The Rules of the Row

In the shadows of skyscrapers, a battle is being fought over the future of Los Angeles' Skid Row -- and everyone from do-gooders to developers to City Hall wants a piece of the action.

In its neighborhood, which is to say in Los Angeles, California, near the corner of Seventh and Maple streets, the early morning arrival of Alice Callaghan is counted a weekday sacrament. There are myriad others: the dispersal of trucks from the loading docks of the Flower District immediately to the south, the deluge of workers debarking from city buses to staff the sewing machines in the high-rise sweatshops of the Garment District immediately to the west, the emergence of homeless men from cardboard boxes who fold their belongings into shopping carts and do or don't use the portable toilet on the sidewalk in front of Las Familias del Pueblo before shambling north into Skid Row. A few minutes before 7 a.m., Alice Callaghan parks her Volvo, bursting with children, in a lot behind the hamburger stand and, fumbling for keys and carrying her coffee high to protect it from the bumping mob as she marches down the sidewalk, draws aside a security grill and unpadlocks a door to let the children in. Las Familias del Pueblo is open for another day's business.

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For 20 years, Callaghan has run Las Familias, a community center for the garment workers and their families. The children accumulate in waves throughout the day until the single room, smaller than a Brentwood carport, and the compact, tree-shaded asphalt playground out back ring with a cacophonous patois of Spanish and street English, futbol and Barbie. The center also serves Callaghan as a battle station for larger concerns: defending her adopted neighborhood from government neglect, commercial assault, misguided gentrification, and even from itself.

On a morning a couple of days before Christmas, once the place was open and the kids settled in and the playground checked for rats, she left the adjudication of toy disputes and bathroom privileges to other staffers and went out to tour the field. She walked a couple of blocks east on Seventh Street and turned north onto San Julian.

Callaghan is an ex-nun (Catholic) and ordained priest (Episcopal) with a master's degree in divinity, and she looks the part of radical seminarian: as outwardly cheerful and constitutionally implacable as a Christmas wreath on the grill of a Peterbilt diesel. She wears her hair in a pageboy and dresses unvaryingly in running shoes, collarless oxford shirts, and A-line khaki skirts that she hikes up with a quick hand and a hitch of her hip whenever she stands, like Bat Masterson adjusting his bandolier. She's only a head taller than some of the children she cares for. You can see over her, but you can't get around her. No one has ever accused Alice Callaghan, and she is accused of a lot of things, of ducking a good fight or being faint of heart. Still, when she entered San Julian Street that morning, her eyes sharpened.

The scene before her resembled the aftermath of a catastrophe, an earthquake or terrorist bombing. Men milled about in the center of the street in aimless, edgy, noisy throngs; on the sidewalks they huddled morosely beside shopping carts or lay with their backs against warehouse walls amid their piled belongings, like so much flotsam washed up after a distant storm. The pavement smelled of urine and excrement. One tall man with a melted ingot of a face -- much of it had been shot off in a long-ago altercation -- passed, heading the other way. "Hey, Alice," he called out with a clear voice and a disfigured smile. "Oh, hey, Jerry," she said back. "How's it going?" Others eyed her with suspicion: the crisp shirt, the A-line skirt. "Are you a fed?" one man asked, low, as she reached midblock. "You look like you might be a fed," he said. "C'mon," laughed Callaghan. "They would never hire someone like me."

At the end of the block, another man caught up with her. He was younger than most and in more hopeful condition. On his back was a leather backpack. "Hey," he yelled as he ran up. "Hey, legal lady, aren't you the legal lady?"

The man's name was George Harrison and he presented her with a tale of indignity. He had been crossing the street late one night and had been given a ticket for jaywalking. "You can handle it unless you ignore it," Callaghan instructed him. "Don't let it go to warrant." Harrison's grimace said that the summons date had come and gone. "Okay," Callaghan said. "Come by Las Familias and we'll take down the details."

Harrison's misdemeanor was part of a more substantial problem for Callaghan. She received his complaint as a portent, the way a sailor notes a shift in the wind. Callaghan has been walking San Julian and the other streets of Skid Row for going on three decades, and she can spot a change of season. Before she reached the end of the block, she'd heard the same story from three more men.

