Harsh Skid Row policies driven by business lobby, say advocates
Homeless people have historically gained the ire of city dwellers.
In 1875, the editors of the New York magazine Appleton’s Journal took issue with the destitute who made themselves “an object of abhorrence to decent folk” in Central Park. They criticized the installment of park benches, saying that the “mendicancy of a free seat in a park encourages idleness and dissoluteness” and arguing that the poor should pay to sit down on the benches, as they would be “compensated by the dignity of proprietorship.”
“The idea of perfect democracy in our public places is no doubt very fine in theory; [but] true democracy has its limitations — it does not give any one the privilege to be as filthy as he pleases, as disgusting in his habits as he likes, or as worthless as he chooses. The parks are … not for vagabonds — a class who have no rights that anybody is called upon to consider or respect,” wrote the editors.
A lot of time has passed since 1875 when the Appleton’s Journal expressed their repugnance for homeless people, but, though time has elapsed, little has changed. The homeless continue to be a source of frustration for some.
In Los Angeles at least, the battle is not over parks, but sidewalks and the right of homeless people to exist on them. This issue was recently amplified by a health dept. inspection of Skid Row.
On June 5, the Los Angeles Times reported that city officials were “armed with a new county report citing the health dangers of feces, urine and hypodermic needles” found on the streets of Skid Row that “could resume controversial cleanup sweeps.”
According to the Associated Press, it was the city attorney’s office that requested the Los Angeles Department of Public Health inspection as part of its battle against a federal injunction that forced the city to stop confiscating or destroying homeless people’s property they deemed abandoned.
Though city officials may be leading the charge against the injunction, they are well supported by a powerful lobby, called the Central City Association, that advocates for aggressive tactics in dealing with downtown’s homeless population.
The CCA is a business advocacy group that lobbies city and state government to grease the wheels for development in downtown. They represent local businesses, as well as large corporations, such as Chevron, Walmart, Verizon, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo and Bank of America
The CCA, which declined to be interviewed for this article, has created massive development in downtown and are largely responsible for the influx of loft-style residences, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and other attractions.
In a recent interview on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” Carol Schatz, CCA’s president and CEO, criticized the federal injunction. Its broad wording, she said, has created a climate where debris, considered to be private property, is out of the reach of street cleaners. She said it has attracted vermin and has led to a “very significant public health risk.”
“Having them remain on the street with their belongings is not a solution that benefits them or anyone else in the community,” she said.
Some activists have argued that the city purposely left Skid Row unattended to bolster their case against the injunction. It is an accusation that Schatz, in her NPR interview, called “ridiculous.”
Jeff Dietrich, co-director of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker soup kitchen, said the city attorney’s office and the CCA have been using specific trash-riddled areas of Skid Row as part of a PR campaign against the homeless. News media reports “often gain hyperbole,” he said, after reporters parrot the statements of officialdom.
“They have had numerous press conferences right in that area, inviting the press down there to see how terrible it is,” he said.
Homeless advocates say there is nothing in the injunction that would stop the city from cleaning the sidewalks and streets or removing debris that may be harmful to public health. On June 19, the city proved the advocates’ point by cleaning up Skid Row.
“Why not do it every week?” said one homeless woman to the Los Angeles Times about the cleaning. “They do it up top every week … on Main, Los Angeles and Broadway. There’s a big difference between their streets and our streets.”
According to health dept. reports, Skid Row is in terrible shape, at least more than usual. Besides finding urine, feces and hypodermic needles on the ground, health inspectors also reported finding used condoms and 88 active rodent burrows in the area.
Yet despite all the alarm and vested interests surrounding the inspection, the health department’s reaction was very pragmatic. They don’t blame the federal injunction for conditions, but merely recommend the city provide public toilets and trash bins, something the homeless and homeless advocates have been requesting for years.
The lack of trash bins, in particular, has led to conflict in the past. It forces homeless people to deposit their refuse on the street or sidewalk, say advocates. The city has used this littering to target small mom-and-pop charities that feed the poor, blaming the littering on good Samaritans or the homeless themselves. It has led to yearly “right to share food” events on Skid Row to protest what activists view as harassment.
Dietrich said the LA Catholic Worker has been fighting downtown business interests for the past 30 years, mostly over the right of the homeless to possess shopping carts. He said it is all too common for society to demonize the poor and over-associate them with, for instance, drug-addiction, which, he adds, is just as prevalent in affluent communities.
“We love to blame the poor,” he said.
Queen of LA’s mountain
If homeless advocates were looking for a fight, then by all accounts they found it. The CCA may very well be LA’s true seat of power.
In 2010, it was reported by Los Angeles Downtown News that the CCA had a budget of $2.3 million and $1.8 million in reserves. That same year, CCA gave money to every sitting city council member, according to journalist Hillel Aron.
In 2011, Los Angeles Downtown News ranked Schatz the sixth most powerful person in downtown.
