Gentrification Comes to LA’s Skid Row, and the Homeless Get the Shaft

By Charles Davis

A street corner in downtown Los Angeles. Photo via Flickr user Toni Heim

One of the worst things about being rich is sometimes you're forced to interact with the poor. When not in a sitting in orthopedic chairs in skyscrapers or on Italian leather sofas in luxury condos, the wealthy are often forced to walk on their own two legs—at street level—as if they were proletarian slobs. And this is upsetting because, on a sidewalk, anyone, even the hideously unprivileged, can look you in the eye.

Developer Geoffrey H. Palmer thinks this is wrong. In 2009, the real estate mogul sued the city of Los Angeles and successfully overturned its requirement that he provide some affordable housing in his massive faux-Italian apartment complexes. But while that kept poor people out, it didn't do anything to address the problem of the poor people Palmer’s wealthy future tenants would have to deal with in the still-gentrifying downtown area.

So when Palmer started construction on two new buildings, complete with a pool and indoor basketball court, he proposed a pedestrian bridge connecting them to minimize “potential incidents that could occur during the evening hours, when the homeless population is more active in the surrounding area.” In other words, the rich will be able to literally walk over the less fortunate.

Initially, city planners rejected Palmer’s proposal, arguing that the area next to the 110 freeway would be improved by having more street traffic. But Palmer appealed the decision, maintaining that to force his tenants to “use the street and interact with the homeless population” would be an injustice to the morally upstanding bankers and real estate agents who will be moving in to his new development.

Local business leaders had his back. “There's 20 people now encamped underneath that freeway,” Hal Bastian, executive vice president of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, told the Los Angeles Times. “This bridge is essential while the area is going through its transition.” There are still poor people there, Bastian was saying, so this bridge is a necessary compromise while we work to push them out.

The LA City Council unanimously approved the bridge in April, the latest in a long series of signs that big business and the local government have decided that downtown Los Angeles belongs to the rich, and that the poor who already live there need to go.

Two decades ago, the area was all but forgotten by the city's elite. Many of the lavish million-dollar theaters built along Broadway in the 1920s and 30s had been converted into evangelical churches and low-end retail outlets, and the massive, ornate apartment buildings erected back when downtown was the cultural center of LA had been transformed into sweatshops for the textile industry. But now, downtown is being “revitalized,” meaning it’s once again full of mustachioed white people drinking Prohibition-era cocktails—and those who once called it home are being pushed out.

A group of homeless people on Skid Row. Photo via Flickr user Neon Tommy

These changes are most obvious on Skid Row, an industrial district full of warehouses and thousands of poor people. Some live in pay-by-the-week hotels, and others make homes out of tents—a stark reminder, in an era of record corporate profits, that our civilized society leaves many of its people out in the cold. For years, no one gave much of a damn about the people of Skid Row or what they did, as the population was safely segregated far away from rich neighborhoods in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills.

Then the people with money started coming back. In 1998, the Staples Center, home to both of LA's basketball teams and a number of chain restaurants, was constructed at the cost of $345 million ($531 million in today's dollars). The cash started spreading through the rest of downtown to the point that those on the fringes—those sleeping under freeways and on the streets—found themselves on the front lines of gentrification. The once affordable (if not luxurious) housing got renovated to accommodate the young professional couples taking the place of the poorer tenants. The city began enforcing an ordinance banning the homeless from sleeping on the street—literally criminalizing poverty—until a federal court ruled that this constituted cruel and unusual punishment; now the rule is only enforced during daylight hours.

Helping speed this transition along are eight business-improvement districts, groups formed by local property owners and merchants that impose fees on local businesses to fund private security forces that work in concert with the LAPD to keep downtown safe for capitalism.

In 2005, the Central City East Association (CCEA), which administers the business improvement district that includes Skid Row, began a “Neighborhood Watch Walk” through the neighborhood in an effort it said was aimed at “reclaiming a community” that it wasn’t a part of. In CCEA literature promoting the walk, Skid Row is described as being “covered with people injecting drugs day and night” with addicts “in full overdose seizures.” “Acts of prozstitution” are carried out “in full view of passing vehicles and pedestrians,” as are “violent transient-on-transient attacks.”

Though the CCEA emphasized the “positive impact” of its efforts and the “outreach/intervention” work that resulted, the primary response to the misery of Skid Row was a concerted law enforcement crackdown that began shortly after the CCEA’s walk.

