Officials say the effort involves cooperation between the city and county, whose inability to mesh hampered earlier homelessness plans in the 50-block neighborhood. The area now finds itself pinched by gentrification, with homeless people camping in tents just around the corner from trendy, upscale bars and restaurants.

The changes grew in part out of the frustration of skid row beat cops like LAPD Officer Deon Joseph, who issued an anguished cry for help to answer what he described as a mental health crisis.


“It is not the LAPD that has failed the mentally ill or the public,” Joseph, a 16-year skid row veteran, wrote on Facebook and in the Downtown News. “It is our society that has failed them.”

This year, the city announced Operation Healthy Streets, budgeting $3.7 million for stepped-up street cleanings and improved bathroom access and storage for homeless people on skid row.

Outreach workers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and the county Health Services and Mental Health departments will now be present on major cleaning days to offer homeless people as many services — psychiatric appointments, tuberculosis tests, Medicaid enrollment, detoxification beds — in a day as would otherwise take months, officials said.

That effort could debut as soon as Aug. 13, though officials said details are still being worked out. A new approach to policing has already begun.

Under the direction of City Atty. Mike Feuer, who took office a year ago, police have largely stopped arresting people for resting or sleeping on the sidewalk, although they continue to ticket them. The LAPD Central Area station, which patrols skid row, is trying to identify mentally ill homeless people who are particularly vulnerable to predators and track where mental health resources are going, block by block.

“Our success will lie in taking a more progressive approach,” LAPD Capt. John McMahon said.

Police are meeting with community groups and exploring a three-step citation process, issuing written warnings before ticketing for minor infractions.

“I don’t consider homelessness breaking the law,” LAPD Capt. Mike Oreb said. “We’re not the homeless police.”

Authorities say they will continue to aggressively prosecute skid row drug dealers and violent criminals. The LAPD recorded 186 reports of major violent crime on skid row in the first six months of the year, up from 150 for the same period in 2013, a 24% increase, according to a Times analysis of police data.

But Feuer said he is looking for money to reinvigorate narcotics diversion programs and citation clinics to help low-level violators escape what activists call the “legal chaos” of multiple tickets and warrants, which can prevent them from getting housing.

The approach is a departure from the “broken windows” policing championed by former LAPD Chief William J. Bratton in New York and Los Angeles. Beginning in 2007, a 50-officer skid row task force called the Safer Cities Initiative went after infractions such as jaywalking, prostitution and littering to discourage more serious crime.

Activists say that drove homeless people into other neighborhoods or sent them bouncing back and forth between jail and the streets. Some business interests say civil rights litigation tied the police’s hands. The intensive services also planned for Safer Cities were never funded, officials said.

The most recent police census counted more than 1,700 people living in tents and cardboard boxes, approaching pre-Safer Cities numbers.

“On skid row, the windows already were broken,” Feuer said. “We have a much deeper and more profound situation to deal with.”

The new initiative is being overseen by Feuer, the LAPD and City Councilman Jose Huizar, and Mayor Eric Garcetti supports it, aides say.

Garcetti is expected to discuss a veteran homelessness strategy at a summit Wednesday in Century City with First Lady Michelle Obama.

“The big game changer here is this is a joint effort in which the city and county will truly work together,” said Sara Hernandez, Huizar’s downtown area director.

County Supervisor Gloria Molina said, “It isn’t a one-shot thing, but it can work if we have continuity, consistency and put resources behind it.”

Some skid row community activists said they see a difference.

“There has been a great change,” said Wendell Blassingame, who runs free movie programs for skid row residents. “The police are walking around now, interacting with people instead of just arresting them.”

Others, pointing to the death of a mentally disturbed homeless man who fell from a rooftop as he tried to escape arrest, said things aren’t changing fast enough. Carlos Ocana plunged from a skid row building in May after a SWAT team shocked him with a stun gun. The incident is under investigation by the Police Commission’s inspector general.

“They always say they’re changing,” said General Dogon, an organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network.

After 40 years of failed cleanup plans, skid row suffers from reform fatigue, longtime observers say. But new strategies and funding are in play.

The city and county, under prodding from federal officials, have adopted a “housing first” strategy for the homeless, putting people in apartments and hotels regardless of their sobriety and mental status. The U.S. Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development departments are funding permanent housing with mental health and substance abuse treatment for the residents.

Since 2008, L.A. County has committed $118 million to 41 housing developments with a total of 2,066 residences, including 918 set aside for people who are mentally ill and homeless, said Maria Funk, a district chief in the county’s mental health department.

The funding came through Proposition 63 — a “millionaires tax” for mental health assistance that California voters approved in 2004 — and other state, federal and local sources.

The county Department of Health Services has an $18-million fund, made up of county money and $4 million from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, to subsidize rents for homeless people who cycle in and out of emergency rooms.

“We have a keen interest in identifying those people, whether they are in our hospital at a given moment or on the streets in skid row, and help get them connected to services and housing,” said Marc Trotz, director of the department’s Housing for Health division.

“So many people on skid row have so much passion,” said LAPD Lt. Billy Brockway, the current head of Safer Cities. “We just have to harness it.”

Twitter: @geholland

Times staff writer Ben Welsh contributed to this report.