DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Last June, a federal judge ordered the city to stop seizing and destroying abandoned items from Skid Row sidewalks. The unintended side effects of the ruling have been well-chronicled: Pile-ups of random belongings have proliferated and homeless encampments have multiplied.
The scenario has vexed city officials, but a growing chorus of Skid Row area business owners believes that those same officials may be dragging their feet on a potential solution to the cluttered sidewalks.
The Weingart Center, which provides transitional housing and other services to the homeless, has offered the city a parking lot it controls for use as a storage facility, said Kevin Murray, interim CEO of the nonprofit. The site at Sixth and San Pedro streets could be crucial because the injunction allows the city to seize abandoned items as long as they are stored for 90 days.
“We’re committed to helping and allowing the use of our parking lot,” Murray said.
He said the Weingart is in talks with the Port of Los Angeles to get donated shipping containers to use as storage lockers on the lot.
Officials in the offices of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich were notified of the offer in February, but have made no public moves to take advantage of the site, nor have they explained the apparent lack of action to local business owners who have been pleading for help, said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Association.
“It’s taking too long to bring relief to a community that is being intimidated, frightened and who is suffering crimes against the economy of this community,” said Lopez, who recently led a caravan of 24 Skid Row area property owners to City Hall. The group met with representatives of Villaraigosa and 14th District Councilman José Huizar.
Peter Sanders, a spokesman for Villaraigosa, declined to comment on the Weingart site specifically. In a prepared statement, he said that discussing the city’s strategy for working within the injunction would be “premature.”
“Our office is working in conjunction with numerous city departments to deal with ongoing issues regarding personal belongings on Skid Row,” the statement said. “We acknowledge that this is a contentious and complicated issue, which we must resolve in a thoughtful and responsible manner.”
In the meantime, local business officials say the constant presence of encampments is scaring away customers and empowering more people to bed down on the street.
“What you see now is not only your typical homeless person or drug user, but it seems people are just camping out,” said Mitch Baker, marketing director of True Life Foods, which sells ready-made lunches to school districts. The company operates a facility on the same block of Towne Avenue where people affiliated with the Occupy movement have been camped out on the sidewalk for weeks.
Wait and See
Central Division Area Captain Horace Frank said the lack of an adequate storage facility remains the department’s chief hurdle to clearing the sidewalks.
“You can enforce [the law], but if you take their property you cannot discard it. That’s what the judge is concerned about,” Frank said.
Huizar spokesman Rick Coca said that the councilman is working with Villaraigosa and Trutanich on a strategy for dealing with the sidewalk pile-ups. The Weingart site is a topic of discussion, he said.
“If we can work that out with the Weingart, we would love to see that happen, and we thank them,” Coca said. “We’re dealing with the legalities. But we’re working on it fairly aggressively at this point.”
Not aggressively enough for Cindy Lopez, property manager of the Catalina Building, a live/work property at Sixth and San Pedro streets. Lopez, who has lived there since 1988, has watched as conditions in Skid Row have deteriorated over the past year. She joined the business group that went to City Hall on May 4.
“It seems like nobody is following up on the storage issue,” she said.
The city appealed the injunction and is awaiting a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meantime, Jane Usher, special assistant to Trutanich, said city lawyers are mulling questions about storing seized items.
“It’s a double-edged sword because what do you store and at what point have you exhausted resources for the so very many needs of stakeholders asking us for a free public storage service?” Usher said.
The injunction protects belongings such as medication, identification, documents and personal keepsakes from seizure and destruction, but Usher said the city remains uncertain as to whether the law might also protect couches and other generic items now cluttering area sidewalks. Storing bulky furniture would be very different than providing space for small personal items, she said.
Lopez, whose organization charges area businesses to provide street cleaning and security services beyond what the city provides, said she welcomed the LAPD’s recent transfer of 50 additional officers to Central Division. The added cops have been assigned to patrol outside Skid Row, allowing a specially trained unit to concentrate on the poverty-laden area.
“The officers are walking around and God bless them, I’m happy they’re here,” Lopez said. “But you still have the problem because we haven’t addressed the issue that the injunction presents.”
Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Los Angeles Downtown News.