RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're reporting this week on L.A.'s Skid Row. The sidewalks used to be lined with tents and makeshift shelters day and night. It's been a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes.
Then a little over two years ago, the city of Los Angeles decided to crack down on crime and bring some order to the teaming street. The program designed to do that is known as the Safer City Initiative, though some critics say making Skid Row safer means criminalizing the homeless. NPR's Ina Jaffe has the story.
INA JAFFE: One night a month, L.A. City Councilmember Jan Perry leads a walk around Skid Row.
Ms. JAN PERRY (L.A. City Council Member): It's a good night to take a look and see how many people are out here.
JAFFE: It's in her district, and she wants to monitor the changes. She remembers what it used to be like.
Ms. PERRY: Dante's Inferno. Now it's - it's more like a neighborhood.
JAFFE: Do you attribute that the Safer City program?
Ms. PERRY: Yes, absolutely. I think people now know that this neighborhood is being shown respect, and that certain behaviors that have been tolerated over here in the past will no longer be tolerated.
JAFFE: The change in Skid Row is apparent not only to city officials, but to veterans of the streets. And no one is more veteran than Benny Joseph.
Mr. BENNY JOSEPH: I've been on the street 30 years. On the street.
JAFFE: Joseph was riding a bicycle — and carrying a cane. He paused for a breather in Gladys Park, a place once notorious as a drug market and shooting gallery. He says it's a lot better now.
Mr. JOSEPH: This was a goofed-up park. I'm telling you, this was a crazy park. I seen people get damn near beat to death. And no one called no police. They'd just leave him there. If he was dead, they'd find him in the morning.
JAFFE: There's still a lot on Skid Row that is — to use Benny Joseph's term — goofed up. Skid Row was once such a wide open drug market, buyers and sellers would come here from all over the city. Rival gangs didn't even bother fighting for territory. There was plenty of business to go around. Walking the streets with LAPD Officer Deon Joseph, it seems like there still is.
Officer DEON JOSEPH (Los Angeles Police Department Officer): The guy yelling at me right now, his name is One Leg. He sells weed over here. Now listen to our conversation. One Leg…
JAFFE: One Leg is an older African-American man in a wheelchair.
Officer JOSEPH: Are you selling weed on my block, man?
ONE LEG: No, I just smoking.
Officer JOSEPH: If you're selling weed, I need you to leave. I'm just warning you, man.
JAFFE: And One Leg is gone in a flash.
Officer Joseph gives the impression of a guy who gets what he wants. He's a barrel-chested black man with a shaved head and muscular arms nearly bursting the sleeves of his uniform. He cuts quite a figure. Visibility, he says, is all part of police work.
Officer JOSEPH: So the only tool we have is to stay visible and stay out here and deter them with my visibility. Okay. Me standing on this block, this is the safest block in the United States of America.
JAFFE: The police are more visible than ever on Skid Row. The Safer City Initiative added 50 cops to this one-square-mile area. But it's not their increased presence that's the source of the controversy over Safer City; it's encounters like the one between Officer Joseph and a man lounging on the sidewalk in front of the Chicken House Restaurant.
Officer JOSEPH: Gentlemen, you can't sit there. Can you stand up for me?
JAFFE: Sitting on the sidewalk during the day is not allowed in Skid Row anymore. The police give out tickets for that. Joseph is ready with an explanation of how something that seems so innocuous can bring down the neighborhood.
Officer JOSEPH: If we let one person sit on the sidewalk, then it's going to be two, three, four, five. And a lot of people are drug addicts, they're going to start smoking. And the drug dealers are going to come and see that and say, Oh, cool, anybody want more? Then the gangs are going to say, Hmm, we can make money off of this. Bam. Off of one person.
JAFFE: So the cops have been handing out tickets on Skid Row for sitting on the sidewalk, jaywalking, littering, and drinking in public. According to a study at UCLA, they wrote about a thousand tickets a month during the first year of the Safer City program. LAPD records indicate they're writing fewer of them now. Still, even one ticket would be one too many for Casey Horan. She's the executive director of Lamp Community, a Skid Row organization that works with the mentally ill.
Ms. CASEY HORAN (Lamp Community): They are targeting people who are on the street. It's the whole premise of this Safer Cities Initiative to invest enormous police resources into very, very petty things, which are really a consequence of someone's illness or a consequence of having to survive on the streets.
JAFFE: Thirty-one-year-old Jason Diamond is a former crack addict who lived on the streets for the better part of 10 years. He's definitely gotten his share of attention from the police.
Mr. JASON DIAMOND: I have probably right now maybe between 10 to 15 tickets.
JAFEE: And what are they for?
Mr. DIAMOND: Open container, jaywalking, littering…
JAFFE: Diamond now lives at Lamp, where he's being treated for major depression and mood disorders, among other problems. Dealing with jaywalking tickets is not something he's good at.
Mr. DIAMOND: Because I either lose track of the court date, or if you enter a plea of guilty, they want you to pay money. And I'm homeless. I don't have the money. So what happens is you fail to appear in court, then it turns into a warrant for your arrest. So the next time you get stopped, they can take you to jail right there and then.
JAFFE: Diamond guesses he's been in the downtown jail known as Twin Towers 25 or 30 times, just for tickets. And he says that's pretty common.
Mr. DIAMOND: When I go there it's - I know more people there than I see on a daily basis walking around here, you know, 'cause it's all people from downtown and it's all people there mostly on petty stuff.
JAFFE: City officials resent it when the Safer City Initiative is portrayed as just a law enforcement program. There's more to it, they say, from trimming Skid Row trees to prosecuting hospitals that dump indigent patients there. Ask Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa about Safer City, and the first thing he talks about is housing.
Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): In the three and a half years I've been mayor, we've constructed 796 units of permanent supportive housing for the homeless. We've provided more housing for the homeless than in the 12 years before that.
JAFFE: Actually, the city has funded those units. Most are not complete, many have not even been started, while the law enforcement component, however, has been going full tilt for two and half years. And that's a good thing, says the mayor.
Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: 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.
JAFFE: Crime is down significantly on Skid Row, as it is across the city. And the population on Skid Row's streets is down as well.
Earlier this month, the LAPD counted fewer than 600 people sleeping outside, a third as many as there were two years ago. That might seem to be a good thing. Only no one is exactly sure where the rest of those people have gone. Maybe they're still homeless in another part of the city, with fewer cops.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And many Skid Row residents suffer from mental illness. A movie opening this week tells the story of one of them, a gifted musician named Nathaniel Ayers, and his friendship with Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez.
Mr. STEVE LOPEZ (Los Angeles Times Columnist): One of the things I love about Nathaniel is that all he cares about is the moment and the music. It's peace for him. It's sanity. It's - he's home.
MONTAGNE: "The Soloist" - tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. For more on this series about Skid Row in Los Angeles, visit our Web site at npr.org.
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