Why you should care
Because there’s more to homelessness than you think.
It’s 4 p.m. on a summer Saturday in Los Angeles and the afternoon swelter is giving way to a gentle breeze in Gladys Park, where a spirited three-on-three game of basketball commands the court. Kids, families and grizzled street folk alike dot the adjacent grass, and old men indulge in games of dominoes or chess in the shade. This is community, as idyllic and American as any. But Gladys Park sits right in the middle of Skid Row, a 54-block area just east of downtown LA, home to the largest population of homeless people in the U.S. It is widely represented as one of the most brutish neighborhoods in the country, the lowest rung of our socioeconomic ladder, where drugs, violence, crime and hopelessness abound. This scene, though, tells another story.
Investigate moments like this on Skid Row enough and you’ll hear the same name mentioned often: General Jeff. He is the most notable community activist associated with the area, dubbed “the Mayor of Skid Row” by CNN, a six-year elected veteran of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood City Council, a state-appointed official on the Office of Health Equity Advisory Committee and a chairman on the homelessness subcommittee. He’s also a 10-year resident of Skid Row and says the area is home for life.
When I meet Page just off Maple Avenue and Seventh Street, an intersection wedged between skyscraper construction and loft renovation of the fast-gentrifying downtown west, he is weary from an all-nighter. He took part in a Black Lives Matter demonstration culminating on the steps of nearby City Hall, where the protesters camped out until morning.
General Jeff, legally known as Jeff Page, was a three-sport athlete at Compton High School and a pioneering contributor to the West Coast hip-hop scene in the early 1990s, performing as a DJ and in pop-and-lock dance troupes, and mingling with the likes of Snoop Dogg and DJ Quik. After trying and failing to mediate peace between the Crips and Bloods in his hometown of South LA, Page fell upon hard times in 2006. “I was homeless in South Central Los Angeles, sleeping in abandoned houses, warehouses, outdoors,” he tells me. “Burnt out, down and out, I showed up on Skid Row rolling a suitcase with some clothes, an Akai drum machine and a thousand dollars in my sock.” He felt like Skid Row could use his help. “I know it was an extreme thing to do,” he says. “I have no idea where the impetus came from.”
Page moved to a single room occupancy building on Skid Row within months. In the meantime, he familiarized himself with “the lingo, the movements, the thought process” of his new neighbors, looking for a way to improve the lives of the people around him. He noticed streetlights were broken, which created a dark and dangerous atmosphere at night and paved the way for unsavory activities. After manually gathering data on the lights, Page ambushed the head of the Bureau of Street Lighting with his findings. Two days later, government trucks rolled up to repair the broken lights. “I felt really good that day,” Page recollects. “That night — lights! We could see! The drug dealers were pissed!”
Next, he came upon the dilapidated remains of Gladys Park, a plot of concrete effectively abandoned by the city, where locals attempted pickup basketball games with deflated balls and crooked hoops. Under Page, courts made from recycled basketball shoes have been laid in; the chess tables have doubled in number and the Skid Row 3-on-3 Basketball League is going strong, almost eight years later, every Saturday afternoon.
Page is skeptical of generic do-gooding, though. “I don’t trust any nonprofits on Skid Row. See, the rest of society doesn’t want to deal with ‘the homeless problem,’ so the nonprofits take the checks, but there’s zero oversight or accountability.” He worries that leaders of nonprofits pocket the money for their own benefit. UCLA Professor of Law Emeritus and homelessness expert Gary Blasi thinks it’s more complicated than that. “Many agencies evolved ways of doing things in an earlier time when conditions were different and we did not know as much as we do know about what works to end homelessness,” he explains. “Change is hard and some agencies resist it. In that sense, they defend the status quo, because it’s easier not to change, but not because they want or need there to be so many homeless people as there are now.”
Every well-intentioned person has his critics, and Page is not immune to that. Ron Crockett, who’s lived in the area for eight and a half years and coaches the Skid Row basketball league says, “Some of the transient really respect the deplorable conditions. They take advantage of that.” The mentally ill and the addicts, he says, see Skid Row as their natural home precisely because of the problems. Dayshaun Jones, a 42-year-old homeless man who “comes and goes” from Skid Row, minces no words when it comes to Page: “That nigga think he God, but he ain’t never do nothin’ for me. But it’s dog eat dog out here. He just tryin’ to get his.”
Getting his, for Page, however, means keeping Skid Row alive even as it evolves. Without Page and his cohort of activists, Blasi says, “much of Skid Row would have been bulldozed long ago.”