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Off My Back 

'Shirts' and homeless battle over the sidewalks of America

Wednesday, May 16 2001
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Johnson remembers the days when you could spend the night undisturbed in the seats of Broadway‘s old Cameo Theater for $1.40. He remembers the days before the ’92 riots brought steel shutters to nearly every storefront downtown, when you could still sleep in a doorway without having to worry about the rats that scurry through the alleys. Long ago, he got used to the rhythms of the LAPD‘s interactions with the homeless, the 6 a.m. wake-ups, the occasional sweeps, the periodic shopping-cart confiscations that came when a cop had nothing better to do: “About every 30 days you had to find a new cart. You expected that.”

And Johnson remembers very well his first encounter with the private security guards hired by the downtown business-improvement districts -- the “shirts,” so named for the distinctively colored top halves of their uniforms (yellow shirts for the garment district, red on Skid Row and in the toy district, green on Broadway, purple on Bunker Hill). It happened a few years back, when Johnson was supporting himself recycling cans and bottles fished from garment-district trash cans. The yellow shirts set a precedent, Johnson says: no shopping carts on their turf. “Early one morning I was picking some cans out of a trash can. A yellow shirt stepped out of his car to let me know he was armed and said, ’You can‘t pick through the trash.’” Over the next few months, yellow shirts confiscated his cart “seven, eight, 10 times,” often calling the police, who wrote him tickets he couldn‘t pay. Late last fall, Johnson still wore a County Jail wristband earned with a series of unpaid tickets.

These days, he says, “Nobody sleeps in the garment district” because of the yellow shirts’ early vigilance. The homeless were all chased out -- often literally escorted to the edge of the area -- in the years after the creation of the Fashion District Business Improvement District (BID) in 1995. Since then, almost every inch of downtown has been covered by a BID, each with its own colorfully garbed “safety team,” as their employers call them. Perhaps the greatest single indicator of municipal neglect, BIDs are created when property owners or merchants in a given area elect to tax themselves to finance services that the city provides inadequately or not at all. They use the money to clean sidewalks, remove graffiti, hype the area to potential customers, and patrol the streets with all the swagger, if none of the legal authority, of police officers.

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It is that last function, and its alleged abuse, that led Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and an advocate for the homeless who runs the Skid Row community center Las Familias del Pueblo, to persuade attorneys from the ACLU and the law firm Morrison & Foerster to file suit -- in November 1999, on behalf of 12 Skid Row residents -- against four BIDs (the Downtown Industrial District, Toy Town, the Fashion District, and the Historic Core BID, which covers the Broadway commercial strip and surrounding blocks) and the security firms contracted by them. The suit contends that the “shirts” were regularly and systematically intimidating the area‘s homeless in an attempt to badger them off their turf.

On Monday, the Fashion District, the oldest and largest of the downtown BIDs, agreed to settle the case. The settlement sticks largely to the terms of an interim agreement signed by all the BIDs a few weeks after the lawsuit was filed: Security guards would not tell anyone to move on if they were on public property, they would not search anyone, photograph them or demand ID. While that agreement was in force, the worst sorts of harassment -- the searches and mug shots -- all but disappeared, though other forms of intimidation continued. The interim agreement, however, expired last September 30, and, though the Fashion District’s yellow shirts continued to act in good faith, the other BID security forces, Callaghan and sources on the street allege, have reverted to their old ways. Unless that changes, and the remaining BIDs agree to a settlement enforceable in court, says Dan Marmalefsky of Morrison and Foerster, “We‘ll litigate and take it as far as we need to.”

For their part, BID lawyers are equally willing to see the case to trial. Donald Steier, attorney for the Central City East Association, which runs the Downtown Industrial District and Toy Town BIDs, rejects allegations of wrongdoing and bristles at the notion of court oversight, which he says would prevent the CCEA from keeping its insurance coverage.

The case will not likely go to trial until next year. Whatever happens, the stakes are high. At issue are not only the experiences of the 12 men who signed on to the suit, says Callaghan, but the increasing privatization of public space that the rise of business improvement districts represents: “We’re seeing a privatization of the police force that ought to be troubling to everyone.” Catholic Worker volunteer Jeff Dietrich, who helps run the Hippie Kitchen, is more blunt about the danger posed by BID-employed security: “From our perspective, they‘re a private army. They’re no different from a vigilante group formed and paid for by business people and property owners.” Their job is not to prevent crime, Dietrich charges, but to maximize the profitability of the areas they patrol. “They want no experiences that diminish people‘s desire to spend money.”

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