L.A.'s Culture War Over the Last True Skid Row in America | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

L.A.'s Culture War Over the Last True Skid Row in America 

Thursday, Jul 24 2014
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“We want everything to get better, yeah. But people have decided it should all be Disneyland.” —Nickel Diner co-owner Monica May

A black man in a filthy, yellow, collared shirt lies sprawled out in the middle of the Sixth Street sidewalk, out cold. No more than four inches from his face is a Business Improvement District officer, who shouts again: "Yo!"

"Is he breathing?" asks a woman passing by, worried.

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - The Nickel Diner, owned by Kristen Trattner, left, and Monica May, is among the few places that serves everyone, from cops to street people to career types.
  • The Nickel Diner, owned by Kristen Trattner, left, and Monica May, is among the few places that serves everyone, from cops to street people to career types.

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"Yeah," the officer replies, putting on a pair of rubber gloves.

"Oh," the woman says, walking off. A white man in a suit looks up from his smartphone just in time to see the obstruction and skips over the prone man, barely breaking stride.

"Sir, I'm gonna need you to get up!" shouts the private security officer, clad in the trademark bicycle helmet and green shirt of the Historic Core Business Improvement District. Downtown is dotted with BIDs, each one in a distinct color — yellow shirts for the Fashion District, blue shirts for the Arts District, and so on. They're essentially security guards hired by businesses to patrol the streets; they wear shiny badges but have little power other than to tell certain undesirables to keep moving.

"Sir! Sir!" the BID officer shouts. The homeless man rolls onto his back. A fly lands on his lips. "Sir, let's go, you're in the way here."

A black man in a T-shirt comes by with a coconut popsicle and says, "Eat that ice cream. Gives you some energy." The BID officer unwraps it. The homeless man's eyes remain closed, but his hand moves, instinctively, toward the popsicle, and he takes a tiny, careful bite.

"This whole walkway has to be clear," says the BID officer, who's now been at this for more than 15 minutes in the hot, midday sun. The inert man's eyes finally open to gaze upon the white-colored popsicle in wonder, and he mumbles, "This is all right!"

"Albert!" shouts another black man in a vest and ski hat, marching up the block. "Get your ass up!" In an aside to the officer, he says, "This is my boy."

"This is all right," Albert repeats, the cobwebs finally starting to clear.

"Albert, let's roll. Let's go eat."

And with that, the two trudge eastward, into Skid Row, a name that appears on almost no maps of Los Angeles yet is known far and wide as the area given over to the city's most destitute.

As shocking as it is to look upon the rows and rows of makeshift encampments and thousands of roving, hopeless people, perhaps even more shocking is this: Los Angeles is the last major American city with a single district of anything approaching this magnitude of homelessness and extreme poverty.

The Tenderloin in San Francisco is tiny by comparison. Seattle's once-dreary Skid Row is dotted with art galleries and trendy coffee shops. And all you need to know about New York City's Bowery is that it now has a Whole Foods.

The last true Skid Row in America is right here in Los Angeles.

Its name has been wiped clean off of official maps and even fire engines, replaced by the antiseptic "Central City East." But the area still contains the highest concentration of homelessness in America. You have to go all the way up to the east end of Vancouver, British Columbia, to find anything close.

"Los Angeles is unique in having failed miserably in making any headway in the area of homelessness," says Gary Blasi, professor of law emeritus at UCLA and one of the region's foremost experts on homelessness. "It is really an unbelievable outlier."

Last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti, standing in Century City alongside First Lady Michelle Obama, pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2016, similar to a campaign promise he made. Blasi wasn't exactly impressed, calling it "a publicity stunt that, to some degree, was disconnected from the realities on the streets. ... He and the First Lady seemed only to talk about hiring unemployed veterans. Unemployment is the least of their problems."

Between 6,000 and 8,000 veterans are chronically homeless in L.A. County, and as with all homelessness, the only solution that has succeeded in ending the cycle is an approach known as "permanent supportive housing." Garcetti's plan, however well-intentioned, doesn't appear to include it.

"This is a shell game," says attorney Carol Sobel, who has successfully sued Los Angeles — more than once — for violating the rights of homeless people. "What they've done is taken vets and moved them to the front of the line. What you need is a bigger pie. The city has never put it in additional money."

Skid Row isn't just a frame of mind; various laws and court rulings have actually set official, legal boundaries for it: Third Street to the north, Alameda Street to the east, Seventh Street to the south and Main Street to the west. But the tide of urban renewal is beginning to lap up upon its urine-soaked shores; the astonishing rise of a new, middle- and upper-middle-class downtown means that the poverty-stricken area is shrinking. It once was 50 square blocks; now it's closer to 40.

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