Features » July 23, 2009
Home Sweet Skid Row
Poor Los Angelenos fight gentrification and police abuse.
The Safer Cities Initiative has succeeded in keeping poor people off the streets. The vast majority of the 12,000 police citations issued in the first year of the program were for jaywalking.
Linda Valverde was an insurance administrator for 20 years. She never expected to live in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Neither did Michelle Autry, a dancer and writer who grew up in Los Angeles and Sacramento, Calif., and speaks five languages. Joe Thomas, a Vietnam War veteran born in Springfield, Ill., also didn’t plan to live in a single room occupancy (SRO) hotel in the area.
But these three people, along with dozens of other Skid Row residents, are making big changes in their community. They are all members of an organization of poor people called Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), a nonprofit organization funded by a variety of foundations, individuals and the state of California. This racially diverse group of men and women are fighting against gentrification, the abuses of landlords and hotel owners, and the city of Los Angeles. Surprisingly, they have scored real victories.
For Los Angeles’ developers, Skid Row–or, as it is more politely called, Central City East–is a potential bonanza, located a half mile northwest of downtown and a stone’s throw from City Hall and the County Hall of Administration. Until recently, developers could easily convert a single-room occupancy hotel into multiple condominium units selling at $1 million each.
In 2002, the city of Los Angeles, in alliance with business interests, introduced a redevelopment plan. It called for the elimination of close to 4,000 units of low-income housing in Central City East. Despite the large population of African-Americans in the neighborhood, the real-estate industry marketed downtown “luxury lofts” with ads that displayed affluent white people and the occasional Asian.
Business leaders and city officials proclaimed the plan’s benevolence, playing on the stigma of Skid Row. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa often stated that redevelopment and removing people from the streets would “protect” the poor from drug dealers and others who “prey” on the homeless. Other officials claimed pushing poor and homeless people out of Skid Row would make the rest of the city take their “fair share” of social problems.
It can be difficult to grasp that areas that are not pretty, like Skid Row, are home to people. “I feel like I fit in here, no one judged me when I came to this community. I related to it, especially the women,” Valverde says. “They are here like me because of illness, death. They had careers before they came here.”
Nationwide, local governments rarely maintain neighborhoods where SROs have historically been the only thing standing between poor people and the street. Social scientists have documented that the loss of this form of housing in the late ’70s led to an increase in homelessness. Exploiting the belief that Skid Row residents were indigent–even though people have lived in the area for years–Los Angeles banked on the idea that no one would care. Neither the business community nor the city anticipated opposition.
LACAN fought against the proposed conversion of the SROs into lofts. In a campaign marked by intense political pressure and coalition building, they scored their first victory in 2006, when the city council passed a moratorium on housing conversions. In May 2008, the council passed a residential hotel preservation ordinance, which protects 19,000 housing units from demolition or conversion into more upscale accommodations.
“If it wasn’t for LACAN, [the developers and police] would have swept downtown L.A. clean,” says General Dogon, a middle-aged African-American man who has lived his whole life in Central City East.
LACAN’s defense of Skid Row residents also focuses on the conditions within individual SROs. The group monitors for abuses, such as churning (otherwise known as the “28-day shuffle”), in which hotel owners demand residents leave after 28 days to prevent them from obtaining legal protections granted to tenants. LACAN stopped such illegal evictions at the Frontier Hotel between 2002 and 2005. At the Alexandria, another SRO, the group won restitution against the owners who discriminated against minority residents and the disabled.
Debbie Burton, a LACAN organizer, moved to Skid Row in 2000 from the Watts neighborhood located in South Central Los Angeles. She talks about the isolation of living in a hotel. “I was in this one room and seeing no one doing anything about problems,” she says. “When I got involved with LACAN I spent time observing and opening my eyes to issues like affordable housing and to … abuse toward everyone in our community.”
War on the homeless
But just as the organization succeeded in preserving the neighborhood, Mayor Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton launched the Safer Cities Initiative. Presented as a crime control measure, the city deployed a massive police force to Skid Row and outlawed sleeping or standing in the street. The initiative was approved in 2006, immediately after the city council passed the moratorium on SRO conversion, notes Steve Diaz, a community organizer who grew up in a hotel in Skid Row. “It was a planned initiative, an effort to clear the neighborhood,” Diaz says.
The Safer Cities Initiative has partially succeeded in keeping poor people off the streets. According to a report released by the UCLA Law School, “Policing Our Way out of Homelessness,” as many as 125 additional officers were used to round up the homeless and push other lower-income people off the streets. According to the UCLA report, during the first year of the initiative, there were 750 more arrests per month than the year before in the same area. The vast majority of the 12,000 citations issued in the first year of the measure, from September 2006 to August 2007, were for jaywalking. This is no minor inconvenience for the poor–fines can be as high as $159. Because many people cannot pay the ticket or are unable to secure legal help, pedestrian violations often lead to arrests.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California confirmed residents’ charges that crosswalk times were reduced in Central City East, making it impossible for a disabled or elderly person to cross the street in the allotted time. Abuses have also included physical attacks by the police on people who refuse to move and seizures of the property of the homeless.
Pete White, LACAN’s co-director, tells the story of a homeless woman who began screaming at the cops when they seized her belongings, which included the urn containing her mother’s ashes. According to White, the LAPD met her concern with laughter.
Although the Los Angeles police denied brutality, Police Chief Bratton told the Los Angeles Times on October 4, 2007, “Is there displacement? Certainly. But what’s wrong with that in some respects? … So if there is displacement, [it’s] all well and good.”
The UCLA study, as well as Steve Lopez at the Los Angeles Times, estimate that due to the intimidation and arrests, 1,500 fewer people now live in Skid Row. LACAN has responded to the city’s ordinances by forming a community watch program, training residents in how to handle the police, holding numerous demonstrations and filing lawsuits. On March 11, after finding city procedures exhausted, the group filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Downtown used to be a dense community, now there is no liveliness. Now it’s blank streets,” community organizer Diaz says. “You walk and see no one. You used to see people around–friends and neighbors.” Yet he said the newfound solidarity between the residents against the police has “brought the idea of resistance to a different level, creating a new culture.”
GET INVOLVED:LACAN is located at 530 S. Main St., Los Angeles, CA 90013; contact [email protected] or [email protected]; (213) 228-0024
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David Wagner is a professor of sociology and social work at the University of Southern Maine, in Portland, Maine. He is the author of six books, including the C. Wright Mills Award-winning Checkerboard Square: Culture and Resistance in a Homeless Community, and was a co-founder of the group POWER (Portland Organization to Win Economic Rights).