Streets, Sweet, Streets

If you’ve spent much time at all in downtown Los Angeles over the past couple of years, you‘ve probably run across William Nowell. Or at least, you probably caught a whiff of him.

Nowell passes his days crouched on the sidewalk on Broadway, midway between the Criminal Courts Building and the headquarters of the L.A. Times, surrounded by a pile of trash. His hair is matted, his feet are bare, and his stench, especially on warm days, hovers around him like a force field.

With his prominent perch and unmistakable presence, Nowell has become perhaps the most visible expression of the “homeless problem” that has become something of a Los Angeles hallmark. But while city leaders and bureaucrats have been content for at least a generation to allow the region’s human flotsam to congregate on Skid Row, just blocks from City Hall, a new coalition of entrepreneurs and politicians has determined to clean up the streets of downtown. Last spring, they decided to start with Nowell.

On June 3, Dena Sohn, a deputy city attorney recently named as the neighborhood prosecutor for the downtown area, indicted Nowell on 14 misdemeanor counts of trespassing, littering and defecating on state property. Three months later, after a weeklong jury trial, Nowell was acquitted on all counts.

Back at his Broadway digs, nestled in his heap of refuse and recyclables, Nowell scoffed at the efforts to move him off the street. “They called five cops to the stand, like I was John Gotti or something,” he said. But loitering is legal, and one person‘s trash is another’s treasure -- points of law that helped Nowell prevail.

Sohn made it clear that she will not be deterred by her frustrating first round in court. As part of her neighborhood-prosecutor duties, Sohn has attended scores of meetings with business and civic groups, and has worked with City Councilwoman Jan Perry to draft new ordinances to ban camping on sidewalks and public urination and defecation. “Los Angeles is really the only major city in the country that hasn‘t aggressively attacked the problems of blight in the inner city,” Sohn said. Now, with developers sinking investment capital into dilapidated buildings downtown and the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) embarking on a massive, 30-year renewal program, the question can no longer be ignored. “We’re at a turning point, and we need to make a decision,” Sohn said. “It‘s about getting people off the street and cleaning up the trash.”

Sohn emphasized that she considered the cleanup effort a humanitarian project. “They’re not choosing to live like that,” she said of the more than 3,000 people who camp every night on the sidewalks of Skid Row and across downtown. “They‘re so out-there on crack or whatever that they’re living in their own filth and feces and urine, and it‘s just not right.”

On that point, however, William Nowell would disagree. Looking up from his customary squat, peering out through a tangle of matted dreadlocks, Nowell is articulate, with piercing eyes and a keen understanding of the forces arrayed against him. “They say they’re doing it for the homeless, but that‘s all a crock of shit. They’re doing it to tidy up downtown. They want to scrub it and sanitize it so that people will come down and live in all these lofts they‘re spending millions of dollars on.”

As Nowell’s week in court made clear, the battle for downtown will have to be fought incrementally, and the outcome remains far from certain. For his own part, Nowell has no intention of cooperating. “I have to live somewhere,” he said. “I‘m not going to tuck myself away in some cubbyhole somewhere so I don’t piss somebody off.”

For a movement involving so many different interests, with such broad implications for the life of the city, the drive to clean up Skid Row can be attributed to a surprisingly finite source: developer Tom Gilmore and his audacious plans to revitalize L.A.‘s downtown core.

A native of New York, Gilmore took a look at the dilapidated and sometimes boarded-up buildings of L.A.’s central city and became convinced that he could breathe life into a district that had become an economic ghost town.

In that, Gilmore has largely succeeded. Where city officials issued just 400 permits for construction of new residential units in 1999, the year Gilmore started, this year that figure grew to more than 4,000. In the meantime, the downtown corridor has added Staples sports arena, a new cathedral, and a new concert hall is nearly finished. The value of commercial property is surging.

The early success has generated hunger for more. In May, the City Council approved plans to invest $2.4 billion into redevelopment projects across downtown. And last month, Staples Center executive Tim Leiweke, billionaire developer Eli Broad and Councilwoman Perry traveled to New York with Carol Schatz of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District to tout “an exciting story of growth and renewal” to potential East Coast investors.

From the outset, however, Gilmore saw that any downtown renaissance would require a new commitment by the city to rid the streets of the squatters, drug addicts and indigent mentally ill. “How can you be a businessman downtown and not recognize the 15,000 -- or whatever the hell it is -- this homeless population three blocks away from your business?” he said.

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.

The policy has achieved mixed results. On the housing front, the steady erosion of low-income rentals was stopped but never reversed -- there are just half the cheap units available now as in, say, 1965. And while about 80 small hotels have been taken over and now offer clean, safe, affordable lodgings, the majority of Skid Row housing is still provided by a handful of hulking old hotels that stand along the western border of the district: the Cecil, the Roslyn, the Alexandria, the Frontier and several more. Each offers hundreds of rooms, and each is considered by city officials and by poverty activists alike as slum housing that is beneath acceptable social standards.

