[Hpn] NYTIMES: In Los Angeles, Skid Row Resists an Upgrade

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Tue, 15 Jul 2003 08:59:01 -0700

July 15, 2003

In Los Angeles, Skid Row Resists an Upgrade

OS ANGELES, July 13 ‹ The eastern quarter of downtown Los Angeles is a
cattle pen, an outdoor outhouse, a human calamity. It is the largest
concentration of homelessness in the country.

Thousands of people in the 50 blocks known as Skid Row live on the sidewalks
in tents and cardboard condominiums. Thousands more sleep on mission cots,
in the back seats of automobiles and in flophouses. Those who can manage it
take hotel rooms with creaking bedsprings that let for $107 a week, plus a
$2 deposit for a pillow.

A welfare check will buy two weeks in a hotel, an unemployment check will
buy three, a Social Security check four. For most, the cash stream dries up
in the middle of the month, and then they are back on the street, riding the
carousel of misery until a new check arrives.

Skid Row has been 100 years in the making, but things are changing in the
"Nickel," the center of homelessness in a city with 41,000 homeless people,
a number that is by all accounts rising. With housing scarce and rents high,
there is an effort to revitalize the bleak district bound by Main, Alameda,
Third and Seventh Streets into something livable and neighborly.

Downtown property is hot. Government agencies are moving in. The Roman
Catholic Church recently consecrated a $189 million cathedral, and
developers have plans to convert fleabag hotels like the El Dorado and the
Frontier into lofts and condominiums. Five thousand housing units are in the

The holdup is Skid Row, whose outer edges are now an incongruous mix of
women in rags and mudlike faces and women in sweet perfumes and tailored

Once, long ago, this was the choicest part of the city. Silent-movie stars
and presidents stayed in hotels like the Alexandria, with its opulent
staircases and marble walls. Today, welfare families live there, and the
surrounding streets are chockablock with cut-rate garment shacks, liquor
stores, warehouses, flower and fish wholesalers and people felled by mental
diseases, drugs and bad luck.

Police Chief William J. Bratton, borrowing a page from his days in New York,
has instituted sweeps against the so-called quality-of-life criminals who,
as the theory goes, will graduate to bigger crimes if left unchecked.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the city, arguing that it is
rousting sidewalk sleepers without giving them beds. Recently, the city
agreed to pay nearly $170,000 to dozens of homeless people who were caught
up in the sweeps and then filed suit, charging improper arrest.

Chief Bratton defends the crackdown. "Many there don't want help," he said.
"They'll take food and free clothes, but they want to live on the streets.
While I have compassion, my job is to do something about it."

Skid Row reeks of a chicken yard. The portable toilets are often used as
shooting galleries by addicts, or as makeshift bordellos. Dealers also
peddle in front of churches and in view of the local police station.

The women without shelter sleep near the safety of the missions. The
mentally ill are left to their demons. The hardcore stay on St. Julian
Street ‹ stickmen with glittering eyes and violent impulses. The hotels are
occupied by Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones. The rule of thumb says half the guests
are drunk, one-third are crazy, a quarter are service veterans and nearly
all have a police record.

Five in the morning is when the police start to roust people from their
tents and boxes, the missions begin making breakfast and the smell of coffee

"I walk at night and sleep in the day," says Alonzso Regazzi, 37, a
not-so-down-in-the-heels type who says he does not belong on these
gum-stained boulevards. He recently had a job in a doctor's office, he says,
and his turn in fortune can be blamed on a nagging wife called crack.

Mr. Regazzi is better off than most out here, with his polished shoes and
college education. He is one of the few who, when they hit bottom, bounce.
His unemployment checks come every other Thursday, totaling about $775.

"You can't go lower than Skid Row," he says, having found himself a room
near the Harbor Freeway. He offered to show a visitor around.

The Midnight Mission on Los Angeles Street is considered the superior eatery
on Skid Row. A person is not made to listen to a prayer lecture before being
allowed to the table, and there are seconds and thirds.

A clean-looking man, Larry Hatcher, inquires about a friend who fell on hard
times. One woman is crying, asking Jesus something. Another says she will
not appear in court to answer a ticket for sleeping on the sidewalk.

"They give you a ticket for sleeping on the sidewalk?" Mr. Hatcher asks,
arching an eyebrow. "Where are you supposed to go?"

"Jail," says Joy, the one with the ticket.

"Out of the state," says her friend Heidy Pandolfi.

"So my friend could be in jail?" asks the man.

"He probably is," snaps Joy.

Mr. Hatcher appears shocked. He wipes his eyes. "I didn't know it was like
this," he says. "There's a lot of misery."

A sign above the women quotes what was, until recently, a rarely enforced
law: "No person shall sit, lie, or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or
other public way."

