The New Urban Frontier: A User’s Guide 

Thursday, Apr 28 2005
My rating scale for those out prospecting downtown digs is not unlike Hotel.com’s 5-star system, with some obvious differences. Since the levels of amenities, facilities and services that I’m rating don’t lend themselves to stars, per se, I will employ a 5-shopping-cart scale. The fewer carts, the more derelict is your potential rooming situation.

A 5-star (Deluxe) score from Hotel.com means hotel lobbies that are “sumptuous,” rooms with stylish furnishing and quality linens, amenities that often include VCRs, CD stereos, garden tubs or Jacuzzis, an in-room video library, heated pools, fitness clubs, and up to three restaurants, some with exquisite menus and 24-hour room service. Places that offer only the highest level of Skid Row accommodations get a 5-shopping-cart rating (Humble) from me. Most 5-cart accommodations are SROs (single-room-occupancy) hotels run by nonprofits that offer safe “communal intimacy” only a few feet away from the eye of a toxic hurricane. Amenities are usually limited to the bare essentials: a bed or cot, some threadbare sheets, sometimes a caseworker on site. Public access is often limited after certain hours.

My lowest rating, 1 cart (Subhuman), is reserved for street encampments. Furnishings are nonexistent; bathroom facilities are almost always rat-infested and may be overcome with the smell of feces and urine. Rooming situations typically consist of a tent, box or bare sidewalk. Sorry, no restaurant on site, but some are within walking distance. Public access, past certain hours, is not restricted. Crack, heroin and, more recently, crystal meth are available at reduced rates, 24 hours a day. Prostitution is also available at much-reduced rates — as low as $1 to $5 per trick, depending upon the availability of a Porto-Potty.

The rating scale is as follows: 5 Carts (Humble), 4 Carts (Modest), 3 Carts (Cesspool), 2 Carts (Shithole), 1 Cart (Subhuman).

E=Emergency housing, T=Temporary housing, P=Permanent housing, I=Income-adjusted rates, S=Shelter, N=Nonprofit, S&P=Feces and urine on site, SRO=Single-room-occupancy hotel, L=Loft.

Since there are so many possible living situations downtown, I’ve confined my guide to the area between Second and Ninth streets, and between Broadway and San Pedro Street.

The Volunteers of America Drop-in Center

628 San Julian St.

Modest (E, N, I)

Since it opened in April of 1999, the Drop-in Center serves about 800 people a day. The lobby features a large open patio where guests are allowed to curl up on smooth concrete floors when the beds are taken. Aluminum fixtures and cinder-block walls give VOA guests that modern/institutional comfort they’ve come to expect on the Row. The community room has polished concrete floors, African wall hangings, a mounted color-television set and orange plastic chairs. With 32 beds, the Drop-in Center isn’t a shelter proper, but you can take a nap, get a shower and wash your clothes. It’s a little heavy on the Pine-O-San cleaner smell in there, but I guess there’s no way around that. Walking distance to all Skid Row feeders.

Rooms: 10-by-15-foot cubicles (four beds separated by 4-foot-high cinder-block walls).

Amenities, entertainment & area attractions: Community shower, bed, blanket, laundry service. Phone calls, message board. TV in Community Room. Skid Row Street Theater (verbal altercations, psychiatric episodes including psychotic outbursts, violent assaults as well as junkie drama, occasional shootings and stabbings). Heroin, crack and hookers are available within spitting distance, as are case management, job development, housing, legal aid, personal mentors, social activities, self-help groups and literacy classes.

Restaurants: L.A. Mission, Fred Davis Mission, Union Mission, Weingart Center, Midnight Mission, Hippie Kitchen.

Food: Coffee 24/7.

Comments: “This wall separates God from the devil,” a man with cartoonishly large, swollen, bandaged feet tells me on my way out. He’s referring to the cinder-block wall that separates the VOA Drop-in Center from the street. I understand it to be a ringing endorsement.

The Simone

520 San Julian St. (Skid Row Housing Trust)

Modest (P, SRO, I, N)

This 123-unit facility is located directly across from San Julian Park on Fifth Street. Polished concrete floors and lots of open air give it a modern feel that is the SRO design signature of architect Jim Bonner. The Simone, completed in August 1992, was the first newly constructed SRO on Skid Row since the turn of the century, and it has become a symbol for all that followed. Income-adjusted rates make it a great choice for those on general relief or supplemental-security income transitioning off the Row.

Rooms: 10-by-10-foot singles.

Amenities, entertainment & area attractions: Single bed, nightstand, desk, small chair and small refrigerator. Community TV in each of two lobbies. Karaoke at the Church of the Nazarene at Sixth and San Pedro. Skid Row Street Theater (verbal altercations, psychiatric episodes including psychotic outbursts, violent assaults as well as junkie drama, occasional shootings and stabbings). Heroin, crack and hookers are available within spitting distance.

Food: Public kitchen, vending machines.

Restaurants: L.A. Mission, Union Mission, Weingart Center, Midnight Mission, Hippie Kitchen, Fred Jordan Mission.

Policies: No drugs. Additional guests pay a $5 money order to stay after 5 p.m. No cooking in room.

Comments: Clyde, a meticulously groomed 40-year-old black man with shoulder-length, chemically straightened hair, in crisply pressed white linen slacks and faux-snakeskin shoes, is a former homeless parolee who’s been at the Simone for a couple of years. “Wonderful, clean, upgrade hotel,” he beams. “The manager is wonderful. She’ll go there with you, but she has boundaries. I give it three stars.”

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