City Life - Los Angeles: LA eyes up Skid Row for some gentrification Skid Row

ON SKID Row, Los Angeles, the homeless sleep with their boots on so rats do not nibble their feet. The streets are almost entirely derelict except for mercy missions, a handful of heavily barricaded liquor stores and fish warehouses lined with razor wire. The poor sleep in flop houses and drag their few possessions around in shopping carts that are raided or stolen. Everywhere is the pungent smell of old clothes, stale alcohol and urine.

In a city with greater contrasts of wealth and poverty than, perhaps, anywhere else in the Western world these few blocks, within walking distance of the gleaming skyscrapers of downtown LA, are the lowest of the low. It helps explain, perhaps, why the booming business districts in the area are now more determined than ever to wipe Skid Row off the map and push its downtrodden residents away for good.

An umbrella organisation called Takin' Back the Community successfully lobbied city officials to initiate closure proceedings against 17 of the area's surviving businesses - 11 cheap hotels, three mini-markets, two bars and a restaurant - on the grounds that they are seedbeds of crime and nuisance behaviour.

Part of the intention is to clean up the area and make it fit for durable business investment. But the move also triggered angry condemnation from Skid Row activists who say it amounts to intimidation of thousands of desperate people with nowhere else to go. Take away their housing and their shops, the argument goes, and they are left with nothing.

Should poverty be contained in a well-defined area like a ghetto, or simply swept out of sight? For years, the police and city council veered towards the former. But now, with the economy enjoying a boom cycle, the business community is choosing to see things differently. Various so- called Business Improvement Districts, representing garment workers, toy manufacturers and fish freezing companies, have sent private security guards into Skid Row to challenge loiterers, issue warnings and alert the police to behaviour that might warrant a fine or an arrest.

Skid Row activists accuse the guards of using powers they do not legally have to push the poor around. The result is startling: much of the southern end of Skid Row, on the streets considered ripe for takeover by the garment district, has been cleared out.

"There is a consistent policy of police harassment whereby people are forever being fined or moved on on charges of illegal camping, loitering or jaywalking," said Jeff Dietrich, of Catholic Worker which runs a soup kitchen.

Mobile meal providers, who have handed out food for years, are now being told by police that they are no longer welcome. Homeless men who sift through garbage cans to fish out recyclables are being routinely arrested for theft.

The city has built a so-called "High Tolerance" facility, an open area on San Julian Street where the homeless can congregate under strict supervision; the understanding is that anyone found elsewhere on the streets is fair game for harassment or arrest.

Alice Callaghan, of the Skid Row Housing Trust, a non-profit organisation that seeks to provide affordable hostel rooms, says that "being poor doesn't mean losing your civil liberties".

She reacts with alarm to reports that hostel owners are routinely opening rooms and searching the belongings of their residents, much like guards in a prison.There are plenty, however, who take issue with her desire to build more facilities on Skid Row, arguing that she is perpetuating a cycle of dependency.

Her organisation has lobbied for years to put portable toilets on the streets. Periodically these have arrived, but other homeless activists accuse her of failing to maintain them to hygienic standards; she says city contractors are deliberately failing to carry out their contractual obligation to keep them clean.

But the only visible alternative to Ms Callaghan's approach are the overnight mercy missions, which are built like fortresses with barbed wire and security cameras crowning their high front walls. Homeless people do not like going there, and they provide only short-term solutions.Whether they stay put or get rousted out, the poor of Skid Row have an unenviable future.