by David Bacon
“I’m the people’s general,” says TC, explaining the nickname he’s been given on Fifth Street in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles. He earned it by keeping the homeless residents of Skid Row informed and educated, 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,” ‘General’ TC declares. “I’ve been living here on Skid Row for two years, and I love it because I love the people — most of ‘em, at least. I don’t like being homeless, and 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 it is contested terrain nonetheless.
“There are two communities on Skid Row — the haves and the have-nots,” says Deborah Burton, who lives in subsidized housing nearby. “Working and living together makes a community. We’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”
And whether living on the sidewalk or in single-room hotels, this sense of community shared by Skid Row residents is a product of their efforts to keep living there. On Sixth Street, people 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’s a cancer survivor, which has given her bumps all over her skin. No one gives her a second look, though, other than to say hello. “They don’t turn up their nose at you. Down here everyone is equal.”
That’s not her sense of the attitude she faces once she leaves the park, though. “We hang out here because we’re not allowed in the upskirts of downtown,” Harris charges. “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 trashcan.”
Deborah Burton feels the same scorn at Coles Restaurant on Sixth. “We used to go there because it was affordable,” she remembers from her youth. Then the eatery changed hands, and set up tables outside on the sidewalk to serve the new, more affluent people moving into downtown. Prices went up. Well-heeled diners did their best to ignore the homeless people across the street as police moved them on, telling them the city’s “sit-lie” ordinance prohibited sitting on the pavement.
“What goes through their mind?” Burton wonders. “You cross the street, and then you can’t see us? I tried going into Coles one day to eat, and the maitre d’ asked me if I had any money before I even crossed the threshold. That’s why I say there are two communities here.”
The distinction gets drawn by the city in other ways as well. The further east you go on Sixth Street, away from the new loft conversions, the fewer trash cans you find. The grass is getting brown in Gladys Park because water is expensive. But little patches of bright green lawn dot the sidewalk outside new market-rate residences, 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, however, are hard to find. To Skid Row’s poor, this is the “dirty divide.”
Ironically, Linda Harris isn’t homeless. She lives in an apartment and sings at Church of the Nazarene, as she’s done since childhood. 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.
Another park further towards downtown, Pershing Square, is much less user-friendly. With skyscrapers and Class A hotels just a block or two away, the square is covered in concrete. Cement benches line its rim, but metal dividers prevent anyone from lying down as they can at Gladys Park, and security guards quickly warn off anyone who tries.
Al Sabo arrived in the square in 2003, pulling two roller bags carrying all 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,” he says. “I was terrified. I walked into the park that day, figuring that if anyplace was safe, it would be Pershing Square.”
Sabo found the benches filled with drug addicts, but to his amazement, they took care of him. “Most were really decent people,” he explains. “They knew I looked out of place. 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 eventually found a room in a cheap hotel, and the experience transformed him.
Chasing homeless people out of Pershing Square, Sabo believes, was intended to make downtown more inviting to residents able to pay market-rate rents, and to help developers converting the old hotels to house them. “But if you do away with all the amenities, who’s going to go to the park?” he asks. “Would you bring your family where there’s no grass to lay your blanket or picnic with your children where there’s no table?”
Sabo began helping others resist efforts to convert buildings into market-rate housing. A former journalist, he started writing a column on displacement for Community Connection, the local newsletter of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN).
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 was a luxury residence for Charlie Chaplin and Rudolf Valentino in the 1920s. Woods even got the room occupied by Helen Ferguson, a silent film star. But by the 1990s, it was pretty run down.
“When I first moved in, I was ashamed,” Woods recalls. “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.”
He lost his shame when the hotel’s previous owner decided to renovate, and began evicting low-income residents. “I thought, if he moves me out of my room, what makes me think I’m going to get it back? If I didn’t fight I was going to lose my home.”
Woods got a lawyer, filed a suit with several other residents, and eventually won an injunction protecting the hotel’s low-income status. In the process, Alexandria tenants got to know each other, and became a community within the hotel bent on staying put. “Now Skid Row is Skid Dollar,” Woods laughs. “But why can’t I still be here?”
At the Frontier Hotel, tenants won a partial victory in a similar battle. Zuma Corporation, a developer, was able to convert the top three floors to market-rate residences, while floors three to nine remained low-income housing.
The hotel owner, however, then reserved access to the main lobby, with its potted palms and marble floors, for top-floor renters paying $1100 to $3900 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,” he said, “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. 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 Diaz, Sabo and other tenants organized similar committees in other hotels, they all began to develop a greater sense of themselves as a community of low-income Skid Row residents. Together, they got Los Angeles to pass a hotel preservation ordinance that requires no net loss of low-income housing, covering 17-18,000 units citywide, including 7-8000 downtown.
Diaz, who now works for LA CAN, points out that at the Alexandria, all the rooms are covered by Section 8, the 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.
