October 10, 2008
Sukkot on the streets—finding community amid temporary shelter
(Page 2 - Previous Page)I visited the Alexandria last year as a reporter covering Skid Row for the Los Angeles Daily Journal. I had only intended to stay long enough to interview a young woman who was being evicted, but she wouldn't let me leave until I had met her neighbors, who were being pushed out as well.
She introduced me to Leonard Woods, a 53-year-old man who worked as a carpenter before he suffered a spinal injury that left him dependent on a motorized wheelchair. He had been living at the Alexandria for more than a decade. He said the new management, in an effort to get him to leave, refused to accept his medication when it came in the mail.
She introduced me to an elderly man named Saul Teitelbaum, who for years had been living in the same room. Despite debilitating alcoholism, he was helping other neighbors take care of a young, mentally disabled woman down the hall before he lost his battle with management and suffered a stroke.
She introduced me to 71-year-old Hilda Quintana, who moved into the hotel 25 years ago and raised her children in two adjoining rooms. She said the new owners told her she and other elderly residents had to stop sitting on the lobby benches for hours each day because it didn't look good to prospective tenants. She said when she refused, they tore the benches out, and she began bringing her own chair downstairs, in protest.
My tour guide, a woman named BG, was in her late 20s. She knew everyone in the building. She knew their stories. She even knew about their recent doctors' appointments.
Hours later, I walked into the elevator in my own building, just two blocks away. Two of my neighbors got in as well, and we waited in silence to arrive on our respective floors. We didn't know each other's names.
It's difficult to convince the public that a residency hotel is a home, not a building full of transient people. It's more difficult still to convince the city that Skid Row is a community.
"I've been on both sides of the socioeconomic spectrum, and the message you hear when you're on the other side is that 'those people' don't want to work, they don't want a home. They'd rather be on the street doing their drugs and drinking their alcohol," Sabo said. "It's just not true. It's so untrue. But the politicians tell the press, and the press spread this word, and when you're on the outside looking in, you tend to believe the bull.... You believe it because that's what they want you to believe."
These stereotypes have been integral to the city's plan to change the demographics downtown. Skid Row is home to the nation's largest concentration of homeless people. In September 2006, the mayor rolled out a policing initiative that would aggressively target this population.
The so-called "safer cities" initiative brought 50 additional uniformed officers and as many undercover cops to a 50-square-block area that had relatively low rates of serious or violent crime. It was promoted as a means to improve public safety and bring additional homeless services to the community. Those services never came, but the police actions have been in full force for two years.
In that time, officers have made 750 arrests on Skid Row each month. Public defenders began seeing their caseloads double with people who had a record of possession and now were being charged with "possession with intent to sell." Most of their clients were picked up with less than $5 of crack cocaine.
They said prosecutors were refusing plea bargains on drug cases coming from Skid Row, meaning minor drug cases that would have settled early, usually for probation and drug treatment, were going to trial in a court system already overburdened with murder and rape cases.
There was little public protest to the policing. The city's claim that those being arrested were criminals who belonged in jail and prison were pervasive. The reality would have been difficult for the public to bear.
More than half of Skid Row's homeless live with severe mental illness. Without proper treatment for debilitating conditions like paranoid schizophrenia, many turn to drugs for relief. Cities across the country have come to realize that the only way to help this population is to create housing with on-site services, often called permanent supportive housing. Los Angeles has been slow to invest in this type of housing; instead, our civic leaders have called this population "service-resistant." Favoring developers over the needs of the existing community, they have used that characterization to justify a law enforcement solution to what service providers call a public health crisis.
Officers on Skid Row have also been busy writing 1,000 citations each month for "crimes" such as entering a crosswalk after the light begins to flash, drinking a beer inside a tent, and even flicking cigarette ash on the street.
These citations carry hefty fines. When poor and homeless people can't pay them, the citations turn into warrants and eventually lead to arrest.
A downtown activist once told me that when poor people drink outside, it's considered a tragedy or a crime. When rich people do it, it's considered progress.
Nowhere was this double standard more evident than on the monthly dontown art walk, when Main Street galleries, some of them on the bottom floors of residency hotels, open their doors to thousands of people from all over the city.
Last year, community activists videotaped police officers ignoring art walk participants carrying open containers of alcohol from one gallery to the next.
Some of the footage even shows police officers opening doors for people leaving galleries with bottles of beer, while less than a block away people were being cuffed and searched by officers in rubber gloves, and then cited for carrying a can of beer in a paper bag.
In the cafes along Main Street, gallery goers from other parts of the city talked about how great it was that there was finally something happening downtown.
Sabo is no longer at the Frontier, which stands empty save for the top two floors. He was the last holdout at the hotel, and, with help from community organizers, he worked out a deal to move to another of the owner's buildings. He has become an activist of late. He has been vocal about the injustices at the hotels and even more vocal about the discriminatory policing that has sent so many of his friends to jail.
"I might have been one of those people walking down the street in my suit, telling a homeless person, 'Go away, get yourself off drugs and then you won't have to bother me,'" he said.
Over the years, he has learned what many people learn when they come to Skid Row: On the fringes of society, people can show remarkable compassion and understanding.
But they need more understanding from the rest of us. They need our city's support. They need us all to be better neighbors.
Lamp Community http://lampcommunity.org/
Los Angeles Community Action Network http://www.cangress.org/
Skid Row Housing Trust http://www.skidrow.org/
Homeless Health Care Los Angeles http://www.hhcla.org/
Downtown Women's Center http://www.dwcweb.org/
Anat Rubin is the director of public policy for Lamp Community, a nonprofit providing housing and services to homeless people living with mental illness on Skid Row. She is also a journalist whose investigative articles on Skid Row, children's health and pro bono legal services have won numerous awards.
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