Above Schatz in ranking are people she may call friends.
Councilwoman Jan Perry, who ranks third, represents much of downtown and the Skid Row area, and was endorsed by the CCA in the 2005 and 2009 municipal elections. Schatz has said that having Perry on her side “has been critical” for the CCA, according to Downtown News.
Perry shares the CCA’s vision of a gentrified downtown. Not surprisingly, the top funders of her political campaigns have come from the real estate industry, according to Maplight.org, a nonpartisan research organization.
In 2010, in an event sponsored by various businesses, Schatz was honored by the city council for “creating a more business-friendly environment” in downtown, according to a CCA news letter, which features a photograph of Perry standing next to Schatz and her award.
Outside of the CCA, Schatz is also the president and CEO of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, a coalition of downtown property owners.
Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, came in top-dog in Downtown News’ list. The CCA, which AEG is a member of, lobbies in support of the proposed Los Angeles Event Center that AEG will be developing.
Becky Dennison, co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a homeless and low-income advocacy group, said the CCA can get legislation passed within months whereas the efforts of grass-roots organizing can take years to reach fruition, if at all.
“They are by many peoples’ perspectives one of the most powerful lobbying forces, particularly in our city government, but as well as in state and county arenas,” she said.
A quality-of-life issue or controlling the ‘dangerous classes’?
In his book “Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America,” Kristian Williams argues that with the birth of industrialization and its well-stratified society, the poor and working class were becoming increasingly viewed as a “dangerous class” of people. Despite low crime rates, police began targeting vice “crimes,” as well as focusing on vagrancy.
“Contrary to the crime-and-disorder explanation, the new police system was not created in response to escalating crime rates, but developed as a means of social control by which an emerging dominant class could impose their values on the larger population,” he wrote.
Similarly, Skid Row has seen an increase in policing since 2006. Though these efforts to fight crime have been praised by many, others see it as a blatant and unsubstantiated attempt to target LA’s homeless population.
In the CCA’s vision and plan for downtown, called “Downtown 2020,” they put public safety and homelessness under the same category. The plan calls for efforts to end a “pathological tolerance” of the chronically homeless, “who choose to self-destruct on our public streets.”
The CCA openly supports city policies and ordinances that activists call “anti-homeless,” such as the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI), a program that targets lesser crimes in Skid Row with the belief that it will stop more serious crime. In an April 6 Los Angeles Times’ op-ed, Schatz praised the program’s “hard stance on enforcing the law.”
“Crime had dropped, unhealthful conditions were being cleaned up and the population on skid row sidewalks had plummeted,” she said.
Critics of the program say that tough policing does nothing to solve the issue of homelessness, that it merely criminalizes them and pushes them out of downtown.
Dietrich said SCI sent homeless people into hiding, to live under freeway bridges or in the bushes, so as to be free of state persecution.
“It didn’t reduce homelessness, it just reduced visible homelessness, and that’s all that the business community cares about,” he said.
SCI and its white-collar supporters are bound to fail, said Dietrich. He said little has changed in Skid Row since SCI was initiated in 2006.
“They’ve been oppressing the poor all that time, and for me, when I look around, it looks very similar to when they started,” he said.
In her Times’ op-ed and NPR interview, Schatz shares anecdotes of a downtown business community and residents besieged by a quasi-criminal homeless population.
Schatz speaks of “overflowing shopping carts” left in front of businesses that discourage customers. One office building, she said, lost a $620,000 lease deal after the prospective tenant visited the building at night and witnessed homeless encampments.
She argues such occurrences leave people feeling unsafe, which results in lowered occupancy rates within office buildings and lofts, less job creation, as well as a detriment to the public’s health and safety.
“We’re finding more and higher levels of violence among transients and street people than we’ve seen in the past,” she told NPR.
According to the 2020 plan, the CCA announced their intention to further lobby for more police resources. On April 23, their hard work paid off.
The LAPD announced an infusion of 40 more police officers to Skid Row despite there only being a “minor uptick in reported crime” in a neighborhood that “still reports some of the lowest crime levels in the city,” according to the Downtown News.
The Downtown News also reported that the increased policing, which will go on for at least two months, was a result of residents and businesses complaining about “aggressive panhandling and people sleeping on the sidewalk during the day.”
Dennison said there are many communities across LA that could benefit more from additional policing.
“It is really an egregious misuse of resources on numerous levels,” she said.
According to the Los Angeles Times’ “Crime L.A.” map, there are neighborhoods far more dangerous than downtown. As of publication, Chesterfield Square ranked top for violent crimes and Rancho Park had the highest incidences of property crimes.
The LAPD says their surge of officers in Skid Row is in response to what they call an “increase in quality of life issues.” Homeless advocates say this is just code for class-motivated policing.
“When people are sleeping on the streets … it affects our ability to continue to attract investment and continue to make this Downtown thrive,” said Schatz to the Downtown News.
