LAPD killing lays bare enduring horror of Skid Row

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
A makeshift memorial for a homeless man, known by the name of Africa, who was shot and killed by police, on March 2, 2015 in Los Angeles (AFP Photo/Frederic J. Brown)

A grainy cell-phone video of several LAPD officers shooting and killing an unarmed black man made national headlines Monday, reigniting the debate about race and law enforcement that was sparked last summer by similar incidents in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.

But the sad news from L.A. should also call attention to a systemic, festering problem that devastates more Angelenos, day in and day out, than sporadic police shootings ever could.

It’s called Skid Row, and it’s where the man identified only as “Africa” was shot.

“I think this tragic event is more a reflection of Skid Row itself than a reflection of the police or the man who was killed,” the Rev. Andy Bales tells Yahoo News. (Bales runs the Union Rescue Mission shelter and has worked on Skid Row for 10 years.) “We’re asking the LAPD to maintain peace in a horrible environment. Skid Row is full of people trapped in an untenable living situation — a Twilight Zone they can’t escape.”

If you don’t live in Los Angeles and you think you know what L.A.’s Skid Row is like, think again. Nothing anywhere else in America compares. San Francisco’s Tenderloin is tiny. Seattle’s once-destitute Skid Row is full of cool galleries and cafés. And the Bowery in New York is now home to the New Museum of Contemporary Art and a sprawling Whole Foods complete with its own craft-beer emporium.

In downtown L.A., however, as many as 54 blocks — between Third Street and Seventh Street, from Alameda to Main — are almost entirely given over to the homeless, the limbless, the drug-addicted and the mentally ill. Battered tents line the boulevards. Mountains of garbage block the sidewalks. The air smells like urine, feces and burning crack. And everywhere there are people — dazed, disheveled, disabled; stretched out on lawn chairs or sprawled on the pavement; some scoring heroin from marked tents, others injecting it between their toes in plain sight, mere blocks from some of the hippest new bars and restaurants in town.

And that’s just during the day. At night, Skid Row gets considerably hairier.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: A man wakes up on downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row, March 7, 2013. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

The shooting occurred shortly before noon Sunday in the 500 block of San Pedro. According to published accounts from the LAPD and various eyewitnesses, police were responding to a 911 call reporting a possible robbery in the area when they encountered Africa scuffling with another man inside a tent. The cops ordered Africa to come out; he refused.

A confrontation ensued. The graphic, disturbing video, which was later posted on Facebook, shows the police punching and Tasering the man before one of them appears to shout, “Drop the gun! Drop the gun!” Five shots are fired. Africa was pronounced dead at the scene.

Whenever police shoot and kill a civilian, society asks the obvious question: “How did this happen?” And rightfully so. Los Angeles’ independent inspector general and district attorney are both planning to investigate the shooting “very, very carefully,” according to Police Commission President Steve Soboroff.

But the answers they are likely to find — there are now multiple eyewitness videos circulating online, and at least two security cameras and one police body camera also captured the altercation — may be fairly clear cut: the LAPD is claiming that Africa grabbed an officer’s gun and that the cops felt compelled to use deadly force.

The more difficult questions, perhaps, are the ones that fewer Americans will ask. Why was a troubled man who reportedly spent 10 years in a mental facility living in squalor on the streets of the nation’s last dedicated homeless district? Why was he surrounded by as many as 6,000 men, women and children in similarly dire straits — 2,000 of whom sleep on the sidewalks? How can a place like this still exist? And what can be done about it?

Since the 1800s, homeless people have gathered in the area southeast of L.A.’s historic core. First they came because Los Angeles was the last stop on the train; then L.A. emerged as a major immigration hub. The location made economic sense. As Heather MacDonald wrote in 2007, “Farmland surrounded what is now downtown, requiring workers for the fields, for the adjacent factories that processed the produce and for the railroad that shipped it out. Skid Row’s cheap hotels, saloons and theaters catered to these transient single males.”