 

Even among L.A.'s homeless, Skid Row is a bad address. The prevailing wisdom holds that the panhandlers head for the tourist-larded beaches of Santa Monica, and the runaway kids gravitate to the seedy, sequin-and-tattoo glitz of Hollywood. Only the most desperate drop off the face of the earth onto the mean sidewalks downtown -- but then, there are plenty of desperate. Los Angeles has the largest skid row in the nation, stretching across 50 square blocks.

Of its 11,000 residents, 85 percent are black and 80 percent are men. The fortunate among them stay in missions or emergency shelters or subsidized hotels. The rest -- an estimated 4,000 -- live on the street. All night, fires burn at the curb, surrounded by ghostly gatherings of men who wander about or sleep on sidewalks that, according to a recent city study, have up to 30 times the bacterial contamination of raw sewage. When morning comes and the street sweepers clean the gutters, they are sometimes followed by vacuum trucks, lest the runoff contaminate the storm drains.

Social service providers estimate that at least 70 percent of those who live on Skid Row have a history of drug or alcohol abuse and one-third are mentally ill. Up to 10 percent test positive for HIV. Most have a criminal record. Disease and incarceration are encouraged by exposure and by the street's only recreations, which on many blocks are also its only businesses to speak of: prostitution and narcotics. Outsiders driving through perceive the area as threatening, dangerous, a lawless expanse. And they are right, in a way, which is why clerks in the few dingy convenience stores along the long, empty blocks tuck pistols under their aprons.

But if the criminal law is often flouted here, other laws prevail without mercy or reprieve. They say on the Row that no one is there by accident, and nothing happens without a reason. From above, Skid Row may appear like a formless, moiling pit abandoned to the dispossessed. In the more intimate and accurate view, looking up from below, it is a grid of hotly competing jurisdictions, of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and big money wrangling over a neighborhood's fate. Skid Row may be the most depressed part of Los Angeles, but it is also posting an economic growth rate among the city's highest. As elsewhere in an economy of dot-com bubbles and welfare reforms, the disparities can be more perilous than promising.

 

Skid row is nothing if not an intentional place; it was designated and nurtured by the city fathers. In 1976, the Los Angeles City Council adopted a redevelopment plan that included a "policy of containment." Those to be contained were the homeless, and the area they were to be contained in was the neighborhood known officially as Central City East. The policy did not suggest a walled ghetto, however, or a dismissive sealing away of the problems of the poorest. It was, instead, a response to those problems that ranked as enlightened compared with the policies of most other American cities at the time. After World War II, and increasingly in the 1960s and 1970s, America set about tearing down its skid rows, razing the run-down buildings, dispersing the destitute, and, often, offering up the newly cleared real estate to industrial developers. Los Angeles did its own fair share of razing. Notoriously, it bulldozed the entirety of Bunker Hill, the formerly haute heights of downtown whose gingerbread Victorian homes had declined into ramshackle firetrap tenements. The poor residential neighborhood was reborn, beginning in the 1970s, as a glistening spine of skyscrapers, flagship headquarters for megacorporations like Arco and Bank of America. Bunker Hill became the emblem of L.A.'s vaunted downtown renaissance. There was talk of doing the same with Central City East.

Then (and partly to deflect criticism that "redevelopment" was a euphemism for land clearing and class cleansing) came the 1976 redevelopment plan, and Central City East was instead "stabilized" for its poor residents. The housing was to be preserved and expanded, and the "containment" was to be achieved through a dipole magnet: the concentration in the area of services such as shelters and detox programs, and the establishment of light industry that might offer some entry employment for those on the street.

For a quarter of a century, the plan has worked. Dramatically, in the accounting of many of those involved. The poor congregated in an area where they posed the least nuisance and had the most available services. Businesses moved in on Skid Row's fringes, and the derelict housing was spectacularly rescued. What looks to outsiders like a plague zone is actually a crowning achievement of L.A.'s urban construct. "Fifth and San Julian Street is intense," says Jim Bonar, head of the Skid Row Housing Trust, "but it's not what it was 20 years ago."