As the Washington Post later reported, “a combination of police strategy, newspaper exposés, political will, and loft-building developers pushed Skid Row to the top of the city's agenda,” and in September 2006 Los Angeles launched the Safer City Initiative (SCI), which saw an additional 50 uniformed police officers and dozens of undercover cops deployed to the notorious 50-block district of warehouses and abandoned buildings. That made Skid Row “home to the largest concentration of police officers in the country,” according to the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), a group of local residents that argues the crackdown is a little more than institutionalized harassment of a community that needs assistance, not more men with badges and guns. One of the officers’ primary responsibilities was to write tickets for “quality of life” crimes like public urination and public drinking and sleeping on the street during the day—that is, things people have to do when they don't have houses—and officers have issued more than 10,000 citations, according to a lawsuit that LA CAN filed in March against the LAPD and CCEA.

“We don't need that many police,” said Joe Thomas, a Vietnam veteran who told me he's been living on the downtown streets since 1992. In his experience, “this is one of the safest communities.”

Violent crime in Los Angeles hasn't been this low since the 1960s, but on Skid Row, where police have focused on combating minor offenses, an initial drop in violent crime after the 2006 crackdown was followed by a an upswing in serious incidents. That suggests that if you want to reduce violent crime, you shouldn’t be so fixated on locking people up for sleeping and drinking in public. Indeed, the LAPD says that crime dropped again in 2013 in part because cops were making fewer arrests for minor crimes and focusing instead on increasing their visibility on the street.

Many residents are convinced that the crackdown on Skid Row isn't so much about preventing serious crime as it is about driving the undesirables out of sight. As Thomas said, “The city believes the solution to homelessness is incarceration, because incarceration is one of the biggest industries this state has."

Others I spoke with echoed his feeling of being persecuted by the city’s new priorities. “Gentrification means kicking people out,” said James Porter, a member of LA CAN who has lived here for the last 40 years. I met Porter at LA CAN's downtown office, which is located a block away from a new pet shop that features a “pawbar” and “bathhouse,” the latter the kind of amenity not available to most humans who live on the downtown streets. “CCEA is claiming to be the voice of the people downtown, but they don't speak for the low-income people. They don't speak for me.”

So long as there is capitalism, there will be homelessness, said Porter, but he thinks the money flowing into downtown could be used to help some of those left behind. The white yuppies who are moving in can keep their lofts and expensive dogs, but their arrival doesn’t need to come at the expense of those already living here—in fact, Porter told me, all the money they're bringing in provides “an opportunity to get the homeless of the street. We have to take advantage of that growth.”

But business leaders have refused to prioritize the poor, and despite all the capital injected into downtown over the last decade, very little has trickled down to those who need it. “There's nothing here,” said Thomas. “They're taking it all away—and yet they still blame us.”

A trash can on Skid Row. Photo via Flickr user Vi Bella

Its PR-friendly protestations aside, the business community appears at times to view the destitute and displaced as criminals. In one particularly jarring example, CCEA's top executives giddily worked hand-in-hand with law enforcement to target Ann Moody, a homeless woman who has been arrested at least 59 times—at a cost of $250,000 to taxpayers—for refusing to move her tent from the sidewalk and violating the city's ban on sitting or lying on the street during daylight hours. Cops and corporations see her as a symbol of defiance. And they want her gone for good, as emails released by one of Moody’s public defenders show.

“Any chance of an Ann Moody arrest Thursday or Friday?” wrote Steven Keyser, the then director of operations at CCEA, in a February 2011 email to Shannon Paulson, the LAPD lieutenant in charge of the SCI. “She is in constant violation. I spoke with a couple local community people who strongly favor enforcement of illegal encampment and other crimes to make the area safer and more comfortable for law-abiding citizens.”

Two months later, Keyser was ecstatic that “Moody was taken,” he wrote in an email. “Way to go SCI!!!”

“Yup,” replied Paulson. “I'll be damned if I'm gonna let her thumb her nose at us.”

Another email chain, from 2010, shows just how gleeful cops and CCEA officers are at throwing a 59-year-old woman in jail and seizing her property. Sergeant Ronald Crump of the SCI wrote to say that Moody had been sentenced “to 180 days with no early release” and the judge “also took the $200 she had on her personal property and applied it toward the public defender's fee’s” (sic).

“That's great,” wrote Vicky McCormick, the then director of CCEA. “Thanks to all of you.”

Businesses are not typically in the business of altruism; they exist to churn out profits. Likewise, their allies in the LAPD are more attuned to the interests of the 1,166 businesses and 575 property owners who make up the CCEA than those of the thousands of people who live in the streets or shelters of Skid Row. But to hear the authorities talk, the neighborhood’s true grifters are those advocating on the poor's behalf.