In 1975, the city decided to adopt what it called a “Policy of Containment,” deliberately concentrating social services in the area. The move coincided with a decline in the enforcement of statutes against public intoxication, vagrancy, and loitering. As a result, the population of Skid Row skyrocketed, and lawlessness metastasized like a cancer. Toxic bacteria coated the ground. (A city study once showed that the sidewalks of Skid Row boast up to 30 times the bacterial contamination of raw sewage.) Naked women stumbled down the street. Men were stabbed in broad daylight. Hucksters and dealers had finally found the perfect place to prey upon the most vulnerable elements of society: the handicapped, the elderly, the mentally ill, the addicts trying to turn their lives around. They became a captive clientele.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck walks past evidence photos during a news conference, Monday, March 2, 2015. Police fatally shot a homeless man on Skid Row during a brutal videotaped struggle in which a rookie officer cried out that the man had hold of his gun before three other officers opened fire, the Los Angeles police chief said Monday. (Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo)

“The idea years ago was, ‘Let’s corral everybody in this area and then turn our backs on them so we can enjoy life in the rest of this beautiful city,” Bales says. “We wound up with 2,000 people on streets and predators moving in to feed their addictions. It’s everything you can imagine. People prostituting themselves for cash. People robbing other people. Violence for uncollected debts. It has become survival of the fittest.”

Some have claimed that the situation on Skid Row improved with the arrival of former (and future) NYPD Chief Bill Bratton, whose department instituted its Safer Cities Initiative in 2006 in a broken-windows-based  attempt to restore public order by making arrests for minor offenses. According to the City Journal, “In September 2006, there were 1,876 people sleeping on the street and 518 tents; in early June [2007], there were 700 people and 315 tents.” Meanwhile, “major felonies on Skid Row plummeted 42 percent in the first half of 2007, the largest decrease in all of Los Angeles. There were 241 fewer victims of violent crime in that period. In downtown as a whole, the murder rate dropped over 75 percent.”

A homeless man, left, sits among his possessions, Thursday Feb. 28, 2013 on Skid Row in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

But visiting Skid Row today, it’s hard to argue that the problem is any closer to being solved than it was 10 years ago. In fact, as it becomes more difficult to commit people to mental health facilities, and as California prisons release inmates early to ease overcrowding, the population of Skid Row has been inching back up. And despite the fact that Skid Row’s 107 homeless charities receive $54 million each year and nuanced community policing is now the norm — the LAPD works “in small groups that include county mental health workers and volunteers” who “ask the homeless what they need and refer them to programs and places that can help” — the neighborhood is still a dead end.

“Skid Row is a travesty as a construct. It’s a toxic environment for the homeless,” developer Tom Gilmore recently told CNN. “Nobody is going to rise up from there. It has to be unwound because it’s this Gordian knot of social neglect.”

How that knot can be undone is the most difficult question of all. The city’s Housing for Heath program, which seeks first to shelter people in “permanent supportive housing” before tackling deeper issues, is a promising start. But so far, it can only help the fortunate few. Bales believes that “we need to pull out all the stops,” calling for mobile vans to “come in and care for” residents and “dozens” of new retreats designed to “take the mentally ill out of that horrendous environment.” He also insists that L.A. must abandon its NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality and decentralize services for the homeless so that “every region can take care of its own brothers and sisters.”

“I am hoping that something — maybe this incident — will wake us up enough to have a change of heart,” he says. “Only a big embarrassment will force us to take the action we need to take.”

Money may play a part as well. Once nearly abandoned, the area around Skid Row is rapidly gentrifying. A new artisanal cocktail bar or hipster hotel seems to open every day in downtown L.A., which GQ recently dubbed “the new capital of cool in America.” More than 50,000 new residents have moved in over the past two decades. Boosters like Gilmore believe that these changes will finally make it impossible to ignore Skid Row, for reasons both social and economic. In 2014, Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year. But even that effort has made little impact on Skid Row itself.

“When it comes to policing Skid Row, it seems as if my fellow officers and I are keeping our fingers in the cracks of a dam to prevent it from breaking,” LAPD Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph recently wrote. (Joseph has patrolled the community for 17 years.) “Though many people may not realize it, we are in the throes of a mental health state of emergency.”

A sign reading Skid Row is painted on a wall next to the Los Angeles Mission, September 22, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles' Skid Row contains one of the largest populations of homeless people in the United States. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of Sunday’s shooting, Americans will continue to debate whether the LAPD did something wrong. As well they should. But they may also want to consider why the man known only as Africa was in the line of fire in the first place — and ask whether the time has come for Los Angeles to stop tolerating its intolerable Skid Row.