Homeless advocates say the CCA intends to displace the homeless from downtown. In a manner of speaking, this is not far from the group’s stated intentions. In the 2020 plan, the CCA advocates for housing and services for the homeless outside of downtown, arguing that an “over-concentration” of homeless “can lead to an unmanageable population that undermines successful treatment strategies.”
Dennison said the CCA, while touting their many successes in downtown, also try to play the victim whose business interests are economically hampered by the presence of the poor. They can’t have it both ways, she said.
“As a business lobby, it has been very clear their only legitimate concern about homelessness was that they wanted people off the streets of downtown,” she said. “They believe that homeless people were going to impact their bottom line and threaten the success of the ‘new downtown,’ but that never came to be true.”
In January, the CCA entered the world of philanthropism and announced the creation of “Downtown Works,” a nonprofit organization to help deal with downtown’s social and economic issues.
Teaming up with Chrysalis, a job resource organization that teaches homeless people work skills, Downtown Works will focus on homelessness in its first year. Corporations and local businesses infused Chrysalis with an initial commitment of $100,000.
Besides marketing themselves as LA’s “premier business advocacy group,” the CCA likes to say they are looking out for downtown’s residents too by creating a better environment where people can feel safe to work, dine and enjoy recreational activities. In fact, in 2010, Schatz and the CCA were praised by Assemblyman Mike Davis (D-LA) for attracting a “solid middle class constituency” capable of sustaining the “business and cultural development of downtown Los Angeles.”
Dennison argues the only residential community the CCA is concerned about are those that pay premium rents.
“When they say they speak for residents, they speak only to residents who moved here in the past five years,” she said. “In every statement they make and studies they’ve done about residents, it is solely about people who’ve moved into lofts.”
Dissent at their doorstep
Since May 29, occupiers and homeless advocates have camped out each night in front of the CCA’s offices in downtown, as part of an ongoing “siege” protest that was originally only meant to last seven days. The action was coordinated by Occupy Los Angeles, Occupy the Hood, Occupy Skid Row and the Los Angeles Community Action Network.
Obviously, occupiers, who would prefer government to be free of corporate influences, are ideologically opposed to the lobby group. In fact, one could say the CCA is Occupy LA’s local archenemy.
Heather Meyer, an occupier who has been camping out in front of the CCA, said the lobby is “behind everything that is oppressive.” She cites as an example the groups opposition to the recently passed “Responsible Banking” ordinance, which requires banks doing business with the city to turn over information on loans and foreclosure activity and making it readily available to the public.
“They are the lobbyists for the one percent,” she said. “They are the epitome of money in politics.”
The CCA has done more than support bankers to irritate occupiers. The CCA also successfully opposed community efforts to block the construction of a Walmart in Chinatown. They helped kill a city ordinance that would have required hotels to keep their employees 90 days after a change of hotel ownership, according to their website.
On most nights, occupiers set up their tents and camp out in front of the CCA, but on some nights they have targeted members of the CCA, such as Chevron.
Since the “siege,” several protesters have been arrested. A more aggressive stance has been observed in the LAPD since the demonstration began, with officers often appearing in overwhelming force.
An example of this heightened police attention occurred on the night of June 21. Occupiers report that over 20 LAPD officers rushed into their encampment to arrest one protester who was writing on the sidewalk with chalk, something occupiers argue is legal to do.
Occupier Ryan Rice posted an account of the incident on his blog. According to Rice, occupiers were singled out the day before during a court appearance in support of another occupier. He said some were pointed out as leaders by police who announced their intentions to arrest them the next day.
Then the raid occurred, with cops readied with pepper spray and batons.
“I was in my tent sleeping and was awoken to screams, shouts, and crying,” wrote Rice. “No sirens, no instructions on a bullhorn – there was a frightening SILENCE of legitimacy as 25+ LAPD officers came out of nowhere and ambushed the peaceful, LAWFUL encampment in front of the CCA.”
Occupiers feel their protest of the CCA is irritating the city’s elite, prompting police to hamper the movement with nights spent in jail and court appearances over petty citations that often don’t stick.
At this point, there is no indication the protests are going to stop, while occupiers jostle their time between the CCA and Skid Row. In the process they hope to shed light on the lives of the homeless and the policies supported by business interests and politicians.
“They are not happy,” said Meyer. “I don’t think they expected us to be here weeks later. I think they probably thought we would get tired of it.
“We’re hitting a nerve and I think that is becoming pretty obvious.”
Meyer doesn’t buy the CCA’s argument that they are creating a thriving downtown that is uplifting the community and its residents. Nor is she impressed by CCA’s nonprofit venture with Chrysalis. She sees the CCA as pushing a profit-before-people agenda.
Meyer said the lobby’s motto, “Our advocacy strengthens your bottom line,” says it all.
“It doesn’t get anymore blatant than that,” she said.