A major, $3.7-million clean-up effort got underway in Los Angeles' Skid Row this week. The program, dubbed "Healthy Streets" will pair regular street cleanings with aggressive community outreach efforts, and involve close coordination between a slew of city and county organizations.
At a press conference Wednesday morning, city councilman Jose Huizar — who represents the area — said the project is a major upgrade from years past, involving teams from the city police and sanitation agencies, as well as county health, mental health, veterans assistance and other services.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) is coordinating the effort.
"Prior to going out and doing some cleaning," Huizar said. "We have people from the county departments going out and asking people if they need services — whether it's drug rehabilitation services, shelter, medical assistance, testing for TB, whatever it may be — before the cleaning actually takes place."
Those cleanings will also take place more frequently, and be more comprehensive.
"Instead of coming out every quarter, we're coming out every other month," Huizar said.
The councilman also took the opportunity at Wednesday's press conference to reiterate his call for a city-wide homeless czar who could help coordinate the city and county's efforts on a regular basis.
In search of the most vulnerable
Service providers said they were there to offer help to anyone who needed it but were on the lookout to help to those most vulnerable
Dr. Susan Partovi, field medical director for the county department of health services, said her job was to screen those living on the street for serious medical conditions, while treating minor issues on the spot.
"Wound issues are pretty big," she said. "So we can do some wound care. Respitory issues. I can listen to their lungs. I can give them some antibiotics. If I think it's over my head, then I can escort them to one of the clinics."
The most common issues Dr. Partovi sees? High blood pressure and diabetes.
"They're going to have the same chronic conditions that everybody else has," she said. "Except theirs isn't being treated. So they're gonna be the ones with the amputations. They're going blind. They're in renal failure. They're having heart attacks. They're having strokes. And they're living with the end results of those conditions."
The most vulnerable are often preyed upon by criminals, Skid Row's top cop, Deon Joseph, said. Joseph said his officers' role has been to guide service providers to those he sees exploited every day in hopes that they'll seek help.
"Being mentally ill is not a crime," he said. "Being poor, being homeless is not a crime. But left untreated, a lot of these individuals who are pushed into Skid Row — who suffer from various illnesses — end up being involved in things. And in our opinion, it's not their fault. "
Joseph said some of those early efforts have already paid off. The day before, he said, teams were able to get seven chronically homeless individuals off the street, and said he saw 'the seeds planted' for several others to do the same.
A clean-up effort born of a citation
This isn't the first year Skid Row has undergone a large clean up effort.
The "Healthy Streets" initiative was the result of a citation, after the county found the city liable for the unsanitary conditions that permeated the Skid Row area in 2012 .
To comply, Los Angeles allocated $1.5 million for a massive clean-up effort, which included trash removal and pressure-washing city streets. But the process angered many homeless and homeless advocates, who said their belongings were being confiscated or thrown out along with the garbage.
A court ruling that found the city had randomly seized homeless people's property during the effort also helped changed L.A.'s approach.
The new funds will allow the city to address those concerns, Huizar said, by providing new space for homeless to store their belongings while the cleaning is taking place, and while they sign up for services.
The city sanitation department will also do more to identify and relocate belongings, department Assistant General Manager Adel Hagekhalil said.
"We respect people's belongings. It's something that's important to all of us," Hagekhalil said.
Once workers remove potentially dangerous or unhealthy items from the street, he said, such as needles, glass or human waste — they'll identify and remove items that could be personal belongings.
"We will bag it, tag it, and store it in city facilities for 90 days," he said.
In all, Hagekhalil said his the city expects to remove three tons of trash from Skid Row streets each day of the weeklong clean-up.
"Actually, I think it's a good thing when they clean the streets," said Sidney Woodson, leaning against a wall on 6th and San Pedro streets. " I'd rather see them clean than like they are now."
Woodson said he's been on Skid Row through several clean-ups. He's never had problems with police moving his belongings. But then again, he said, he doesn't have much to move.
"I could understand if I had this kind of stuff and I had to move it," he said, nodding at a shopping cart stacked with belongings on the street nearby.