LOS ANGELES — “I’m the people’s general,” says TC, explaining the nickname he’s been given on Fifth Street. He earned it by keeping the homeless residents of Los Angeles’ Skid Row informed and educated about neighborhood issues, in part through the literature table he maintains next to the blue tarps of his tent. Under the table are the donated clothes he collects, which anyone can take.
“I’m a soldier in the war on poverty,” the two-year resident of Skid Row declares. “I love the people – most of ‘em, at least….Down here it can be hard. But sometimes it can be beautiful, too, because people are beautiful, no matter how down and out they may be.”
Despite TC’s nickname, Skid Row isn’t the scene of a military conflict. But this part of downtown L.A. remains contested terrain these days, as swanky boutiques and cafes have cropped up and touch a world without stable housing for thousands of people. Residential apartments for low-income residents still stand. For decades, Skid Row existed as a neighborhood in which trains arrived from other cities. Workers who needed to remain close to the city center called it home.
Starting around 1999, public policies that spurred development in Skid Row started. Buildings that were dubbed underused were transformed in the 50-block area. Well-heeled residents have moved in. In 2014, Skid Row’s streets have a vibrancy of sorts – one in which families, the homeless, the hip, the elderly and even well-treated dogs coexist in an ever-changing place.
The Haves and the Have-Nots
Deborah Burton, who lives in subsidized housing, describes people in the area – which has lofts selling for up to $1 million but few public places for homeless and low-income residents – as “The haves and the have-nots.”
On Sixth Street, people who might be viewed as the “have-nots” gather every day at Gladys Park, sharing a couple of drinking fountains, a few patches of grass and several trees. “People here accept you for who you are,” Linda Harris says.
She has lived on Skid Row for about a decade. She helped bring the users of Gladys Park together a few years ago to get the city to replace filthy water fountains and then found the resources to build tables for dominoes and board games. Young men now face off in 3-on-3 basketball under new hoops.
She is a survivor of cancer, which has left bumps all over her skin. No one gives her a second look, other than to say hello. “They don’t turn up their nose at you. Down here, everyone is equal,” she says.
That changes once Harris steps foot outside the park. “We’re not allowed in the upskirts of downtown,” she says. “Some of us aren’t permitted because of the way we look. People have a label on us. They talk about ‘those homeless people.’ They never say ‘the people.’ They see me as a person who eats out of a trash can.”
Harris, though, lives in an apartment. Burton feels the same scorn at Coles on Sixth Street. The restaurant was once affordable for her. These days, the more affluent people who have moved downtown sit at the restaurant’s sidewalk tables, while across the street, police tell the homeless that the city’s “sit-lie” ordinance prohibits them from sitting on the pavement.
“I tried going into Coles one day to eat, and the maître d’ asked me if I had any money before I even crossed the threshold,” Burton says.
The distinction between the haves and have-nots gets drawn in other ways. The farther east you go on Sixth Street, away from the new loft conversions, the fewer public trash cans there are. The grass in Gladys Park is brown, but, outside new market-rate residences, patches of bright green lawn dot the sidewalk, planted by the city to give the residents’ pets a place to “do their business.” Public bathrooms for people who actually live on the street are hard to find. To Skid Row’s poor, this is the “dirty divide.”
A Changing Landscape
That divide is felt in a park closer to downtown: With skyscrapers and luxury hotels a block or two away, Pershing Square is much less user-friendly than Gladys Park. Although the square is covered in concrete, there are no basketball courts. Benches line its rim, but metal dividers prevent anyone from lying down as they can at Gladys Park. Security guards quickly warn off anyone who tries.
Al Sabo arrived in Pershing Square in 2003, pulling two roller bags carrying his possessions after he was discharged from the hospital. “I had great jobs all my life and never thought I’d end up on the street,” the former journalist recalls. “I was terrified. I walked into the park that day, figuring that if any place was safe, it would be Pershing Square.”
Sabo found the benches filled with drug addicts – who ended up taking care of him. “They hustled me up food and found me a safe place to sleep for the next couple of months while I was on the street,” he explains.
Sabo believes that chasing the homeless out of Pershing Square was intended to make downtown more inviting and to help developers converting the old hotels to draw in more affluent residents.
He began helping others resist efforts to convert buildings into market-rate housing. He put his journalism skills to use, penning a newsletter column for Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), a grassroots advocacy group that works with poor and low-income people.
Leonard Woods, living in the nearby Alexandria Hotel, became his ally. Like Sabo, he’d lost a good job and gravitated to the low rents downtown. The Alexandria in the 1920s had been a luxury residence for actors like Charlie Chaplin and Rudolf Valentino –Woods’s room had been occupied by Helen Ferguson, a silent film star – but, by the 1990s, the hotel was run down.
“I knew what I’d had, and what I’d come to. I didn’t let anyone know that I lived downtown because it was Skid Row,” Woods recalls. But when the hotel’s previous owner decided to renovate and began evicting low-income residents, his outlook changed: “I thought, ‘If he moves me out of my room, what makes me think I’m going to get it back?’”
Woods hired a lawyer, filed a suit with other residents and won an injunction – finally settled in early 2009 – protecting the hotel’s low-income status. In the process, Alexandria tenants got to know each other and became a community bent on staying put. “Now Skid Row is Skid Dollar,” says Woods, laughing. “Why can’t I still be here?”
At the Frontier Hotel, tenants won a partial victory in a similar battle. Zuma Corp., a developer, had converted the top three floors to market-rate residences, while Floors 3–9 remained low-income housing. The hotel owner reserved access to the main lobby, with its potted palms and marble floors, for top-floor renters who paid $1,100 to $3,900 a month. Poor tenants had to use a separate entrance around the corner, monitored by guards behind a metal gate and glass barrier.