Effectively, that makes Skid Row a community in which both low-income and higher income people live together. Stabilizing low-income housing affects people living on the street. Sidewalk-dwellers and hotel-dwellers are not two separate communities, but one larger one, and people move from one status to another. Los Angeles had about 58,000 homeless people in 2013, 8000 more than two years before.
Both General TC and Sean Gregory had rooms and lost them, pushing them onto the street. Terri King was homeless for three years, and then got a room at the Lyndon Hotel. “Since I got a place I’ve had my teeth done, my ears done, and I have medical care,” she says.
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, which manages 25 low-income developments throughout downtown.
Fisher and his friend Thomas Ozeki now manage the Star Apartments community garden, which they see as an organizing tool. “It helps create community,” Fisher points out. “In the middle of Skid Row, look how beautiful it is.”
In addition, the community garden provides a source of fresh vegetables — a rarity on Skid Row, which activists call a food desert. “I have to catch two busses to get to the closest grocery store,” Deborah Burton charges.
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, and people learn to prune, and then put fish meal into the watering cans. Urban gardens require a lot of care.”
To help spread access to gardening resources, and therefore to fresh produce, LA CAN helped form the Skid Row Garden Council. Organizations donate trees, seed and soil, which the council distributes to buildings where residents set up a garden. Ozeki guides urban gardeners in three other buildings belonging to the Housing Trust. “They have 19 buildings with gardens,” he says.
According to LA CAN organizer Eric Ares, “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.”
At LA CAN’s own building, the activist community set up a rooftop garden, growing tomatoes and other vegetables in containers of dirt hauled up several flights of stairs. In their new office, setting up the rooftop garden will be easier — it’s a one-story building.
“Everything we grow is distributed free or prepared in meals for our community,” Ares emphasizes.
The local farmers markets often see downtown’s affluent residents as their preferred clients, and LA CAN has negotiated with many of them to get them to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards from poor residents. In California, public assistance and food stamp benefits are paid into accounts, and recipients then use the cards to buy food.
“At the City Hall market, getting EBT access was easy, but at the Grand Park market the managers didn’t want to take them at all,” Ares charges. In Pershing Square, managers say they’re setting up their own, separate system.
The Pershing Square market first tried to use security to push homeless and obviously poor people out on market days, and even forced a woman in her 80s, who’d been handing out free sandwiches for years, to stop her distribution. “But we worked with them, and they backed off,” he says.
LA CAN has also started its own food distribution program, a Pop-Up Market organized with Women Organizing Resources. “We get food in Southern California and sell it, but not for profit,” Ares says. “We started in South LA, and now we’re bringing it downtown.” In its first six months, the market distributed 3.8 tons of organic produce.
Homeless people define Skid Row as a community in many ways. General TC points out that most homeless men are veterans. Gregory says it’s the largest single community of people in recovery from alcoholism and addiction in the country.
“There’s also a community of artists who live here and I’m one of them,” Gregory boasts. He’s acted in plays about addiction and recovery put on by one of the area’s oldest theater groups, the Los Angeles Poverty Department. Another local ensemble, Cornerstone Theater, incorporates Skid Row residents and their ideas into its productions.
Yet another group, the Women’s Action Coalition, organizes an annual variety show to highlight local talent and raise money to support women and families.
Skid Row’s population is overwhelmingly male, in part due to county policy. From 2005-2008, the Board of Supervisors declared “zero tolerance” for 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 remain with their children.
In 2007, they took 15 children from their parents. The policy caused great controversy. Another supervisor, Yvonne Braithwaite 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 policy was eventually ended, but today women and children make up less than ten percent of Skid Row’s population. Class and race increasingly determine who can have children downtown. Toddlers in expensive strollers are a common sight outside market-rate lofts.
“A community without children is a community without a future,” according to LA CAN co-director Becky Dennison. “We have to improve the community, as opposed to push poor mothers or women of color out.”
Some measures that were felt as discriminatory by homeless people and hotel residents have been successfully challenged. A policy by some 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.
Meanwhile, however, city code section 41.18D still prohibits sitting and lying on the sidewalk between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. Poor residents accuse the police of using it selectively against them, and the Safer Cities Initiative targets police enforcement to Skid Row east of Main Street.
In 2006, the 50 extra police it mandated for the area issued 12,000 citations. In response, that year the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the city to stop its overzealous approach.
Nevertheless, citations have continued, and last year, two LA CAN members handing out seedlings for gardens were even cited, and one officer warned hotel tenants they should “keep moving” once they walked out of their building. Restaurants catering to higher income clientele, however, are allowed to have people wait outside for tables and even put tables on the sidewalk.
“They complain about the homeless problem, but there’s one sure way to get hundreds off the street,” Gregory says, and points to the Cecil Hotel on Main Street, where a deal fell through that would have rehabilitated hundreds of rooms for people living on the sidewalk. “We are fighting for a place that belongs to us.”
“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.”
All photos are by renowned photojournalist David Bacon. With thanks and appreciation to Equal Voice News. See more at: http://www.equalvoiceforfamilies.org/