Bonar's organization, known simply as "The Trust," can take much of the credit for the jewel in that civic crown: a proliferation of renovated Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels as clean and modern and architecturally stylish as anything in Beverly Hills. The hotels are relics of a venerable heritage of male transiency: Built to house the seasonal agricultural workers, ambitious adventurers, and layover railroad personnel who filled downtown Los Angeles in the early years of the 20th century, they weren't considered disreputable at the time. But their standard layout -- small rooms with a bed and a dresser, communal bathrooms down the hall -- made them convenient dormitories for despondency when Central City East became a dead end instead of a way station.

By the early 1980s, half of the hotels in Central City East had been torn down (many for parking lots) or had burned. Of the remaining 63 SROs, 18 have since been bought and rehabbed by the Trust, and another 19 by a sister nonprofit, the SRO Housing Corporation. Between them, the two organizations own more than a third of all the residential rooms in the Row.

SRO Housing is the elder of the two; it was set up in the late 1970s by the city's redevelopment agency. The Trust was the creation of Alice Callaghan. She incorporated it in 1988 and still sits on its board.

"We set up the Trust as a complement to SRO Housing," Callaghan says. "We're not competitive." Her professional courtesy is echoed by Bud Hayes, executive director of SRO Housing. "On many issues, Alice and I see things the same way," he says. "We agree the housing has to be saved." The two recognize that the bugbear of redevelopment anywhere in the country is how to spruce up a neighborhood without displacing the poor. "The reality is, if you do economic development before you get the housing, then you will bring in the people most antagonistic to the people on the street," Callaghan explains. "In the end, if you own the housing, you win. But only if."

The rehabbed SROs are in this way strategic redoubts against a dilemma intrinsic to the policy of containment. Just as envisioned by the plan's authors, a new class of entrepreneurs has set up shop in the Row, and the neighborhood's economic growth rate has skyrocketed as a result. But instead of offering jobs, the businesses have increasingly militated against the jobless. They have used zoning regulations to chip away more than half of Skid Row, carving out industrial districts in which no new SROs can be built without special permission. And they have demanded tougher police action to disperse the very people the city sought to concentrate in the area. The more Darwinian business climate has combined with an erosion of public sympathy for the homeless to rattle the city's commitment to Skid Row.

"We believe in the city's redevelopment plan," Callaghan told me one day in Las Familias del Pueblo. "That's all we're trying to do, is be faithful to that plan." Her declaration was odd only in the context of the question it was trying to address: What had put her so fiercely at loggerheads with City Hall and the police, with businesses on Skid Row, and ultimately even with fellow service pro-viders like SRO Housing and Bud Hayes?

The general answer was that Callaghan believes that the 1976 plan is being callously abandoned. The abandonment is to some extent overt, and in other ways the result of the shifting dynamics that are altering the rules of the Row. Whether or not they spell the end of L.A.'s old plan, those shifts are making Central City East a battleground, and San Julian Street a legal line of scrimmage, in a contest over how America should treat the most troubled and intractably destitute among its poor.

 

On a morning early last October, I met Bud Hayes and SRO Housing's associate executive director, Geoffrey Gilbert, in front of a hotel on Fifth Street near the corner of San Julian. SRO Housing had recently purchased the dilapidated building, which was named the Southern. "This was the hellhole of down-town L.A.," Hayes told me proudly. He is a large man with an easy, rolling demeanor, wearing a baseball cap, his expansiveness contrasting with Gilbert's compactness and quiet but spring-loaded intensity. "It was a den of iniquity," he continued, "the kind of place where you could pay for drugs by the front desk and they'd drop them to you out the back window. They had several shoot-outs in here over the years."

The Southern's brick facade still bore the grime of long neglect, but today that was obscured by scaffolding. Construction crews bustled about and the front door through which Hayes and Gilbert led me revealed an old entry hall being refashioned into a suave, modern lobby. Beyond, long hallways were being reframed into tiers of open-air balconies, through which 55 small rooms would face a central, palm-shaded atrium.

