By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Gilmore recognized it, and joined the board of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), a citycounty clearinghouse for aid programs. Yet his experience there has left him more frustrated than encouraged. The various agencies and charity groups that assist the homeless -- and often speak for them -- have in Gilmore‘s view become wedded to the current, unacceptable state of affairs. “They need to maintain the status quo,” he said over a lunch at Pete’s Cafe, an upscale new restaurant and Gilmore tenant that seems to epitomize his vision of what the new downtown might look like.
To Gilmore, the first requirement is a commitment to change. And like Gilmore‘s vision of a revitalized downtown, it’s a conviction that‘s catching. Last month, Carol Schatz assembled Council Members Perry and Tom LaBonge along with new Police Chief William Bratton at a news conference a announcing a new “Public Health and Safety Plan” aimed at cleaning up Skid Row.
“It’s time for all those who share a concern about the homeless and about our neighborhood to look at this crisis in a new way,” Schatz told reporters. Added Chief Bratton, “We need to address the behavior that keeps people from coming into L.A. and gives the city a black eye.”
But if Gilmore and other business leaders are growing impatient, the service providers who work on Skid Row have become just as frustrated. They say they‘ve been working for years to help poor people find shelter and patch their lives together, only to see the “revitalization” movement snapping up what little low-cost housing is available. “You tear down slum buildings, and all you do is put people on the street,” said Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest with Las Familias del Pueblo. “It’s the height of hypocrisy to bemoan the homeless when they‘re forcing thousands of people out of the only housing they can afford.”
There is something darkly comical about the level of venom that infuses the debate over what will happen next downtown. Both sides claim to have the best interests of the city -- and the homeless -- at heart, and both voices disparage each other’s motives. Gilmore dismisses Callaghan as an “off-the-chart advocate” who is wedded to homelessness “because that‘s how she makes a living,” while Callaghan sneers at Gilmore’s “profits from distressed buildings.”
They even salt their invective with the same metaphors -- Gilmore derides Skid Row as a “Disneyland version of Calcutta,” while Callaghan sniffs that Gilmore and his tenants “can have their Disneyland Manhattan experience somewhere else.”
It might be more amusing were there not so much at stake. On the one hand, it‘s hard to argue when Schatz and Gilmore tie L.A.’s economic future to the quality of life downtown. On the other, it‘s hard to ignore Callaghan when she points out that “People have to live somewhere.” And by the time someone lands on Skid Row, it’s less of a choice than a destiny. “Life is tough on the Row,” she said. “There‘s always a reason that someone’s here and not somewhere else.”
Skid Row has served as the bottom rung of the class ladder in Los Angeles for close to a century -- a resting place for newcomers, transients, prostitutes and addicts. Located just south and east of City Hall, encompassing some 50 city blocks, it included the terminus of the railroad and, later, the Greyhound bus station. By the end of World War II the district was already crowded with bars, low-rent hotels and “missions” devoted to saving what souls they could entice with free meals and beds.
The buildings were cheap and the landlords stingy, and by the early 1970s about half the low-rent rooms were demolished at the direction of city code-enforcement officers. About the same time, city leaders adopted a redevelopment plan that would replace the tenements of Bunker Hill with the glass-and-steel office towers that now dominate the city skyline.
It became apparent that something had to be done to keep what was left of L.A.‘s stock of housing for poor people, or there would be none left at all. Redevelopment officials came up with a “policy of containment” to preserve the several thousand remaining units of low-rent housing in the Skid Row district, and to focus the efforts of charities and government agencies serving the poor. In effect, what it meant over the years is that “The government created Skid Row. The plan was to make Skid Row attractive and the rest of the city unattractive to transients,” said Gene Boutillier, former director of LAHSA and now a director of the L.A. Coalition To End Hunger and Homelessness.
The city pursued that policy for 20 years. The CRA spent more than $20 million to help rehab several dozen single-room-occupancy hotels, which feature cramped quarters and shared bathrooms, and put them in the hands of nonprofit operators. For services, the venerable Midnight Mission and Union Rescue Mission were joined by special-purpose newcomers like the Weingart Center and the Los Angeles Men’s Project, or LAMP, which seeks to help find stable living situations for the mentally ill.
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