Redevelopment in L.A. Affects Homeless Population

In the downtown area of Los Angeles, a trend toward loft-style living has drawn developers and is turning around a previously ignored neighborhood. Many of the area's homeless say they are now being pushed out.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in Los Angeles, a newly hot neighborhood is the downtown. The trend toward New York-style loft living is transforming many old warehouses and office buildings in what was once a desolate area, and as NPR's Luke Burbank reports, the city's newest urban pioneers are bumping against the ones who were there first, the homeless.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

You know you're at a staged press event when about a hundred men and women in nice business attire are standing, for no apparent reason, in the middle of a dusty dirt lot trying not to ruin their shoes. Such was the scene recently in downtown LA at the corner of 11th and South Olive. But the dirt didn't dampen the spirits of the developers and city brass who'd called the press conference.

JOHN: To kick it off, let's give a hand to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): Thank you, John. It's great to be here in downtown LA today, which is the hottest real estate market in the nation.

BURBANK: This day's announcement was that 66 new loft apartments would be going up in the neighborhood. Thousands of lofts have either been built or are scheduled to be soon, which is a huge turnaround for a section of LA that had been largely ignored for the past 30 years. Ignored, but not abandoned. You see, there were people living here, just not people with actual homes.

Ms. JEANETTE ROWE (Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority): My name is Jeanette Rowe, and I'm a program manager for Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

BURBANK: Glance down any street, she says, and you can see the changes.

Ms. ROWE: Young people walking what I call designer dogs. Usually you see homeless people with a dog, it's a dog that's like the guy. The dog has three legs, blind, whatever. You see little Fifi on the street and you know it's just such a juxtaposition from what homeless people are experiencing down here.

BURBANK: Unlike many big cities, LA has what amounts to a homeless district, a Skid Row that's been largely out of sight, out of mind for most Angelinos. But that's changing as more and more lofts are constructed. Advocates say that with every iPod-wearing middle-class person who shows up, the homeless are being pushed further to the margins. Homeless people like William Brighton(ph). He's been on the streets since 1987 and used to sleep closer to the heart of downtown. But now he's come here to a narrow, smelly industrial street near the LA River. He's further from the homeless services he needs, but he says he gets hassled less.

Mr. WILLIAM BRIGHTON (Homeless): What they're doing is they're moving suburbia LA back downtown, and in a way it's unfair to a lot of homeless people who have become accustomed to calling downtown, the streets, their home, because they can't afford anything else.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. JAN PERRY (Los Angeles City Council): We are not humane, nor are we compassionate if we leave people on the sidewalk to live. That is not appropriate answer.

BURBANK: LA City Councilwoman Jan Perry says the real goal should be to get people off the streets. She sits in Pete's Bar & Grill. The restaurant is part of a new wave of businesses moving into the area around Skid Row. Patrons with stylish haircuts sip imported beer. Meanwhile, out on the sidewalk, a homeless man slugs down a can of malt liquor. This is Perry's district, and she's worked hard to bring redevelopment to the area. She says the lofts create tax revenue that can be used to build more permanent housing for the homeless.

Ms. PERRY: Because what regentrification has done down here is bring in new money to reinvest in projects that have no other sources of funding.

BURBANK: That new tax money comes from people like Julia Fuller(ph), who lives in the Pacific Electric Lofts. Each day, as she walks her dalmatian, Sidney(ph), Fuller notices the neighborhood changing. She worries what that will mean for the homeless.

Ms. JULIA FULLER (Resident): Eventually once all these buildings are occupied and they all have security guards out front, there's nowhere for them to stop and sleep on the street anymore. And so it's nice to see the street cleaned up, but you're kicking them out of their home, as you could call it, I guess.

BURBANK: How do you reconcile that?

Ms. FULLER: You don't. That's just how cities kind of work.

BURBANK: Another way cities kind of work is with booms and busts when it comes to real estate, and if pessimists are to be believed, a bust in the downtown LA market is at least a possibility. If that happens and the buildings go abandoned once again, it's a safe bet the homeless won't be far behind. Luke Burbank, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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