"The poor appreciate the investment in putting beauty back into the neighborhood," Gilbert said, and Hayes picked up the thought: "The environment sends a strong message. If we just painted the place and left it like it was, the message would be, 'You're not worth very much.' But this," he motioned around the rising phoenix of the Southern, "this implies something different."

From there the pair's pride in mortar and brick bled quickly into less tangible concerns. "We designed the common space to facilitate community," Gilbert said. "The men who end up on Skid Row are social isolates." Hayes continued: "There are a lot of burned bridges here. Healing comes from community. Now, mental health advocates can give it a lot of fancy different names, but when people feel respected, and feel part of a community, to the extent that translates into feeling loved, the community heals."

The salutary effect of ambitious architecture is a gospel common to both SRO Housing and the Trust. Rents are rock-bottom -- typically around $190 a month for a room -- and tied to Section 8 or other subsidies that keep them within reach of unemployed or marginally employed tenants; yet the buildings are handsome, with nicely upholstered lounges and communal kitchens sporting professional-grade stainless steel ranges. The equation seems to work: Many of the hotels are self-governed and self-policed. SRO Housing also employs a hefty security staff to monitor lobbies and sidewalks -- men like Bowie, an enormous, uniformed monolith who escorted Hayes and Gilbert and me every step of the way through the neighborhood and stood sentry at the entrance of any building we visited.

There are no security guards at buildings managed by Callaghan's Skid Row Housing Trust, and the difference highlights the contrast between two philosophies at large -- and at odds -- on the Row. The distinction takes subtle forms: While people seeking residence at a Trust hotel simply fill out an application at a storefront office, the typical route into SRO Housing's units entails layers of referral and reform. Many of Hayes' tenants ascend from emergency shelters through transitional housing with intensive counseling for substance abuse or mental health problems before graduating to the regular SROs, some of which are "sober" facilities. "They operate a program," Jim Bonar says, summarizing the difference between the two groups. "We operate housing."

The distinctions don't stop there; they are strikingly evident on any map of the district. The Trust's buildings are scattered around Skid Row like pickets posted against border incursion, as indeed they are, for the Trust would like to buttress as much of Skid Row as possible against the zoning assaults and political constrictions working to diminish it. SRO Housing's hotels, by contrast, are huddled in the heart of the Row, around San Julian and Fifth streets, for the express purpose of liberating a single Skid Row intersection from the social predations of poverty, including the bad behavior of many of the homeless themselves. It's as though, in attempting to defend the poor, the Trust had envisioned the danger without and SRO Housing, the danger within.

 

Alice Callaghan's morning stroll up San Julian Street afforded an intimate view of the recent changes many would herald as improvements. Two blocks north of Las Familias, at the vortex of milling, lounging men, was a new drop-in center where homeless people can congregate in a concrete courtyard or sleep in rotating shifts in a small dormitory. Farther along was the massive new Union Rescue Mission, five stories tall, the largest of the Row's five emergency shelters. At the end of the street was a postage-stamp lot of fenced-in green, where men played chess and dominoes under pavilion roofs, or lounged on the grass. San Julian Park was once a place where some city workers would come only if accompanied by armed guards. Now it was a relatively orderly Eden, still owned by the city, but overseen by SRO Housing.

All well and good, perhaps, but Callaghan wasn't celebrating. Behind such landmarks of progress, she spied an ominous shift in attitudes toward the homeless. The compassion people mustered for the down-and-out even in the dark days of the 1980s was now all but exhausted. The new mandate was to reform the homeless, to cast them not as people with problems, but as people who were the problem, and who chose to be a problem. That perception had become the coin of the realm among some of the Row's service organizations, which had retooled themselves to fit changed expectations.

