LAPD detain an unidentified man on San Pedro Street in Skid Row. Police and homeless residents generally have a respectful, if tenuous, relationship. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)
Skid Row can feel like a chaotic airport terminal -- people carting their possessions down the street and jaywalking in front of speeding cars.
There’s always someone yelling or screaming, and there's often the howl of sirens.
About 60,000 homeless people live in the city of Los Angeles. But you might never know it until you start motoring south, past Disney Concert Hall, past City Hall, Pershing Square and newly renovated million-dollar condos.
That’s when you’ll begin the slow descent into Skid Row, arguably the largest concentration of homeless people in the U.S.
By some estimates, there are several thousand people living on the streets of Skid Row on any given night. Many are camped out in tents and other makeshift shelters on the sidewalk.
The sidewalk at the intersection of San Pedro and Sixth, right outside the Midnight Mission, is jammed with tents, blue tarps and shopping carts.
“If you look at it, that sidewalk is completely impassable to regular foot traffic. Every one of these tents really is a violation of the law,” says Ryan Navales, standing outside the entrance of the mission.
Navales landed on Skid Row several years ago.
He was a strung-out, homeless heroin addict with few options left but determined to get clean. He signed up for a rehab program at the Midnight Mission. He got sober. And he got work doing public relations for the 100-year-old shelter, rehab center and soup kitchen.
“We serve sometimes approaching 3,000 meals a day. So everybody comes down here. It used to be just a bunch of old drunken white guys,” Navales says.
“In the 1970s after the Vietnam War, it really changed demographically to different races and lots more drugs. But it’s still all the same services.
“This is where it’s all centered,” he adds.
And it’s no accident.
L.A. developed a policy decades ago to purposely funnel the homeless away from downtown and other parts of the city and into a roughly 70-square block semi-industrial strip filled with residential hotels, fruit-packing warehouses and garment factories.
As the homeless population swelled, so did the number of places to help them out. These days Skid Row is a constellation of shelters, food pantries and drug clinics, all in the midst of what can often feel like a combination open-air asylum and drug market.
“I mean, it’s hard to come down here and save people and get them into recovery when we can go right across to that tent and somebody is shooting dope because that’s what I would do,” Navales says.
At a shelter around the corner, Carol Oakman says she was nearly blinded after being assaulted on the street.
“I was beaten by two women," Oakman says. "The thieving, the racketeering, narcotics distribution, you name it, all of it. All of it happens right down here.”
There have been plenty of efforts to “clean up” Skid Row. One of the latest under former Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton gave cops the authority to break up encampments and confiscate belongings.
The cluttered sidewalks, they argued, made it tougher to police.
A federal court judge blocked the policy. The sidewalk encampments came back and so did the tension between police and residents.
“Every day they hassle someone in their tent, every day,” Kelly Kunta says.
The Skid Row resident is among those still boiling over last month’s police-involved shooting death of an unarmed Cameroonian immigrant.
The 43-year-old homeless man was shot after fighting with LAPD cops outside a tent. He allegedly grabbed an officer’s revolver.
“The police got nothing better to do. There all kinds of crimes going on in this country and they hassle a man and many of these nationalities down here (living in) a tent,” said Kunta during a recent protest at the site of the shooting.
Gary Montez heard the gunshots that morning, too. He stays in a shelter just down the block. Montez sides with the cops on this one.
He hands over a creased, homemade business card; "Minister Gary Montez, Law Enforcement."
Montez earns a little cash as an on-call security guard.
“Law enforcement is always going to be wrong when people don’t want to respect commands, and when they’re hyped up on drugs,” Montez says.
The outdoor encampments presents one of Skid Row’s biggest conundrums: bring down the tents or, says Navales, essentially endorse the seedy sprawl of sidewalk camping.
“Look, there will always be people who live on the fringes of society and need assistance. That’s just the way it is,” Navales says. “But should we help enable that by legislating opportunities for people to live on the sidewalks as if that’s the ultimate goal?”
It’s definitely not a solution, says Joe Parra.
After falling on hard times, he lived out of a tent for a while.
He’s from the Torrance area just south of L.A. He’d never set foot on Skid Row until a couple years ago after falling on hard times. A friend let him pitch a tent in his backyard at first.
“He saw what I was going through and he goes, 'Hey, let me talk to my wife. That way you’re not exposed to ruffians and such.' And I said, 'Man, that’d be great,' ” Parra says.
His voice trails off.
“Sorry, sorry,” he says, choking back emotion.
Parra wants to forget those days. Now he lives in a small but modern studio flat at the Star Apartments, a newly built supportive housing complex on Skid Row.
When we speak, Parra had just gotten back from a yoga session downstairs in the courtyard. He pauses to put an old acoustic guitar and a backpack in his apartment. He walks back out into the sunlight.
Parra was among the first residents at the Star Apartments..
To get here took patience and perseverance.
“The only hope is for those who have enough self-confidence and care for themselves enough to lift themselves up,” Parra says.
“Instead of just setting a tent down on the sidewalk saying, ‘This is my home from now on,' they should only look at it as temporary until you get another rung higher on the ladder.”
With its sunny courtyards, community garden and yoga classes, the Star is pretty high up on that ladder.
Many homeless advocates say more housing like the Star is the best hope for Skid Row. But the quest to build more is running right up against a new wave of upscale downtown development.
“They have a marketing scheme to have people to buy into this newer and shinier up-and-coming downtown Los Angeles,” says Skid Row activist and resident-general Jeff Page.