Few faces peek out of the stained pup tents and tarp encampments lining both sides of Crocker Street in LA’s Skid Row as a black Subaru SUV passes slowly. Water is trickling out of a broken fire hydrant; garbage spills out of plastic bags. A mutt is sleeping on the sidewalk next to broken-down bicycles.

“The bicycle is a big currency down here,” began Estela Lopez from behind the wheel. “Folks see them and take them apart for parts to buy drugs. Narcotics really rule their world down here. And these tents go up in flames constantly. See the burnt marks on that building? Lately, it’s revenge. Like: ‘I told you I don’t want you on this block.’

“It’s territorial because a lot of gangs are down here now. They have a ready supply of customers. Their only intention to be here is to sell narcotics and to keep people rooted to the sidewalk. And if people can’t pay, then they’re recruited to sell drugs, too. And if they’re women, it’s prostitution.”

Lopez has worked on Skid Row for 20 years, years that have included more than one stint as executive director of the Central City East Association’s Downtown Industrial District Business Improvement District. 

There are some 45 “BIDs,” as they are called, throughout Los Angeles, including eight in downtown alone. She started the first one back in 1993 in the historical theater district on Broadway. Their stated purpose is to enhance safety, maintenance, economic development, and communication programs beyond what the city can provide.  

But Lopez said her BID today — which takes in 49 square blocks from San Pedro to Alameda streets between 3rd Street to Olympic Boulevard — has had to take on much more serious and basic day-to-day responsibilities. Why? Because it encompasses Skid Row, home to the largest number of unsheltered homeless in the nation.

“Our commercial property owners here tax themselves $2 million annually for our services, which were never intended to deal with this human disaster,” she told Angelus News during a ride-along last fall, shaking her head. 

“The job with business improvement districts is to make the sidewalks look nice and empty trash cans. You know, make the place look inviting. We’re not supposed to be a response to a human catastrophe.”

Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East (Business) Association, has worked on Skid Row for 20 years. “I’m watching people not live on Skid Row,” she says. “I’m watching them die on Skid Row.” (VICTOR ALEMÁN)

A different ‘BID’

Lopez said her BID is “far from that beautification point of what BIDs are supposed to do.”

With three dump trucks, the Skid Row BID does pick up between five to seven tons of trash daily, and her hired 15 formerly homeless street workers from the job-training Chrysalis Center sweep the streets regularly. 

But much of their time is spent dealing with crisis calls from local businesses to clean up feces, urine, and vomit in front of their establishments with “targeted” pressure washing from another truck (not to be confused with the block-by-block pressure washing the city’s sanitation department regularly does). 

A private security force of seven workers often has to go out with them for protection.

At 6th and Crocker streets, we approached a blue, tarped tent stretching 50 feet. One pitbull stood guard while another dozed. A couple of young men wearing pressed white T-shirts over baggy khaki shorts were standing around smoking. 

They were selling a strain of marijuana laced with more addicting drugs, Lopez explained. And even though the combination can make people violently sick, she said the demand stays high. 

Then Lopez pointed out a brick storefront with no windows.The small business, like a lot here, dealt in textiles, selling to the nearby fashion district. 

The owner, a BID member, has complained when tents were so close together he couldn’t make deliveries or receive buyers. He told her recently that he came out to ask a guy if he could make some space because he had a special delivery coming in. 

The guy lifted up his shirt, showing a pistol stuck in his waistband, and demanded, “Make me!”

A National Institute of Mental Health study concentrating of Skid Row found that 28% of residents were chronically mentally ill and 34% were chronic substance abusers. (VICTOR ALEMÁN)

“Now look,” observed Lopez near San Pedro and 6th streets, looking out the front windshield at a couple sprawled on an Army blanket across the sidewalk between tents. 

“Human beings shouldn’t live like this. People who should be qualifying for housing, people who should be getting mental health help are instead laying on the sidewalk here just looking to see how they can get their next high. 

“I think mental illness is expressing itself more openly now, too. Because I see so many people down here who are just lost. I mean, you can tell they’re mentally ill. And they’ve found their way here I think to quiet the voices inside their head. And the drug dealers are here to service them.”

‘Camping atmosphere’

In November 2016, LA City voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition HHH, authorizing $1.2 billion in bonds to build or rehab 10,000 housing units for people who are homeless. Four months later, Los Angeles County voters passed Measure H, a quarter-cent sales tax on themselves. 