In 2007, Officer Dean Joseph argued on the LAPD's official blog that those opposing the city's crackdown on petty crime on Skid Row are the real profiteers. “I do not consider enforcing laws, whether it is for jaywalking or murder, as harassment,” he wrote. Some homeless activist organizations, he added, are hoping “that chaos will continue to reign in Skid Row” because “that is how they get their funding. If we make the streets safe here, they will not be able to profit from people's pain.”

That's a theme that comes up again and again from developers and their allies in law enforcement: Advocates for the poor are just in it for the money. To those who only see value in the monetization of people and things, the poor choose to be poor because that's how they plan to get rich.

Indeed, Paulson, in an email to another city official about “problem child” Ann Moody, wrote that the homeless woman “uses the homeless charade as a way to make tax free money through selling alcohol, untaxed cigarettes and crack pipes.” Because the real money isn’t in selling condos to “creatives” but in hawking individual beers and cigarettes to transients out of the tent in which you live.

Were local business leaders and their LAPD enforcers interested in helping the homeless, they wouldn't be seeking only to “reclaim” their community; they'd be working to create a healthier, more sustainable one. Instead of pushing the homeless off the street with criminal prosecutions, moneyed interests would be looking to provide them housing. The rich are doing the opposite.

A homeless man on Skid Row. Photo via Flickr user mpeake

“Plan to turn Cecil Hotel into homeless housing is withdrawn,” announced an April headline in the LA Times. The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services—along with the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and that hotbed of radical Marxism, the LA Chamber of Commerce—had advocated converting hundreds of rooms in the hotel into efficiency apartments for the homeless, complete with “on-site counseling and mental health treatment to stabilize residents.”

But there was a snag: The moneyed minority didn't want it there.

“It's like having an AA meeting in a bar,” developer Tom Gilmore told the Times. Gilmore—joined in opposition by Gloria Molina, a member of the LA County of Board Supervisors and the best friend a skeezy developer ever had—owns a number of nearby properties, but he claimed his opposition was in the interest of those he was denying shelter to, saying of Skid Row, “You could move a thousand people out tomorrow and in two weeks you'd have a thousand more people.” So, the logic goes, why help any of them?

Patti Berman, the president of the downtown neighborhood council, acknowledged to the Times that the city has a terrible problem with homelessness—between 2011 and 2013, the number of people sleeping unsheltered on the streets of LA increased by 67 percent—but, she said, “that building was not going to solve it.” What the area needs, she told the paper, is a boutique hotel.

The homeless can go to hell, in other words—or go live behind bars. While it can't find much money to fight poverty, the LA County Board of Supervisors is perfectly happy to spend more than $2 billion on new jails. Meanwhile, the city council is considering a $3.7-million plan to clean up Skid Row, but the focus wouldn’t on building new restrooms or housing, but on expanding a storage facility where homeless residents can put their possessions.

Al Sabo, another homeless resident of downtown LA, told me he would have welcomed the new affordable housing. Though critics of the Cecil Hotel plan argued there were already enough shelters in the area, Sabo said many homeless people shun them because they aren’t practical.

“You have to spend half a day waiting in line to get a bed and then they kick you out at 5, 6 AM,” he said. And as soon as you get out, “next thing you know, it's three 'o' clock and you have to get back in line.”

Sabo argued the rejection of the Cecil Hotel plan is simply part of the business community's strategy to deprive the area's homeless of services that “attract” the poor, whom they want to get lost, not house. “If you try to eliminate the 4,000 to 5,000 homeless who sleep on the streets, where are you going to put them?” he told me. "Their answer is jail. If we can get their asses in jail, we can get them off Skid Row.”

More than just housing, though, community activists say the homeless need respect. Eric Ares, an organizer with LA CAN, told me his group is “in the process of drafting model legislation” that would seek to enshrine in California law certain inalienable rights, including the right to sleep in public spaces without fear of going to jail, the right to sleep in a legally parked car, and 24-hour access to bathrooms. Last year, California State Assembly member Tom Ammiano introduced legislation that would have done much the same thing, but that bill died quietly in committee. An editorial in the liberal San Francisco Chronicle summed up the opposition's attitude when it asked, incredulously, “These are rights?

“We were very disappointed," said Carlos Alcala, an aide to Ammiano. “However, we known from a lot of experience that progress is often achieved only after many failures.”

The poor of downtown Los Angeles have certainly suffered from enough failures over the past decades. They were neglected until developers became interested in redeveloping the streets they slept on; now, instead of helping them, the forces of gentrification seemed fixed on taking away what little the homeless have left.

“We don't even have water fountains,” Joe Thomas, the homeless veteran, told me, “but the dogs do.”

Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by Al Jazeera, Inter Press Service, the New Inquiry, and Salon.

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