Skid Row Safer, But Homelessness Problems Remain

It's been a year since the LAPD added 50 officers to patrol Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. The results have been dramatic. Violent crime is down by a third. The number of homeless people living on the streets has been cut in half. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa calls the policy a "phenomenal" success. Homeless activists charge it's been a policy of harassment, and complain city officials have done little to address homelessness.

Frank Stoltze: During the past year, the LAPD has issued almost 10,000 citations on Skid Row, most for loitering or jaywalking. Fifty-eight-year-old Veronica Doleman received one of them.

Veronica Doleman: Every time you turn around, you get a jaywalking ticket. I got out of my car and walked directly across the street and went into the store and before I could get into the store, two bicycle policeman swooped out from behind the tree, and said, "Let me see your ID." I said, "For what?" Jaywalking ticket! They told me I had to walk all the way down to the corner and cross and walk all the way back up. Ya know, in Skid Row, they're just targeting us for anything.

Stoltze: Doleman is a U.S. Army veteran who lives in low income housing. She can barely afford the $66 jaywalking fine. Doleman's fighting that, and policing that she says unfairly people like her.

Doleman: I feel like they need to pull all them 50 new police officers they got off the streets down there and do something to help the community. Not have the community so afraid. I mean you're afraid to even walk down the street; afraid you're going to get jacked up or something. We're human. And we need to be treated like human beings.

Stoltze: Doleman joined a recent protest by the L.A. Community Action Network, a Skid Row activist group.

[Sound of chanting]

Chief Bill Bratton: Let me make something perfectly clear as you go out and listen to the rants and raves of that group of characters.

Stoltze: LAPD Chief Bill Bratton:

Bratton: We are engaged in the same effort – to save lives. I think what I'm doing, what the city government of Los Angeles is doing, is much more effective than what they are doing with all of their ranting and raving.

Stoltze: Bratton says the yearlong Safer Cities Initiative has removed hundreds of violent felons from Skid Row. He says the LAPD has issued a record number of jaywalking tickets – for good reason.

Bratton: In an area of the city where about 85 percent of the people on the streets who are homeless have severe emotional, alcohol, or drug problems and who are routinely staggering into the streets, we are attempting to control their behavior to conform to the law, not only because it is the law but because it is intended to save lives. And we are doing that.

Stoltze: But even supporters of the crackdown say it hasn't done much to reduce homelessness. Torie Osborn is Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's senior policy advisor on poverty. She says Skid Row needs more permanent supportive housing that provides rooms and services like mental health and job counseling.

Torie Osborn: Ya know, getting the housing built takes a lot longer than unrolling a public safety initiative, and I think that's the place, the awkward place where we are now.

Stoltze: Osborn says 1,000 new units are in the pipeline to open in the next couple of years. Joel John Roberts runs People Assisting The Homeless.

Joel John Roberts: Los Angeles is far behind in terms of building permanent supportive housing. And that's the reason the support system in Los Angeles is just completely overwhelmed.

Stoltze: Nowhere is that more true than on Skid Row, where activists say downtown development is encroaching on cheap, Single Room Occupancy hotel units poor people can afford. Veronica Doleman of the L.A. Community Action Network:

Doleman: We need housing. We don't need shelters. Everybody wants a place they can stick their key in and call home. We don't need shelters. We need homes.

Stoltze: In the meantime, the law enforcement crackdown, combined with a loss of cheap housing, has sent homeless people scattering to other parts of the city, where they're also unlikely to find the housing they need.