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Injunction and Growing Encampments Bring Health Fears on Skid Row

By Eric Richardson
Published: Wednesday, October 26, 2011, at 08:36AM
Skid Row Eric Richardson / blogdowntown

Encampments line the sidewalks on blocks of Skid Row where the city has been forbidden from removing unattended possessions.

A growing line of tents, sleeping bags, blankets, suitcases and shopping carts crowds the west sidewalk of San Julian Street between 6th and 7th, one of several Skid Row blocks that have been heavily impacted by an injunction put in place six months ago that greatly restricts the city's ability to remove possessions left in the public right-of-way.

As the legal case drags on, worry about the health risk that these sidewalks could create is also growing.

"It is a public health hazard," said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents the area most affected by the ruling. "If we cannot reach some understanding with the court about having the ability to get people's personal articles off the sidewalk for a certain period of time so that we can sanitize the sidewalk, people are going to get sick."

The concern isn't theoretical. In 2006, similar conditions helped to spread MRSA, a strain of staph infection resistant to treatment, among those living on the streets of Skid Row.

The city has appealed the injunction, which was issued in a case filed by eight homeless individuals who say that the city took their belongings when they walked away for food, the bathroom or to appear in court.

Not all parts of Skid Row have been affected equally. The Central City East Association, which operates a business improvement district that covers much of the Skid Row area, has been able to continue its trash pickup and sidewalk cleaning efforts. The court cited the group's Central City East Check-In Center as a model that the city might emulate.

"The system that we've had in place since 2002 is still working overwhelmingly," said Estela Lopez, the group's executive director. Still, the ruling has created a "dramatic demarcation" between areas that are part of the business district and those that aren't.

"The public right of way is the community's space and we have a responsibility to make sure that space is safe and clean for everyone" whether homeless or housed, she said. "Those who are still out there because of a situation or by a choice, it makes no difference, we have a responsibility that we're not carrying out."

Molly Rysman, director of external affairs for the Skid Row Housing Trust, believes that the city needs to pay careful attention to where the encampments are popping up, including on a block next to LAPD's Central station.

"These are folks who are trying to find a safe place to live on the sidewalk," Rysman said. "Their needs are driving their decision to congregate where they are."

While Rysman agrees that there are health concerns related to the encampments, she would like to city the city focus more of its attention on solving the bigger picture of homelessness.

"I don't think [getting the injunction removed is] going to solve this problem. You may be able to break up the encampment, but these folks are still homeless," she said. "We need to look at how to really solve this."

Perry doesn't believe that the city can afford to look past the current legal fight. She fears what would happen if the Ninth Circuit were to rule against the city's appeal and leave the injunction in place.

"That will take us backward about 10 to 20 years and put us right back where we started when I was first elected, with an enormous amount of trash on the street," Perry said. "It's devastating to Skid Row for community-building and it would demonstrate an unrealistic viewpoint about what this community needs in terms of recovery."


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