If you’re not one of the 1,200 or so businesses in and around Skid Row, you may not know this, but the situation recently has deteriorated.
For years in the past, business operators say there was a kind of uneasy coexistence between them and the homeless who congregate there. Oh, sure, there was a lot of drug use, rowdy behavior and some nasty remnants left behind, but for the most part, the homeless stayed to themselves. Workers weren’t bothered much.
Not now. The homeless population is up 16 percent over the past two years in Los Angeles, according to one authority. And business people report today’s homeless are bolder, more confrontational and violent.
As Skid Row businesswoman Mona Alamezadeh said in the article on page 1 of this issue, “It’s a different category of people now – a much younger crowd, people who appear to be released out of jail; and there’s prostitution and psychiatric issues.”
Why this change? At least some business operators in Skid Row think the biggest reason is Proposition 47. Passed in November of last year, it reclassified certain felonies into misdemeanors. Simple drug possession was made a misdemeanor, for example, as was stealing less than $950.
One goal was to get low-end offenders out of jail or prison, and on that score, Proposition 47 did indeed let the iron doors swing open. From November, when the proposition was passed, to January, Los Angeles County jails disgorged 7 percent of their inmates, a total of 1,300 now-former felons.
It does seem logical that some of those 1,300 folks – certainly not all but some percent – migrated to Skid Row. And since many were drug offenders, it also would seem logical that crime increased. Former police chief and City Councilman Bernard Parks was quoted as saying, “People who are using drugs are also committing other crimes. How do they stay heroin users? How do they support their habit?”
Another consequence of Proposition 47: Police are less likely to arrest people for low-end crime. According to one source, Los Angeles police arrested one-third fewer people for drug possession in January and overall bookings decreased by a fourth. It only seems logical that fewer arrests, in turn, encourage drug users and petty thieves to be bolder.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Don’t you just love the Law of Unintended Consequences? The goal of Proposition 47 was to decriminalize some low-end transgressions, get soft-core offenders out of the same prisons that house hard-core ones, and generally align the punishment closer to the crime. All of that seems reasonable, and Californians clearly liked Proposition 47; 60 percent voted for it. But the unintended consequence may have been to make Skid Row a more lawless place.
Are we being too hard on Proposition 47? To be sure, there are other factors hardening Skid Row. For one, lawsuits have resulted in basically allowing tents to remain up. That has transformed temporary sidewalk campsites into semipermanent encampments. According to one report, the number of tents and similar shelters was up 85 percent earlier this year. And the longer a tent city remains in place, the more the tenants are emboldened with a sense of ownership. Neighborhoods form; alliances are forged. Employees taking what used to be their normal walk to their car across the street or to the bus stop down the block are suddenly trespassing in a dangerous neighborhood.
The deterioration of Skid Row is a huge issue for the businesses there. If you read the story on page 1, you’ll see how exasperating it is to try to attract and keep good employees. It’s gotten difficult to operate there. It’s also hard to move out, since property owners can’t sell or lease their buildings for a decent price. For some, a lifetime of work, of investment in a place of business and of savings is diminished or even imperiled.
And, of course, for the city as a whole, there are consequences, too. The worse Skid Row gets, the more businesses surrender and move out, the deeper and more intractable the Skid Row situation becomes.
Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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