"When I came down here in the '70s, the missions were these hole-in-the-wall places," Callaghan says. "Now some of them are big corporations with headquarters off by the beach and movie stars on their boards, and they're invested in institutional survival." The forms that investment takes can look ludicrous close-up: Callaghan and Hayes both point to the perennial fundraising gimmick -- mediagenic holiday meals or toy giveaways for families that, since there are so few women and children on the Row, have to be bused in. The ruse highlights a problem for Skid Row service providers: drawing money for their clients' condition without admitting exactly who their clients are and what their true condition is. "Today you can't get dollars for homelessness, per se," Bonar laments. "But there's great sympathy for the mentally ill, or for people with HIV, as there should be, and for other groups. The legislature will give them money."

Pursuing that money has meant, as Callaghan puts it, talking "the lingo of rehab," and the lingo created its own logic. "It stigmatized the poor," she notes. Especially poor drunk deranged dirty men, and when the organizations were eventually called upon to explain why there were still so many such men on the Row evidently unrehabilitated, they came up with the portrait of the "service resistant" individual who couldn't bear the rules and restrictions of shelters and programs.

Callaghan places the drop-in center in that context. Built by SRO Housing with help from the city, it offers an officially sanctioned "high tolerance zone" where almost any behavior is allowed. Callaghan picketed the 1999 opening of the center and likened it to an internment camp -- a hyperbole that offended Bud Hayes, who was inside the center that day, dedicating it. "It creates the image that anyone still on the street is on the street by choice and not because of a lack of options," Callaghan says. "It helps set the stage for a harsh response."

Maybe it was coincidence, but the response followed. The Los Angeles Police Department has cracked down on Skid Row in recent months, issuing hundreds of citations to homeless people for the most minor infractions -- Callaghan notes instances when officers demanded identification from someone, then cited him for littering when he threw away his cigarette to get his wallet. If, characteristically, the homeless person did not make the trek to court, the misdemeanor led to a warrant, turning a luckless man into a wanted man. Citing elevated crime figures -- 4 homeless people murdered in the Row in the last year, and 32 others sexually assaulted -- officers from the LAPD's Central Division last fall also began breaking up cardboard encampments and rousting people out of the neighborhood, solidifying critics' suspicions that the language of rehab and programs and community is the velvet glove on a puritanical and punitive fist.

On the morning I arrived to tour the Southern, I stumbled on an arrest in progress beside San Julian Park. The square of green was banked with cruisers, and police had a couple of men spread-eagled against the fence. "Drugs," Gilbert surmised, and Hayes credited a general crackdown on crime with making San Julian Street, on this morning, uncommonly calm. "This area was hit hard two days ago," he said. "There was an encampment on Sixth Street, and today you wouldn't know it had ever existed." He explained that area businesses had complained that the homeless presented a nuisance. SRO Housing, it turns out, had been among those calling for tougher enforcement.

 

The business complaints were evidence that more has been shifting on the Row than attitude: In recent years, the money has switched allegiance. In the early days of redevelopment, Skid Row benefited from being a fiscal reflection of prosperous Bunker Hill. The city demanded that funds spent to revitalize the downtown of skyscrapers and trendy restaurants -- the only downtown most Angelenos and tourists ever see -- be matched with a certain amount for the unseen downtown, which meant Skid Row. At the same time, the corporations whose skyscrapers dominated Bunker Hill prided themselves on being civic stewards and spent large sums on Row programs; the president of Arco was on Alice Callaghan's board.

But then a lawsuit curtailed the redistribution of funds within downtown and, in the recession of the early '90s, L.A.'s biggest nonentertainment corporations, firms like Arco and First Interstate, went belly-up or merged and moved. The business establishment that replaced them consisted of myriad small entrepreneurs and shopkeepers -- toy manufacturers, garment makers, flower and fish wholesalers -- many of whom were too busy eking out their own survival to spend much time fretting over intractable social problems, especially problems camping in their doorways. Like other inner-city merchants nationwide, they organized into Business Improvement Districts, consortiums that hired "shirts" -- guards mounted on bicycles and dressed in T-shirts marked "Security" who spent much of their time monitoring and confronting the homeless.

