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Homeless vendors sell beer on the streets — and dodge police

At 10 a.m. on a recent weekday downtown, suited workers were riding elevators up skyscrapers on Bunker Hill. Down on the sidewalks, loft-dwellers, coffee cups in hand, walked their dogs.

At the corner of 5th and San Pedro streets, a few steps from the drug and alcohol rehab center, the local soup kitchen and the patch of sidewalk where he bunks most nights, Josh Richard was selling beer to other homeless men.

One by one, his customers approached, handing over $1.50 for cans of Colt 45, Steel Reserve or Heineken that he kept hidden in a blue cooler beneath a shopping cart. Government checks had arrived a few days before. Business on skid row was good — as it has been all year.

It wasn't so long ago that police would have quickly closed down Richard's business and chased him away from this corner.

But recently, the dynamic shifted. A federal court order last year blunted the Los Angeles Police Department's authority to seize objects from the sidewalks, a ruling that was upheld this week on appeal. At the same time, the number of people sleeping on skid row's streets has increased, by 70% since 2010 to about 1,200 total. Crime is up as well.

Some blocks have become clogged with encampments built from shopping carts, baby strollers, wheelchairs, blankets and tarps. As long as the possessions can be moved, advocates argue, the homeless are not obstructing the sidewalk.

Richard is one of several homeless beer vendors who police say take advantage of the cluttered conditions to hide their operations.

Though the LAPD can no longer seize unattended property of the homeless, officers are still trying to crack down on illegal beer selling, and that has created a cat-and-mouse game on skid row.

The burden for that task has fallen on officers such as Deon Joseph. A burly veteran beat cop on skid row, Joseph has made it his mission to take on Richard and the other beer vendors.

The vendors typically work in small crews, Joseph said, using clusters of shopping carts to conceal their operations and lookouts to watch for police. One group has even gone so far as to send people into the LAPD station on 6th Street to ask whether Joseph is on duty.

Officer Joseph is on a first-name basis with some of his beer-selling adversaries: Josh, Rick, Shark. "I know pretty much everybody and what they're doing," he said.

The illegal beer sales only exacerbate the grim atmosphere on skid row, Joseph says. Residents at nearby shelters and single-room occupancy hotels have complained about the stands, saying the operators are drunk and rude to women.

Joseph recently tried to reason with one of the vendors, explaining to him that he was selling beer on a street where addicts were trying to rebuild their lives. But the vendor wasn't interested.

"That seems to be the mantra of all these guys who are out there on 5th and San Pedro: 'We're here, we're going to make money, we've gotta do what we've gotta do,' " Joseph said. "It's simple supply and demand."

When officers make arrests, the vendors are usually back at work after a few days in jail — or replaced by others eager to take over the turf. So Joseph takes a different approach: to be a constant presence, shooing the vendors away and burying them in warnings and citations.

Richard says he's not worried. His hunch is that in the daily chaos and crime of skid row, Joseph and the LAPD will find more pressing tasks.

"Here's the thing about the cops — they try to control it, but they can't be two places at once," Richard said. "They can't catch us all."

::

Richard, 27, first arrived on skid row in 2002 as a drug dealer, fresh out of Washington High School in South Los Angeles. Back then, the area was considered the West Coast's leading drug bazaar, and city officials struggled to deal with both the huge homeless population and the crime.

"There were tents everywhere back then," Richard recalled."You couldn't even walk down the sidewalk."

Richard was arrested for the first time in 2003, after a police horse on Spring Street sniffed the cocaine he was carrying. Over the next seven years, he was convicted of five different offenses, ranging from drug possession to assault and burglary, and spent three years in prison.

When he was released in February, Richard returned to skid row and noticed a beer vendor who seemed to be doing good business. By the end of the month he'd gathered some old friends together and taken over the spot.

On a recent morning, skid row was bustling with activity and the beer business was brisk.

Richard was wearing a white tank top, baggy blue shorts and black slippers, greeting customers just a few feet from where he sleeps most nights. Tattoos covered his neck and biceps; a Newport cigarette dangled from his mouth.

Richard's friend, Mo, watched over the cooler, telling Richard the number of cans and bottles left inside. Most of the men who help with the operation are compensated with free drinks. Richard kept an obsessive eye over the supply.

"Colt 45, it does it every time!" one of the patrons joked as he slipped two cans into a plastic bag.

The LAPD was out in force. One patrol car passed Richard's corner at a slow crawl, the officers staring him down.

Just the day before, Richard's crew of workers was confronted by Joseph, who warned the men they'd be taken to jail if he saw them sitting on the sidewalk. Richard stood up and then, when Joseph drove away, started selling beer again.

By noon, the supply was down to just a few cans. Richard sent a friend across the L.A. River to a liquor store in Boyle Heights.

Soon after, a tall woman stumbled up to the corner, flashed a $20 bill at Mo and asked for drugs.

"Just beer here," Mo responds. "Colt 45."

A brief argument ensued before Richard intervened. "Don't nobody sell no dope right here!" he yelled. "Take yourself around the corner! Go that way!"

Richard says he doesn't deal drugs any more and doesn't tolerate drug users on his corner. He thinks the LAPD will leave him alone if he keeps the operation "respectful."

But Joseph sees beer sales as a link to other types of crime.

"Narcotics and alcohol are a driving force of a lot of our crime — you can't separate the two," Joseph said. "In this 50-block radius … it all goes together. And if you don't deal with it all, you're just spinning your wheels."

::

Since opening the beer operation in February, Richard says he's saved about $2,000. On a lunch break that recent afternoon, he used some of the cash to buy a new boom box from a stall in the Toy District, then stopped for a cheeseburger on 7th Street.

Heading back toward his corner, he turned up San Julian Street, into the heart of skid row's drug trade. Dozens of people lingered on the sidewalk, dazed beneath the afternoon sun. Three LAPD cruisers rolled slowly by.

"Ladies and gentlemen, there is no sitting on the sidewalk," an officer said over a loudspeaker. "If you've got crack pipes, Brillo pads, push rods, anything illegal, get rid of it before you leave right now. And just don't come back."

"That's Joseph," Richard said as he heard the voice. "That's the big fish."

Richard crossed over to the other sidewalk, past the LAPD cars. But before he can turn off San Julian, a voice calls out from behind.

"Hey!" Joseph yells. "Mind if I holler at you real quick?"

Richard walks back slowly, stepping off the curb onto the street. Joseph hovers over him in black sunglasses.

"I'm not warning you guys anymore about sitting over there on 5th Street, all right?" Joseph said. "From now on it's going to be citations, the next time it's arrest. I'm not warning you anymore."

Richard answered politely, giving his full name and birth date.

Moments later, the showdown is over. Richard hurries away, grinning as he walks to his corner.

"I got no time to worry about that," he said. "They gotta catch me first."

::

The next day turned out to be Richard's last at 5th and San Pedro. Joseph issued citations to two members of his crew, and Richard decided to relocate to a new spot a couple blocks away.

To Officer Joseph, it was a sign that his strategy was working — slowly. The technique, coupled with recent city cleanups on skid row, is helping police "take the streets back, bit by bit," he said.

"Josh has had plenty of warnings," Joseph said. "If he's back over on 5th and San Pedro with beers, I'm going to follow through on my word. And everybody out there knows I'm a man of my word."

A few days later, Richard was at his new corner, sitting alone on top of his cooler and cradling the new boom box. Business had plummeted, but he wasn't giving up.

"Police is trippin'," he told a customer who had found him at the new location. "But I still got beer."

sam.allen@latimes.com

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