Activist Jeff Page on San Julian Street in Skid Row, site of an ongoing mural project he spearheaded. (Steven Cuevas KQED)
If the barefooted woman pushing a shopping cart down the sidewalk or the guy brushing his teeth outside a tattered blue tent doesn’t tell you where you are, the enormous "Welcome to Skid Row" mural should.
“It’s basically a city-limits sign, typical green with the white trim like ‘now entering such-and-such a place,’ ” explains Jeff Page.
“And then on the left of the sign it says, ‘Population: too many’ because there’s definitely too many people living in this condition like this.”
Page is a Skid Row resident and activist behind a mural project along San Julian Street, a grimy back alley surrounded by homeless encampments, shelters and a host of other homeless services.
Page says he’s trying to create a splash of Technicolor in an otherwise bleak environment that many people prefer to ignore.
“This is our effort to try to be recognized as a community,” says Page. “That way, people will see it more than just some transitional place for hobos and drug addicts, that we just have people who suffer from poverty."
So what’s spurring this quest for community recognition? Is it a crackdown by the cops? Stricter rules about sidewalk camping? No.
It’s $9 ice cream cones.
Just a couple blocks from the mural is an upscale ice cream shop called Peddler’s Creamery. It’s the kind of place that embodies the changing face of L.A.’s historic core -- the neighborhood that rubs right up against the hard stubble of Skid Row.
I stop by the place with Mike Alvirez.
“It’s organically grown, sustainably farmed ingredients that he uses in his ice cream by peddling on his bicycle,” says Alvirez, beaming at the site of the Rube Goldberg-esque bicycle-powered ice cream churn.
Alvirez is chief of the Skid Row Housing Trust. The nonprofit owns around two dozen buildings, including the New Genesis, also home to Peddler’s Creamery.
The top floors of the New Genesis are reserved for low-income housing. And in a controversial move, the Trust created spaces on the ground floor for a couple of retailers that cater to the area’s more affluent newcomers.
“It’s a double-edged sword. It does obviously create more pressure on homeless folks for those who want to see them get swept away,” says Alvirez.
“But at the same time I think many of the downtown residents who have chosen to live in downtown, understanding that there is this population in Skid Row, want to see something done about it.”
There are a lot of homeless people and a lot of desperation packed into one 70-square-block sliver of Skid Row. One thing that’s woefully lacking is low-income housing.
Skid Row has been losing cheap housing for years, as the neighborhood’s old residence hotels and apartment buildings were torn down or transformed into market-rate apartments.
These days there are a little more than 3,000 low-income housing units in the Skid Row area, and more than double the number of people living on the streets on any given day.
At one time, that kind of thing would have been enough to scare off the most hardened of urban dwellers.
Not so much anymore.
“I live in, technically, the boundaries of Skid Row,” says real estate agent Blair Besten.
“A great many of them come down here and find out maybe it’s a little bit of an edgier experience than they were expecting,” says Besten of many of the area’s new denizens.
“Because we do find ourselves adjunct to Skid Row, and we do have a considerable homeless population here.”
Besten lives in a building on the edge of Skid Row.
She’s raising a family there, too. She does worry about the proliferation of sidewalk encampments, which the police essentially ignore. A number of ordinances and court rulings handcuff their ability to seize a person’s belongings. Besten is sympathetic yet frustrated.
“What is someone’s personal property really needs to be defined because five shopping carts filled with garbage and tents and tarps dedicated to one individual probably isn’t making their lives any better,” says Besten.
“I think people need to be integrated in their own communities rather than being pushed out of them.”
Ryan Navales agrees that other cities need to do more to help the homeless in their own communities. Navales is a community outreach coordinator with the Midnight Mission, one of Skid Row’s oldest and biggest shelters and service providers.
“Homelessness doesn’t have any city barriers, and there’s a real need for the services to be regionalized,” says Navales.
“You can’t have all that down here, it just stresses the system. There’s already a lack of housing, so that’s what you’re facing is a housing crisis.”
The affordable housing apartments that currently do exist on Skid Row cannot be converted to market rates. A 2008 ordinance shields them from commercial development.
The challenge is adding more affordable housing units to an area that’s becoming one of the hottest real estate markets in town.
“We have allowed this to persist for decades and it’s shameful,” says Alvirez. “It should have never gotten to this point. We can’t solve it unless we own it. This is our problem that we have to fix.”
With competition for any slice of available real estate looking only to get fiercer, and homeless services slowly expanding in other places, Los Angeles could be facing what once seemed unimaginable: the gradual shrinking of Skid Row.