Walking Down Skid Row in Los Angeles
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
There are as many homeless people in a fifty square block area of L.A.'s Skid Row as there are in all of San Francisco.
Unidentified Man: You better come through, young man. That's good. Respect the (unintelligible).
CHIDEYA: Skid Row has become to gentrify around the edges. Dozens of rundown office buildings have been converted into pricey lofts and luxury condominiums. But on the street, thousands still sleep in boxes and tents, eat at local missions, and often seek drugs or alcohol to dull their pain. This crash of cultures between rich and poor has spurred fresh calls for change. But it's important to understand why Skid Rows exist in virtually every American city, says Paul Tepper. He runs the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center. Their offices are smack-dab in L.A.'s Skid Row.
Mr. PAUL TEPPER (Director, Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty, Weingart Center): Fundamentally, homelessness is simply a symptom of extreme poverty. Thirty years ago, homelessness was not a problem. There were many poor people; there were many mentally ill people; there were many people with substance abuse problems; but they weren't homeless.
CHIDEYA: Upwards of 80,000 men, women and children are homeless in L.A. County, more than half within the city limits. Over the course of a year, an estimated quarter of a million Angelinos will spend time without a home. Tepper believes a rise in the price of housing has driven homelessness up. In Los Angeles, the average apartment cost $1,400 a month. Even a shabby room in a single room occupancy hotel can cost $140 a week. That can eat up an entire Social Security disability check.
Mr. TEPPER: I have a friend who worked at Legal Aid, and he told me at the beginning of his career he struggled to get people out of slum housing. And as homelessness became more and more of a problem, he struggled to get people into slum housing. Skid row has provided a sort of a safety valve for the rest of Los Angeles, where indigent people on the streets could be directed. The terms that is used is greyhound therapy.
CHIDEYA: Greyhound therapy means some towns and suburbs abandoned their homeless, prisoners and mentally ill in big cities, including Los Angeles. Recently, a woman treated at a Kaiser Permanente facility in South LA County, was dropped in front of a Skid Row mission wearing only a hospital gown.
A new $100 million county plan would do the reverse of greyhound therapy, shipping Skid Row's homeless and indigent into smaller outlying communities. There's only one problem: These communities don't want them. Steve Herfert is the mayor of West Covina, a city of 115,000 people about 20 miles east of Skid Row. Under the plan, West Covina could be forced to open a new shelter.
Mayor STEVE HERFERT (Mayor, West Covina, California): People are concerned about it, especially what we read in the paper where many people that will be in these shelters will be drug addicts and people released from prison.
CHIDEYA: The city, says Mayor Herfert, offers plenty of services to its local homeless population, and he doesn't think it should have to shoulder the burden of taking people from out of town.
Mayor HERFERT: So, we do do our part here. I mean, we offer a lot of services to the homeless, the poor and the less fortunate. So, I think for some reason when they put this proposal out--and then when we react some of the leaders that put the proposal out think that we're nimbies or something, we're not. We do our fair share here in West Covina.
CHIDEYA: Mike Antonovich agrees with Mayor Herfert. He's the only one of five LA County supervisors who voted against the proposal. He represents the wealthier northern areas, including Pasadena and Burbank.
Mr. MIKE ANTONOVICH (Los Angeles County Supervisor, Fifth District): All this proposal does is basically rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic, instead of providing lifeboats and sending out an S.O.S. that help is needed.
CHIDEYA: Antonovich thinks the motivation behind the plan is more utilitarian than humanitarian.
Mr. ANTONOVICH: Well, what we have here is a response from the hustle and bustle of downtown developers and Los Angeles City politicians who want to take advantage of the hot real estate market, which provides a false hope to those who are homeless.
CHIDEYA: But downtown business owners are running out of patience. Many have lost business, and some have even closed their stores as a result of the crisis on Skid Row.
Carol Schatz is the president of the Central City Association, an organization of downtown business and property owners.
Ms. CAROL SCHATZ (President, Central City Association): We, as the business community, want to be treated the way any other business community is treated in the city of Los Angeles. And we know that if a business owner walked out of his front door on Westwood Boulevard, which is in a more affluent area of Los Angeles, and found syringes, found cardboard boxes with people sleeping in them, found human waste, that situation, in our view, wouldn't last very long.
CHIDEYA: Los Angeles' city government, led by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, recently announced its own plan. It's designed to help homeless as well as downtown business interests. The city would provide affordable housing and permanent services along the lines of those being offered in San Francisco.
Tori Osborne(ph), a special advisor to Mayor Villaraigosa, says the city also supports the county plan and believes the time is finally right for change.
Ms. TORI OSBORNE (Special Advisor, Los Angeles City Mayor's Office): I think there a set of political and social dynamics in motion that just, kind of, add up to the perfect positive storm.
CHIDEYA: That storm started with The Los Angeles Times' series of exposes on dumping, prostitution and drug use on Skid Row. Add to that, service providers are improving their programs, and real estate in the area is booming. Osborne says the future of Skid Row depends on long-term public support.
Ms. OSBORNE: I hope and pray that we'll see some yes in my backyard for the first time, that churches and synagogues and corporate leaders, and all kinds of people who haven't, maybe, stepped up before, as individuals and as leaders in the community, will say yes.
CHIDEYA: Tomorrow, for the second in our series on Los Angeles' Skid Row: the reality behind the numbers. We'll hit the streets and talk with residents and service providers.
(Soundbite of siren)
CHIDEYA: We'll also take a ride with two L.A.P.D. officers.
I just noticed nobody's pulling over.
Unidentified Man #2: Nobody pulls over for the P.D.
Unidentified Woman #1: You ever see that movie the French Connection?
CHIDEYA: Oh, yeah.
Unidentified Woman #1: You remember that scene where Gene Hackman was driving, and the lady with the baby carriage happens?
Unidentified Woman #1: It happens all the time.
CHIDEYA: They're doing their best to protect Skid Row's most vulnerable, while keeping a lid on one of the biggest drug markets in the country.
Unidentified Man #2: Rock cocaine can vary from anywhere from $3 to $5, to your underwear, to your new pair of socks. Like--but that's negotiable too. Rock cocaine is designed to be cheap and easy to market, easy to sell, especially in areas where the supply and demand is great, like Skid Row.
CHIDEYA: That's tomorrow on NEWS & NOTES.
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