An estimated $355 million a year for 10 years was promised to be raised, which would provide so-called “wraparound” services to go with the new housing and help the homeless transition into stable, affordable housing. Those services include mental health and addiction counseling, money management, and job counseling. 

But Lopez said a decade is too long for more than 2,000 unsheltered men, women, and even children to wait to receive help. 

Another problem is the “camping atmosphere” on Skid Row among residents who choose to live there because of ready access to drugs. Often overshadowed are homeless persons and families who reside mostly in and out of local shelters and missions. 

“As long as the streets are an alternative, you have this very large population that will choose the street, where there are no rules,” she pointed out. “And that’s what’s undermining the whole thing that the city wants to put in place. Plus, we’re caught in this terrible vicious cycle of whenever the city tries to do something, the advocates file suit to stop them. It’s unforgivable.”

The bond measure is just one of the political issues affecting LA’s darkest neighborhood. In 2017, a federal appeals court ruled it unconstitutional to prosecute individuals who are homeless for sleeping on public property as long as they don’t have access to shelter. 

A compromise ruling between the City of Los Angeles and homeless advocates has allowed that tents could lawfully be set up on sidewalks from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. 

But as our brief tour showed, tents and tarps didn’t come down on Skid Row during the day.   

In early March, the Los Angeles City Council finally reached a decision on the property rights of homeless people, but left its details to City Attorney Mike Feuer to work out. Lopez said she believes that won’t happen until this summer, just before the case is scheduled to go to court. And because the decision involves constitutional rights, Lopez thinks it will affect the entire city — not just Skid Row — and limit LA’s ability even more to clean up encampments.

“We are profoundly scared,” she said, “because we are on the front lines, and we don’t see it as City Hall sees it. We clearly see what a bad track record the city has on addressing the issue of street homelessness. And we believe sincerely this is another step in the wrong direction.”

Looking down from five feet

Almost back to her Central City East office now, Lopez spotted a woman in a soiled pink sleeveless blouse whom she had personally tried to help. “I sat with her on a curb one day as her tent was going up in flames. And she was crying. I said, ‘What happened?’ ” she recalled.

“She said, ‘My boyfriend went out of town and now he’s back. He thinks I’m cheating on him, so he set it on fire.’

“I put her in my car and said, ‘Look, I know where I can take you — the Union Rescue Mission. It takes in women, and I know the director, Andy Bales. I can get you in.’

“She said, ‘No. I don’t want to go inside.’ She was tattooed up. You could see she was doing narcotics.

“I said, ‘If your boyfriend came down here and did this in the daytime, what do you think he’s going to do tonight if you’re out here.’ I said, ‘Go with me.’

The woman refused, saying she only needed money to catch a bus to see friends in Boyle Heights. 

 “OK, so maybe she was playing me, I don’t know,” Lopez mused. 

“I gave her the money and off she went. But that’s the thing people don’t see because you don’t come down here unless you have to, right? You don’t see what’s really happening unless you’re here. The filth that caused a typhus outbreak and other diseases. The gang members pushing drugs. The pimps who treat women terribly. 

“The folks in City Hall are looking down from 500 feet. I’m looking down from five feet,” she said.

“I’m watching people not live on Skid Row; I’m watching them die on Skid Row. So, they’re either going to die slowly by disease or they’re going to die quickly from violence. But it’s not going to end well.”

A homeless couple move their possessions on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. It’s hardcore population ranges from 8,000 to 11,000 people on any given day in the 4.31 square-miles area. (VICTOR ALEMÁN_

God’s hands and feet

Lopez is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown. Her mother was one of its first parishioners in 2002. “I’m crazy in love with my faith and Pope Francis,” she said. 

It’s her steadfast Catholic faith, she believes, that keeps her at her day job. Born in South Los Angeles, she grew up going to Holy Cross Church and went to St. Brendan School and St. Matthias High School.

“We are here to do God’s work,” she said. “We are his hands and his feet. People ask me all the time, ‘It’s so horrible down there, how can you do what you do?’ And they’re right. Street conditions have even gotten worse since our ride. Encampments are moving south and east. 

“The secular answer is ‘Well, I have a seat to the history of the City of Los Angeles. It’s a very important — and tragic — chapter of the city, and I’m certainly in the position to be a witness of it.’

“But then I say, ‘What is the job of a witness if not to give testimony?’ So, I see that as my job, too.” 

R.W. Dellinger is the features editor of Angelus.

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