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Los Angeles Struggles To Manage Rising Homelessness Beyond Skid Row


Homeless encampments in Los Angeles have spread far beyond the area known as Skid Row. The number of people living in them has gone up 12 percent in the past two years. Some parts of the city are struggling to manage big homeless populations they've never seen before. Anna Scott from member station KCRW reports.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: The neighborhood nicknamed Sawtelle sits about four miles in from the beach. It's not the fanciest part of West LA, but it's not a place where you would've seen a lot of homeless people a few years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) So I'm coming through the fields in your dreams. The castle's on the hill.

SCOTT: Today, a street near the 405 Freeway and Santa Monica Boulevard called Cotner Avenue is lined with dozens of tents and living quarters cobbled together from mattresses and tarps. It's a quiet commercial street with a gym, music studios, a pot shop and Lincoln Briggs.

LINCOLN BRIGGS: I'm a resident down here in Hobo Town, as I refer to it.

SCOTT: Briggs is 44. He's been homeless three years and lived on Cotner Avenue six months. Drinking and drugs have bounced him onto the streets periodically since high school.

BRIGGS: It's much easier to live under a dumpster when you got your drink, you know? And it's a lot easier to roam endlessly when you're high. It does help, help me forget, help me numb.

SCOTT: Briggs hasn't given up. He has an idea for improving his situation, at least in the short term.

BRIGGS: I would like for us to be able to get a porta-potty, a dumpster and a spigot of water.

SCOTT: If the city provided these things, Briggs says, it would make him feel more human.

BRIGGS: These are our demands to quit being filthy hobos and an eyesore. This would be nice.

PAUL KORETZ: Well, we don't really want the encampment there, so I don't think we're going to go out of our way to do things to make it easier.

SCOTT: LA city councilman Paul Koretz represents the Sawtelle neighborhood. He doesn't want to sanctioning the encampment, but he also can't look the other way. Garbage is one issue. That's partly because of a rule saying city workers have to offer nearby storage before clearing homeless people's belongings. LA has lockers for this, but they're down on Skid Row, 14 miles away.

KORETZ: So we, legally, can't expect the homeless to travel downtown to pick up their belongings. So at least at this point, we can't remove anything that isn't being removed for safety and health.

SCOTT: Trash isn't the only problem for businesses along Cotner Avenue.

ALEX PLATT: They frequently park their positions, you know, and shopping carts in our parking spaces.

SCOTT: Alex Platt manages the streets biggest property, a complex of music studios.

PLATT: And we've had occasional, from - the more mentally unstable or perhaps drug-using homeless have made threats. It's very bad for business in general.

SCOTT: Complicating the situation is a fence - a chain-link fence that separates Cotner Avenue from the 405 Freeway. One side of it is the city's problem. The other is the state's. Going back and forth over the fence, the homeless can dodge law enforcement for months at a time but not forever, says LAPD officer Eric Swihart.

ERIC SWIHART: We did recently do a cleanup down on Cotner on the 20th, and hopefully we now will be able to manage that area a little bit better.

SCOTT: Every few months or so, the city does a big sweep of Cotner Avenue and clears everyone out. But the homeless rebuild within a couple of weeks. Residents of the Sawtelle encampment, like Lincoln Briggs, want to break this cycle.

BRIGGS: It's a limbo here in Hobo Town. We exist in a void outside of the flow of society.

SCOTT: Briggs wishes for a kind of coexistence.

BRIGGS: We will do our part if you give us a chance to be able to take care of the street.

SCOTT: He says the city and businesses might be surprised. For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Scott