As homelessness rises, families balk at living downtown

Zoe Ha takes a break from the swing at a new playground at Pershing Square.
Zoe Ha takes a break from the swing at a new playground at Pershing Square.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Zoe Ha takes a break from the swing at a new playground at Pershing Square.
Alisa Rivera said she and her family may have to move out of downtown because of growing homelessness.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Zoe Ha takes a break from the swing at a new playground at Pershing Square.
The playgrounds at Pershing Square feature climbing structures and a rubberized ground.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Zoe Ha takes a break from the swing at a new playground at Pershing Square.
Brent Smith is a peer advocate at the Skid Row Housing Trust.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Zoe Ha takes a break from the swing at a new playground at Pershing Square.
Josie Huang/KPCC

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Alisa Rivera says, in many ways, downtown Los Angeles is more family-friendly than ever. Pershing Square recently got new playgrounds. The downtown charter school kicked off its third year. The re-opening of Clifton's gives parents a fun, cafeteria-style place to take the kids.

So why is her family on the verge of moving out?

"There's a big explosion in homelessness," Rivera, 49, said. "There's been an increase in severely mentally ill people, people who have substance abuse issues and aggressive panhandling and aggressive behavior, in general. Walking down the street has become really fraught."

The latest homeless count shows that L.A.’s homeless population has risen 12 percent in two years. Police have tied that increase to growing rates of street crime, particularly downtown, which has the highest concentration of homeless in its Skid Row neighborhood. Homeless service providers like Mike Alvidrez of the Skid Row Housing Trust say poverty is the worst they've seen.

"In my 25 years of working on Skid Row, this is the most intense concentration of humanity living on the streets," Alvidrez said.

And that's rattling the professionals and families who've moved to downtown in the last decade to be part of its revival.

Rivera, a writer, started a website and Facebook page for downtown parents after moving into a  loft with her family seven years ago. But she said she can no longer recommend downtown for people with kids. Recently, Rivera and her son Nathan were walking near their home, when a woman flailing her arms accidentally hit him, then started to scream and follow them down the block. Nathan wasn’t hurt, but Rivera’s more worried about how these kinds of encounters don’t seem to faze him anymore.

"It’s sort of like, this is his normal?" she said.

The $100 million plan

Rivera joined several other parents and business leaders at the last meeting of the Los Angeles City Council's new homelessness panel. They told councilmembers of harrowing interactions they've had with homeless, and implored officials to get people off the streets into permanent housing with mental health services.

Earlier this month, nearly half of the council joined Mayor Eric Garcetti in announcing their plan to find $100 million for new homeless initiatives such as housing. It's not clear yet where the money will come from, or if any of it will be redirected from money the city already spends on homelessness.

A city report shows that most of L.A.'s current homelessness funds go to policing.

Willy Roberson at Skid Row's San Julian Park.

But Willy Roberson said homelessness has only gotten worse in recent years.  Known as "Rock Bottom" to his friends, Roberson walks the city to get to Skid Row from where he sleeps, "two twin mattresses stacked on top of one another" near the county jail. And Roberson, 62, said he hasn't seen this many homeless encampments in downtown before.

"Right there, look," Roberson said, pointing to the tent city lining San Pedro Street. "Have you walked up and looked down that street?"

Tents — holding one or two people, sometimes a dog — crowded the sidewalk. Several young men sat slack-bodied in a nearby stairwell.  Suddenly, a car sped by, and clipped a nearby curb. Roberson was sure the driver was on drugs.

A vibrant 'core'

Blair Besten's job, as the head of the Historic Core Business Improvement District, is to boost economic development in the neighborhood, where most of downtown’s 52,000 residents live.

But the historic core overlaps with Skid Row, and homelessness has become the "number one crisis people call me about, they text me about," Besten said.

"There’s either an altercation, or somebody who they feel bad about who’s lying in the same spot every day," Besten said.

Besten said fighting homelessness is key to a vibrant downtown — something she said the country’s second largest city deserves.

"An urban core is a reasonable place to have the expectation of cleanliness and safety," Besten said. "Just because it’s existed a certain way for so long, doesn’t mean there’s entitlement for that to continue."

Downtown became a homeless hub after World War II, according to UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Wolch who's studied homelessness in L.A.

Wolch said many residents and businesses made for the suburbs. Those left in downtown were the poor, addicts, people with mental illness. Policymakers turned Skid Row into the primary service center for them.

"Instead of allowing facilities to expand outside of the region, they tried to keep services concentrated," Wolch said.

But then in the late 1990s, developers got interested again in downtown. Staples Center opened. So did Walt Disney Concert Hall and new hotels. The city passed a law that made it easier to convert old offices into apartments.

"It was all happening simultaneously, and creating a big impact on downtown and its desirability as a place to live," Wolch said.

A shrinking Skid Row

The downtown housing market is getting so hot that one developer is planning to rent out 700 sq. ft. apartments for $2,800 a month. But advocates for the homeless such as Brent Smith remind their newer neighbors that they were there first.

"If you want to live in a particular area, you have to deal with what’s going on. If you don’t feel you can deal with that, then you need to move out," Smith said.

Smith used to be on the streets himself and is now a peer advocate for the Skid Row Housing Trust, and lives at one of the permanent housing developments it operates, New Pershing Apartments. Smith said the numbers of homeless may be growing but their space is shrinking. Boutiques and bistros nibble at the edges of Skid Row.

"It’s a situation where you say the homeless are taking over the sidewalks but you’ve got these little coffeeshops doing the same thing," Smith said. "You’ve got their little tables set out, and so you have to walk around them."

New Pershing Apartments in Skid Row

Rivera said she never set out to be as she puts it, "an evil gentrifier." She calls herself a Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx. But when she thinks about the economic disparity downtown, it makes her uneasy.

"If you have any consciousness at all you would be uncomfortable with that, I think," Rivera said.

Living downtown is getting so much more expensive that Rivera said it’s a matter of time before her family gets priced out. But faced with growing homelessness downtown, they’ll probably be gone before that day comes — even with the councilmembers' renewed commitment to working on the issue. Rivera questions how quickly they can come up with fixes.

Over on Skid Row, Roberson doubts a lot of the people who’ve moved downtown will stick around.

"It’s a fad," Roberson said. "It’s trying to bring back this and bring back that, and there are people all for it, like yuppies."

As for Roberson, he’s not going anywhere. Skid Row, he said, is "my neighborhood."