RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Los Angeles is sometimes called the homeless capital of the nation. That's because there are more than 40,000 people here who have no permanent place to lay their heads. The highest concentration of homelessness is in one square mile on the edge of downtown known as Skid Row. This week, NPR's Ina Jaffe is taking us to the heart of Skid Row. And I recently joined her there at the corner of 5th Street and San Pedro.
And Ina, this week you'll be looking at some of the things that make this place both complex and also unique. But let's start with why you wanted to meet me on this particular corner.
INA JAFFE: Because, Renee, you can see something from here that shows that Skid Row isn't a place that fell on hard times. It was always a place for transients without much money.
So look up 5th Street and you can see the sign on top of the Rosslyn Hotel, and look, it's facing away from downtown, towards Skid Row, towards the old railroad. And decades ago all the hotels near here did the same thing, so transient workers who worked at the factories and warehouses behind us could just get off the train, follow the signs, and find a cheap room.
MONTAGNE: Are there other landmarks, if you will, that tell us something else about this neighborhood?
JAFFE: The three enormous missions, which have been part of the history of this place and continue to play a really big role here. There's the Los Angeles Mission, that's just ahead, and to our left the Union Rescue Mission and beyond that the Midnight Mission.
(Soundbite of mission)
JAFFE: Hundreds of people, mostly men, shuffle along the serving line at the Midnight Mission to get a dinner of spaghetti, whole wheat bread, salad, corn and iced tea.
Unidentified Man: Give me one minute. I got my drink person coming.
JAFFE: The missions on Skid Row feed the neighborhood three times a day. The people loading up their trays may sleep here at night or live at one of the residential treatment centers for drugs and alcohol, or stay at the many single-room occupancy hotels, the SROs, where they have tiny private rooms but no kitchen.
Then there are those who simply refuse to sleep inside but will stop in for a meal. David Michael is one.
Mr. DAVID MICHAEL: I live in the courtyard outside.
JAFFE: And how long have you been living in the courtyard?
Mr. MICHAEL: Two years, I guess. I'm unemployed, 37, $21,000 in debt. Oh, whatever.
JAFFE: Whether sleeping indoors or out, many of the people on Skid Row are not just passing through. This is their neighborhood.
Mr. JAMIE IRBY: This is a place where they - you lose everything, you start all over.
JAFFE: Forty-year-old Jamie Irby started all over seven years ago when he moved into the Simone Hotel. It's run by the nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust. Residents have access to medical and mental health services right in the building. This is where Irby discovered he had a disability.
Mr. IRBY: I'm bipolar, bipolar schizophrenic. I like to be around folks; sometimes I don't, like mood swings, though.
JAFFE: But now he's getting treatment under the watchful eye of an on-site case manager. He's happy with the way things are going.
Mr. IRBY: I lost a little bit, but I gained a little bit more now, you know? You know, I got my life back together, I'm united with my kids, got a place to stay, my bills is paid. So you know, I'm doing all right.
JAFFE: Skid Row's identity today as a sort of village for the homeless and the organizations that help them is the result of official city policy. In the 1970s, Los Angeles decided to concentrate services for the down-and-out in this one area. The policy was called containment. But there's been a conflict between Skid Row's role as L.A.'s homeless central and the area's other primary role as an industrial center, especially for seafood distributors.
Mr. MARK SHINBANE (Owner, Ore-Cal): This is one of our processing rooms. These are blocks of shrimp that we buy from overseas.
JAFFE: Mark Shinbane runs a shrimp processing plant called Ore-Cal. It's a family business, and it's been located on Skid Row since the 1960s.
Mr. SHINBANE: We've created a very secure place here, a lot of iron gates and fences and security cameras. And we've kind of created our own little fort, I guess, down here to kind of protect ourselves, but you've got to be careful.
JAFFE: That doesn't mean that the police and social service agencies don't do a great job, says Shinbane. But coexisting with the homeless presents some challenges, especially for a food business.
Mr. SHINBANE: I'll tell you how bad it actually got at one point. We have some roll-up doors in the back of our building here, metal roll-up doors, and people were urinating on them. And eventually it rusted the whole - ruined, didn't rust - ruined the entire door. We actually had to replace it. Literally, you could push it through with your hand. They could have gotten into our buildings.
JAFFE: There is a sense of anything goes on the streets of Skid Row. You can see people smoking crack in broad daylight or passed out in the street. It's a daunting scene for a newcomer.
Ms. LAURIE BREVELERI: When I first came here, I was kind of afraid. But I have learned that there are loving, caring people here.
JAFFE: Laurie Breveleri now lives at the corner of 5th and Main in another hotel run by the Skid Row Housing Trust. She found caring people in the drug rehab program, the mental health center, and in the room next door, where her neighbor Rowena Brown lives.
Ms. ROWENA BROWN: The warmness of love is better to give than to receive. A lot of people get scared about where we live. And I don't think it's nothing wrong.
JAFFE: A lot of Los Angeles residents agree. They've been moving into loft apartments in rehabbed old commercial buildings just a block away from Breveleri and Brown's hotel.
Unidentified Person: These are our red velvet donut holes and our maple glaze with bacon donut holes.
JAFFE: And right in the middle of these two downtowns is the Nickel Diner.
Ms. MONICA MAY (Nickel Diner): This area's always been known as the Nickel, 5th and Main - because this is a straight slide down to Skid Row. So that's where we are. We're the Nickel Diner.
JAFFE: That's Monica May, who opened the place a few months ago. Her partner, Kristen Trattner, says that from the very beginning they envisioned their diner as a place that excluded no one from downtown's two communities, including the guys who hang out on the sidewalk in front.
Ms. KRISTEN TRATTNER (Nickel Diner): So I went outside and I said, if you guys could have any dessert that you wanted, what would it be? And they're like, peach cobbler, we want peach cobbler, peach cobbler, peach cobbler. So I had our pastry chef go out and make three different styles of peach cobbler. And then I had these gentlemen taste it and they designed their own peach cobbler.
JAFFE: Monica and Kristen, you know I've been here a couple of times before, but this time I wanted to bring a friend with me to meet you and try the place, so this is Renee Montagne.
MONTAGNE: Hi, hi. And you know, before we order, was it hard to bring in the folks from the SROs, the single room occupancy, I mean get them to actually come in here and not be shy?
Ms. MAY: We have a number of our neighbors that come in. We do a lot of to-go food for them, and we always know, like, who's getting special pricing. Take care of your neighbors.
MONTAGNE: That was Monica May, also Kristen Trattner and NPR's Ina Jaffe at the Nickel Diner. Tomorrow we'll look at a city plan to stop crime on Skid Row. It's backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): No community in Los Angeles would accept the level of violence and crime that this area of the city has had to withstand over the decades. We all have a right to a safe neighborhood.
MONTAGNE: Ah, but critics say the program isn't targeting criminals, it's criminalizing the homeless. That's tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.
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