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In a homeless district, growing numbers raise tensions

Jeff Tyler Jun 1, 2015
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In a homeless district, growing numbers raise tensions

Jeff Tyler Jun 1, 2015
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In the last two years, Los Angeles County has seen a 12 percent increase in homelessness. One result is that homeless encampments are appearing across Los Angeles. But traditionally, homeless people and services for them have been concentrated downtown on Skid Row, and the increase is changing conditions there, too.

In the shadows of skyscrapers, homeless encampments occupy the sidewalks. On one block after another, people sleep in tents and live on the streets, with activity 24 hours a day.

But on those same blocks, companies are doing business. 

“I would call it a war zone down here,” says Mark Shinbane, president of Ore-Cal Corp., a seafood importer and distribution company that’s operated here since 1961.

The neighborhood has always had issues, but Shinbane says they’ve become much worse. “There’s a lot of thievery. We’ve had people break in to the property. They’ve stolen equipment – copper off the roofs.”

He says homeless people have threatened and tried to assault his staff. Shinbane says the situation makes it hard to hire new workers, “because they see the area, they drive by and they keep on driving. So, we have to interview more people. I may have to offer higher wages in certain cases to get people to come down and work. It’s a real challenge.”

It’s also an issue for a school in the heart of Skid Row, Inner-City Arts. It has some students who are themselves homeless. But increasingly, the people living on the surrounding streets are more aggressive and potentially dangerous, business owners say.

“For 25 years, we did not feel the need to have a security guard at our entry gate. And now we do. And that’s an increased cost for the campus that takes away from the free education we’re providing the students,” says Bob Smiland, the school’s CEO. 

Security and sanitation issues have forced businesses to chip in to support the Downtown Industrial Business Improvement District, which pressure-washes sidewalks and employs a team of security guards.

Executive Director Raquel Beard says members pay according to the size of their business. “Some can be as much as $20,000 or $30,000 a year.”

Beard has watched some companies move out of the neighborhood. But selling property on Skid Row isn’t very profitable. 

“You can’t get the money that you would get in other parts of downtown,” she says. 

Critics talk about gentrification driving the poor from downtown Los Angeles. But Beard says gentrification hasn’t come to Skid Row. And she doubts it ever will.

 

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