A man across the street disassembles his tent, arguing with an invisible
roommate. The gates on the trinket shops that sell pink poodles and "I H
L.A." T-shirts rattle open. When business opens, it's time to get up, and by
8 a.m., the homeless are moving again, headed nowhere.

Homelessness is on the rise across the county, experts say. Unemployment is
up, housing is scarce, counties and cities are cutting budgets. In New York,
the number of people seeking shelter is up 65 percent since the Sept. 11,
2001, attacks, officials there say. In Chicago, the number of homeless
families is up 35 percent from 2001. But in Los Angeles, the problem is
gargantuan. With half the population of New York, it has more people on the
streets than New York has in its shelters. An additional 45,000 people are
homeless in greater Los Angeles County. While New York will spend $640
million on homeless services this year, Los Angeles will spend just $50
million and provide fewer than 13,000 beds.

"The lack of concern for the homeless in Los Angeles is disgraceful," says
Lee Baca, the Los Angeles County sheriff, who is fond of saying that his
20,000-bed jail is the largest homeless shelter and psychiatric hospital in
the city. "The punitive approach solves absolutely nothing without services
to get these people integrated back into society."

Officials who drive out the homeless are like children who push vegetables
around a plate, claiming they are gone, said Clancy Imislund, the managing
director of the Midnight Mission, himself a former Skid Row resident.
"Homelessness is an unsolvable dilemma," Mr. Imislund says. "New York throws
$640 million to enable people to keep doing what they're doing. In my 29
years here, I'm convinced not much can be done. All we can do is to help the
few that want it and give comfort to those who need it."

The history of vagrancy in Los Angeles is a long one, beginning in the
1870's, when the railroads converged on downtown and the first tramps
stepped off the trains. The Midnight Mission was founded in 1914, and now
serves 55,000 meals a month. In 1936, during the the Depression, the police
began their so-called Bum Blockade, keeping out-of-town migrants and tramps
from entering the city. In the early 1980's, when the mental hospitals
emptied out, the city concentrated services for the down-and-out on Skid

A city within a city has developed, with citizens from everywhere. Some come
from prison, some are runaways, some are former foster children who turned
18, some are refugees of the 9-to-5 world, some are mothers with children.
More than half are alcoholics, studies show.

As the shadows grow longer and the afternoon cools, the flies dissipate and
action on the street picks up. People leave their rooms, the overpasses, the
shadows of the missions. Bills change hands, bundles of euphoria are
exchanged, and the missions start preparing supper.

Alonzso Regazzi says he is caught in this world. He fell into the street
life a few years ago, drew away, and came back. He sees Skid Row as a
spectacular social failure.

"They really are right to clean this place out," Mr. Regazzi says, walking
down Los Angeles Street, on the shady part of the boulevard, explaining his
life to a stranger.

Sobering up was the easy part, Mr. Regazzi says. "The hard part is facing
the world after you're sober."

"So people get addicted to the chaos," he offers. "It's easier than

There are, of course, programs. He tried them. But programs only work for
those who want them to work. "Jesus helps those who help themselves, right?"
Mr. Regazzi says.

There are many ways to earn a living here, he adds: drugs, prostitution or
selling parking-meter time to commuters using the old slug-on-a-string
method. Welfare is available to indigent single adults ‹ $212 a month from
the county ‹ but recipients must prove they are seeking work, and so many do
not bother.

People here commonly die by the knife, by the needle, by the front end of a
bus, but rarely by suicide, Mr. Regazzi says. He recommends the Hotel Cecil,
a common stop on the coroner's route.

"It's the best on Skid Row," Mr. Regazzi says. He stays there occasionally.
The lobby is done up with a two-tone marble. There is a small diner and a
security man at the elevator. A thumb print and cash are required. The halls
are filled with laughter. The toilet on the 15th floor is overflowing.

Outside the hotel, a few men stand around selling drugs. One thin man tells
Mr. Regazzi that it wouldn't hurt him to look, and Mr. Regazzi gets the
feeling that this very man will someday be preaching on this very same
corner. The police circle by, and the hustlers scatter.

A few duck into Crabby Joe's bar at Main and Seventh, and when a crowd like
this enters, a little guy named Ike gives the twice-over before dispensing a

Mr. Regazzi nurses a beer, considering the totality of his life. It is
growing dark outside. "I'm not like the bums out here," he says. "I'm not
born to it. I've never lived in a tent. I'm sure I'll look back on this when
I crawl out and say I knew what the bottom was like." He finishes his beer.
Ike watches him go out.

A woman is howling under the street lights. "I been in this neighborhood 30
years," Ike says, "and I don't see nothing changing. It's never going to

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

chance martin, Project Coordinator
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