Crime & Justice

Police: 'Target rich' environment of new residents, homeless attracting predators to downtown LA

A sign reading 'Skid Row' is painted on a wall next to the Los Angeles Mission, September 22, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles' Skid Row contains one of the largest populations of homeless people in the United States.
A sign reading 'Skid Row' is painted on a wall next to the Los Angeles Mission, September 22, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles' Skid Row contains one of the largest populations of homeless people in the United States.
File photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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A recent surge in violent crime and property crime in LAPD's downtown Central Division may be due to the growing number of homeless and non-homeless population in and around Skid Row, according to law enforcement officials and people who work in the area.

Violent crime is up a whopping 60.8 percent so far this year, compared to the same time last year. Property crime is up 25.4 percent.  

The LAPD is categorizing more incidents as aggravated assaults, said Don Graham, who supervises the 300 cops who patrol the LAPD’s downtown Central Division. “But that can’t account for all of the increase.”

Instead, he points to the growing homeless and non-homeless population in and around Skid Row.

The latest homeless count found a 12 percent increase in L.A. County, with many living on the streets and in the shelters around Skid Row. At the same time, gentrification has fueled roughly a doubling in the number of people who call downtown home.

The homeless population is particularly vulnerable to drug dealers and pimps “in the same way as a watering hole would attract predators,” Graham said.

Carlos Brown, 52, has lived at the Union Rescue Mission for the past few months. The level of desperation is intense, he said.

“Somebody got more than another person, so they try to take it from you,” Brown said. "I just trust God will take care of me."

Graham said officers also are seeing the use of more weapons among homeless people and the drug dealers that cater to them. “So last year’s fist fight becomes this year’s fight with a broken bottle or with a piece of concrete.”

But homeless people are not the only victims, said Graham. The influx of new residents to downtown’s lofts and refurbished buildings also are good targets for criminals.

“They are target rich,” he said. “Electronic items are taken out of unlocked vehicles all the time now.”

Jack Sapar, a downtown resident of 14 years, owns a fabric shop on 8th Street near Maple Avenue, a few blocks from Skid Row.

“We’ve been dealing with more shoplifting," Sapar said. "We had a bike stolen in front of the store last week."

For more than a decade, Andy Bales has run the Union Rescue Mission in the heart of Skid Row. He said one of his new employees was attacked on the way to their first day orientation.

“His coat was demanded of him and then ripped off of him,” Bales said. Bales said his own car was surrounded by a group of men recently. They quickly recognized it was him and they backed off, according to Bales.

“There is more desperation,” he said of the homeless people on Skid Row.

Bales complained federal court rulings have hamstrung the LAPD's ability to remove tents during the day. Courts cited the city's lack of housing. But Bales said it makes it easier for drug dealers and criminals to hide.

Graham said that's true. But he also said the department has added foot patrols and narcotics officers to the area in recent months to reverse the increase in crime.