Steve Diaz, whose family moved to the Frontier after being evicted from their apartment, remembers that poor residents won a temporary injunction against the owner, who then closed the affluent-only entry and gated off the elevator. “Afterwards they required that you show an ID and Social Security card or a room key to get in, and charged us $15 to get the key,” he says. “I was made to feel like a criminal coming into my own house. The LAPD even ran background checks against everyone in the building.”
As he, Sabo and other tenants organized similar committees in other hotels, they all began to develop a greater sense of themselves as a low-income community. That victory was one of several partial ones at the Frontier from about 2003 to 2008. Together, the tenants also succeeded in getting Los Angeles to pass a hotel preservation ordinance that requires no net loss of low-income housing, covering 17,000 to 18,000 units citywide. That includes about 8,000 downtown. The final ordinance gained approval in 2008.
Diaz, who now works for LA CAN, points out that at the Alexandria all the rooms are covered by Section 8, the federal government’s low-income rent subsidy program, and rents start at $56 a month. “And it’s across the street from a converted office building where the starting rent is 90 times higher,” he says.
People living on the street say that stabilizing low-income housing affects them as well because people move from one status to another. In 2013, Los Angeles had about 58,000 homeless people – about 8,000 more than in 2011 – including about 5,000 in the Skid Row area.
Transforming a “Food Desert” to Community Gardens
Bill Fisher, a disabled ironworker, would have been homeless after leaving the hospital last December. Instead, he moved into the Star Apartments, a new project of prefabricated modular units erected by the Skid Row Housing Trust.
Fisher and his friend Thomas Ozeki manage the apartments’ community garden. They see the garden as an organizing tool. “It helps create community,” Fisher says. “In the middle of Skid Row, look how beautiful it is.”
In addition, it provides a source of fresh vegetables – a rarity on Skid Row, which activists call a food desert.
Fisher says when they harvested their first zucchini they discovered that some residents had never eaten the vegetable. Now, the garden produces Japanese cucumbers, tomatoes, sunflowers, potatoes, garlic and rosemary as well. “Every week we have a class,” Ozeki explains. “Right now we’re planting seedlings.”
To help spread access to gardening resources and produce, LA CAN helped form the Skid Row Garden Council. Organizations donate trees, seed and soil, which the garden council distributes to buildings where residents have set up a garden. Ozeki says there are 19 Skid Row buildings with gardens.
“Nutrition education is a big part of our work. We want to grow our own food so that we don’t rely just on markets,” Eric Ares, a LA CAN organizer, says. “Everything we grow is distributed free or prepared in meals for our community.”
Local farmers’ markets often see downtown’s affluent residents as their preferred clients, but LA CAN has negotiated with many of the vendors so that they will accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards from poor residents. (In California, public assistance and food stamp benefits are paid into accounts; recipients then use their state-issued EBT cards to buy food.)
LA CAN has also started its own food distribution program, a pop-up market organized with Women Organizing Resources, Knowledge and Services (WORKS). “We get food in Southern California and sell it, but not for profit,” Ares says. “We started in south L.A., and now we’re bringing it downtown.” In its first six months, the market distributed 3.8 tons of organic produce.
Building a Sense of Community and Civic Engagement
On Skid Row, residents come from various backgrounds. Veterans make up some of the homeless population, and residents note that L.A.’s Skid Row has one of the largest communities of people in recovery from alcoholism and addiction in the country.
Alongside them are artists and actors, who have performed in theater productions about addiction and recovery. One theater group goes by the apt name The Los Angeles Poverty Department, and the Downtown Women’s Action Coalition organizes an annual variety show to highlight local talent and raise money to support women and families, especially for those living in the Skid Row area.
Skid Row’s population is overwhelmingly male, in part because of county policy. From 2005 to 2008, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors declared “zero tolerance” of families living on Skid Row. Under pressure from Supervisor Gloria Molina, teams from Children and Family Services interviewed parents in Pershing Square, at the Union Rescue Mission and other Skid Row locations to determine if they were fit to retain custody of their children.
In 2007, officials took 15 children from their parents, placing them in foster care. The policy sparked controversy. Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke told the Los Angeles Times: “There should never be an assumption that because you’re poor, you should be taken from your parents and placed in foster care.”
The county ended the policy. Today, women and children are part of Skid Row, but they make up less than 10 percent of the population. As Skid Row changes, toddlers in expensive strollers have become a common sight outside pricey lofts.
“A community without children is a community without a future,” says Becky Dennison, LA CAN co-director. “We have to improve the community [not] push poor mothers or women of color out.”
Other measures homeless and low-income people in the Skid Row area feel are discriminatory have been successfully challenged. A policy by some residential hotels to charge a guest fee to family members staying overnight was overturned. A federal court forbade police from confiscating the belongings of homeless people.
But city code section 41.18(d) still prohibits sitting and lying on a public sidewalk between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., and homeless residents accuse the police of using it selectively against them. The Safer Cities Initiative targets police enforcement of the code to Skid Row east of Main Street. In 2006, the 50 extra police officers mandated by this initiative for the area issued 12,000 citations.
In response that year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the city to stop its overzealous approach. Numerous citations have continued, residents say.
Last year, two LA CAN members handing out seedlings for gardens were cited, and one officer warned residential hotel tenants they should “keep moving” once they walked out of their building.
“The Skid Row community is one of the most vibrant communities in Los Angeles,” Dennison says. “Folks take care of each other, know each other and live very densely. Here you either create community or you get wiped off the map.”
David Bacon is a journalist, photographer and author who is based in Northern California. His work has appeared in Al Jazeera America, The Nation, Truthout and The American Prospect.