The Homeless that Want More than Housing

For the residents of L.A.’s Skid Row, public space is a priority.

By Wendy Gilmartin

Speed bumps and curbs that narrow the street to slow traffic. Safety zones for women and LGBTQ residents. Vegetable gardens with citrus trees. Drinking fountains, storage units, and cell phone charging stations. This isn’t a laundry list of community benefits in your local affluent suburb; it’s a wish list for the nation’s most concentrated homeless community in downtown Los Angeles: Skid Row.

Where just five years ago tents, shopping carts, and makeshift campsites lined the streets in this eastern portion of downtown, gleaming luxury condominiums now stand with a Whole Foods market and designer clothing boutiques at street level. Even more high-end stores are under construction in an area that already lacks open spaces and parks.

Skid Row, with 11,000 residents living in an area of roughly 50 city blocks, has one of the highest populations of homeless individuals in the United States. After decades of being ignored, and more recently being uprooted and relocated, the stirring of this grassroots mobilization for awareness within Skid Row includes greening and urban grassroots planning initiatives by neighborhood nonprofits and service providers in partnership with and on behalf of the homeless community, each with a different take on the most immediate needs of the community.

And yet it’s notable that for a community whose members largely are either homeless or in some phase of transitioning into housing, the solutions being offered by the community members themselves are not centered solely on housing needs but reveal a strong desire to improve public space. Most significantly, the process that shed light on these desires has given bargaining power and a voice to a group of downtown Los Angeles residents who so rarely get to express their needs collectively in a public forum.

“Skid Row is unique in that people here have associations and relationships to open spaces and public spaces different than most communities,” says Mike Alvidrez, the CEO of Skid Row Housing Trust, which builds transitional housing projects in the neighborhood. “People here know their community the best, but they don’t feel the system is responsive to them. We’re saying they should have a say. It’s possible to include everyone in the process.”

Beginning in 2014, Skid Row Housing Trust, along with local community experts, artists, landscape designers, and urban planners, led 15 formal workshops in addition to numerous informal information-gathering trips out into the streets. Thanks to a rolling map of the area dubbed the “participation station,” residents were able to respond with pushpins indicating locations of needed amenities and with handwritten suggestions. Alvidrez says the neighborhood plan is a way to expand what his organization does—developing real estate for housing—out into the community’s outdoor spaces.

Theresa Hwang, an architect and community organizer partnering with Skid Row Housing Trust in the design workshop process, says more than 380 individuals participated, along with planners and city leaders, including the landscape architecture office Swamp Pink, which specializes in community greening projects for other area nonprofit groups and joined for some of the workshops. A few residents joined the plan development team to review drafts and final versions of the plan.

But just as providing housing for homeless individuals is a complicated political process, so it is when trying to activate open spaces in the area. City agencies have shied away from providing services such as mobile showers and more drinking fountains in the past. Some see these elements as promoting continued transience.

The unveiling of the Our Skid Row neighborhood plan coincides with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s recent proposal to dedicate nearly $140 million of the future city budget to fighting homelessness, making Skid Row residents and community organizers hopeful that some of its suggestions will be implemented as Los Angeles Department of City Planning officials revise the downtown area’s general plan over the next year.

The fight for green space and public amenities is one the community won’t win without the help of other downtown groups, and Skid Row residents’ desires for things like decreased truck pollution, more shaded sidewalks, and area-wide Internet access are shared by the larger downtown community. “New downtown residents want to see something done about homelessness, but they don’t think we should round up and ship them out,” Alvidrez says. “The downtown community around Skid Row wants to help, too.”

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