The decision to concentrate social services has had more success, but has engendered problems of its own. With free meals, clothes and sometimes rooms routinely available, Skid Row has become a natural destination for homeless people on the move from almost any point west of the Mississippi. Law-enforcement agencies pitch in, releasing inmates from state prison and short-term lockup onto the street to mix with vagrants and the financially bereft. Even Sheriff Lee Baca, who has campaigned for new solutions to homelessness, admits to releasing 35 to 50 prisoners a day into the neighborhood east of downtown.

The CRA has moved to break the Skid Row stalemate with a scheme that calls for gutting most of the larger SRO hotels and installing new apartments, some of which would include rent subsidies for the poor. But homeless activists promptly filed suit to block the plan, contending that the renovations would remove thousands of bottom-dollar units from the market.

Don Spivak, deputy administrator for the CRA, said the plan includes $73 million in funds for low-income housing, but he concedes that the money will not be available for years. In the meantime, he said, the SRO hotels should be renovated because “they are not adequate or decent housing.”

Becky Dennison of the Community Action Network and other activists agree that conditions on Skid Row demand a response, but say that adequate housing -- for an estimated 4,000 people living in slum conditions, and another 3,000 or so living on the street -- must be located first. And that would take an unprecedented investment of public funds. Mitchell Netburn, executive director at the LAHSA, said New York City tackled its homeless problem only after deciding -- after a lawsuit forced its hand -- to offer “shelter on demand.” That city‘s homeless-services agency currently spends roughly $500 million a year -- 10 times as much as its a L.A. counterpart. “There’s a huge disparity in funding between the two cities,” Netburn said.

But the housing mantra has worn thin for the business community and its representatives. “The rhetoric is about housing,” Tom Gilmore said, “but I‘m not sure that’s the problem.” And civic leaders flatly reject the 20-year time frame that major new housing projects would entail. Said Jan Perry, whose district includes Skid Row, “I don‘t intend to spend four years in office and allow nothing to happen.”

In the short term, at least, Perry will exhort the City Council to turn the question over to the police. Both of her ordinances, on encampments and on public urination and defecation, will bar practices that the street cops who patrol Skid Row have come to tolerate, at least during stretches between sporadic crackdowns.

Both laws are likely to be tested, however, and William Nowell’s successful defense shows how tough that test can be. Past litigation brought by Callaghan and the ACLU has firmly established the constitutional limits of police harassment for crimes like litter and vagrancy. Whatever the state of city ordinances, the police must walk a thin line.

Some believed officers crossed that line with the parole sweeps conducted last month, which resulted in 192 arrests, more than half of ex-cons violating their parole. Charlie Beck, captain of the LAPD‘s Central Division, stressed in a community meeting that the sweeps were part of his strategy for weeding predators out of the Skid Row mix, and not designed to roust people legally on the street.

Planning for the sweeps, which involved more than 100 parole officers from around the state, began even before Chief Bratton took office. As for demands that police clear the squatters and transients off the sidewalks downtown, Beck said, “Until you have alternatives in place, you can’t just legislate these problems away.”

For cops on the beat, “It‘s kind of a juggling process,” said Sergeant Jim MacDonald, head of the LAPD’s Eastside Detail, the squad charged with breaking down encampments and otherwise clearing the sidewalks of Skid Row. During a morning drive through the district -- MacDonald‘s shift starts at 4 a.m. -- there’s no shortage of technical violations of the law. Tents are everywhere, crack pipes flare in plain view, and fights between destitute street hustlers erupt with regularity. Slim and ruddy-faced, with a slow, Oklahoma drawl, MacDonald moves deliberately, intervening only in the egregious case.

Making constant arrests for minor infractions, he said, would only take him off the street -- for the hours-long process of booking and then for court appearances -- and result in only brief interludes for the miscreants in county lockup. “The system is just overburdened and broken down,” MacDonald said. “I agree with the broken-windows theory of law enforcement” -- the strategy, championed by Chief Bratton, of combating crime by targeting obvious, minor violations -- “but the courts are so bogged down by the big problems that they‘ve got no room for the little ones.”

The sergeant fields complaints from businesses, keeps an eye out for felons and new faces on the street, and makes sure that certain hot spots are kept relatively clear. Standing to one side as the denizens of one encampment packed up their scattered belongings, MacDonald said, “I feel like I can make a difference out here.”

But perhaps not the difference the business and political leaders are looking for. Terry Cammack is another Skid Row cop, a senior lead officer with 35 years on the job. He is not afraid to make arrests -- he’s one of the officers who testified against William Nowell. But like MacDonald, Cammack has learned to weigh the situations he encounters on his own scales of right and wrong. “You have to find the median between the extremes,” Cammack said. “We can go out and enforce a lot of different things, but it always comes down to the question ‘Where are they going to go?’”

And as law enforcement increases the pressure, the answer lies farther and farther from the confines of Skid Row. According to Cammack, the policy of containment is already beginning to unravel. He‘s finding homeless encampments in city parks, in the Westlake district and on freeway offramps that he patrols with the CHP. “It’s grown exponentially,” Cammack said. “It‘s wider than you could ever imagine.”


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