As is her wont, Callaghan struck back. She is feared as a political pugilist, the more because her politics are unpredictable. She works closely with Los Angeles Catholic Worker, a group that runs the popular "Hippie Kitchen" in the Row. She also incurred liberal wrath in 1998 when she helped write California's proposition against bilingual education, after the families of her Hispanic daycare children complained that they were being shunted away from English classes.

Last summer, she postered the neighborhood with eye-catching signs saying "Shirts Are Not Cops" and handed out flyers notifying the homeless of their right not to be pestered by the guards. When the guards tore down her posters, she put them back up with epoxy. To spare the homeless the legal jeopardy, and the indignity, of relieving themselves on the street, she petitioned the city for portable toilets; when the politicians balked, she held a sit-in that blocked the men's rooms of City Hall. Later, when the city moved all the toilets to one central location, she rented a truck and redistributed them around the neighborhood, announcing that if anyone touched the portables she'd be back to position them outside any fancy hotel where the mayor might happen to speak. The toilets have stayed put, and not to everyone's delight. Bud Hayes and others complain that they are assignation spots for drug sales and prostitution. Some refer to the toilets as "Alices."

 

The philosophical differences dividing Hayes, Callaghan, and their respective organizations came to a nasty head in 1999, when the city's nuisance ordinances were directed against the Trust's Simone Hotel. It was accused of being the site of occasional violent episodes and regular breaches of the peace, the latter for the most part happening outside the building and not involving Simone residents. The allegations transfixed the Los Angeles Board of Zoning Appeals, and then a City Council committee, through the first half of last year. The zoning administrator wanted the Trust to hire a 24-hour security force, to mount cameras over the sidewalks, to fingerprint and photograph all visitors to the hotel, and to make all films and photos available to police on demand -- the sorts of expensive requirements that had been used to drive liquor stores and bars out of the Row. The zoning board (despite testimony in the hotel's defense from lawyers, administrators, and 41 of the Simone's tenants) upheld the conditions, with the caveat of a fingerprinting dispensation for visiting clergy. But the Council committee recommended that the requirements be dropped in favor of a set of voluntary guidelines.

The battle over the Simone left wounds and raised fears, in part because it was the most direct contest yet between the advocates and detractors of Alice Callaghan. For Jim Bonar, what was especially galling was the involvement of the Trust's sister organization: SRO Housing had provided testimony against the Simone. "That was the most destructive thing Bud Hayes could have done," Bonar says sadly. Hayes eventually softened his stance in a letter to the zoning board, expressing his "optimism" that all problems at the Simone were being addressed and that no further action by the zoning administrator was required.

Where that left the Row, or its residents, or the fate of the 1976 redevelopment plan, is anybody's guess. SRO Housing and the Trust find themselves warily at odds and necessarily in league, each facing the same vexing conundrums of funding and politics -- and each wishing for a new vision that would supplant the old policy of containment and see the Row safely through modern realities.

The realities are growing fiercer. Recently, a new developer has begun renovating buildings between Skid Row and Bunker Hill as trendy middle-class residences. Bonar is watching the sticker price rise on the old SROs he'd like to buy and wonders how long it will take before the yuppies and the homeless find themselves opening a new front of hostilities.

For her part, Alice Callaghan continues facing down the reformers and the shirts. On December 5 she won a victory: A lawsuit she had filed with the American Civil Liberties Union yielded a restraining order against the police, forbidding officers from "stopping the homeless without reasonable suspicion while they are simply standing or walking on public streets and sidewalks." She posted a copy in the window of Las Familias del Pueblo. When the police responded three days later with a harsh sweep up San Julian Street and a public statement that the restraining order would not affect their approach, demonstrators organized a "Jaywalk-In," in which homeless people paraded down Fifth Street between banks of police armed with rubber bullets.

The escalation of hostilities reflects the complicated contest still simmering over who will rule the Row. In a conversation shortly before Christmas, Jim Bonar offered a metaphor. Social service providers and businesses resembled armies vying for strategic advantage, he suggested: "There's land to be occupied here and a fear of incursions, and each side is founding parallel settlements, hoping to claim the territory. I guess that's one way to think of Skid Row; it's kind of like our Jerusalem."