Somebody else might walk by without looking at the painfully thin crackhead curled on the sidewalk in the fetal position. Or nudge her with a foot.
Not Deon Joseph.
This muscular black man with arms thick as hams leans over and gently shakes the woman’s bony shoulder. He wants to make contact, ensure that she is still breathing.
“How you doing today?”
She curses him, still very much alive.
“Have a good day, ma’am,” he replies, moving on down the line of dazed people and overstuffed shopping carts outside the Union Rescue Mission.
It’s just another day in the life of a man shopkeepers and residents of the nation’s last true Skid Row call the “Sheriff of Skidberry.”
Joseph is senior lead officer for the Los Angeles Police Department, and Skid Row has been his beat for the past 17 years. He prefers foot patrol; it is more intimate. Despite the open drug dealing, piles of trash and omnipresent aroma of urine, feces and burning crack and weed, he has found a community here. These are his people.
He used to make a lot of arrests, but these days he spends most of his time just talking to people and handing out donated hygiene kits — toothpaste, soap, deodorant, lotion and shaving cream — and fliers that explain how to apply for housing vouchers. He leads self-defense classes for homeless women, events he calls “Ladies’ Night.” He tweets crime prevention tips and offers up anecdotes on Facebook.
He gives out his email address and cell phone number. And then he returns the calls.
And so, he knows nearly everybody — The Hurricane, Bow Leg, Slow Bucket, Thick ‘n’ Juicy — and they know him, too. Some like him, some don’t. Most respect him. Some say he’s their angel watching over them.
Nearly two decades on some of the nation’s poorest, nastiest streets haven’t stripped this beat cop of his humanity. He sports a shiny bald pate and kind, expressive eyes. But should the situation call for it, he can turn fierce and scary-looking in a heartbeat.
He is not jaded or cynical, and he doesn’t view the world as LAPD blue against everybody else. He is a man of deep, abiding Christian faith, and he considers Skid Row his mission in life. He says he wouldn’t dream of working anywhere else.
These are tense times for police and the policed. Everybody’s talking about white cops shooting black kids; hundreds show up in small towns and big cities for “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protests.
Joseph has never fired his gun and hopes he never has to.
In the one-square mile marked by a mural that announces “Skid Row, pop. Too Many,” he is a walking, talking public service announcement for the upside of community-based policing.
When homeless addicts call him by his first name, Officer Joseph doesn’t feel dissed. He’s honored.
“I feel respect when they call me by my first name,” he explains, “and I show them respect by calling them sir or ma’am.”
In this neighborhood, 2,000 people sleep on the streets at night, by Joseph’s estimate. He’s seeing a lot of new faces lately as it gets harder legally to commit somebody to mental health facilities, while the prisons and jails are letting inmates out early to ease overcrowding. With nowhere else to go, many head to Skid Row, he says.
Not long ago, Skid Row was easy to ignore, a pocket of misery on the outskirts of a crumbling city shell nobody visited. But after two decades of downtown development, there are finally neighbors to bear witness.
What happens when 50,000 people move next door to Skid Row?
The dumping ground becomes hot property. And solving homelessness becomes a priority.
The next few years could bring big changes. But Joseph and others say Skid Row doesn’t need any more handouts. It has plenty of food and clothing. What Skid Row needs, they say, is affordable housing — and lots of it.
As much as they’d like to, city leaders can’t undo a century of bad urban policy overnight. But there are calls from Mayor Eric Garcetti and other leaders to end homelessness, especially on Skid Row, by 2015. These are the same words Joseph heard from their predecessors a decade ago. Little happened then, and even as 2015 begins, the deadline has been officially pushed back to 2016.
Joseph believes it’s time to stop playing politics with Skid Row. The stakes — literally life and death — are too high.
“I believe the extremes of both ideologies are what created Skid Row,” Joseph says. “By that, I mean the extreme right believes in NIMBYism — not in my back yard. We’ll shove all our problems into downtown LA and come down once a month and throw food and clothes at them and feel good about ourselves.
“And then the extreme left truly believes that because they’re poor, black, Hispanic, whatever, because they’re of poorer socioeconomic status, that we as law enforcement should just leave them alone. They really believe we should be hands off. And those two ideologies created what we’re dealing with on Skid Row.”
Seventeen years have shown him that Skid Row isn’t going anywhere. “But don’t build another one.”
Click here to read more.