General Jeff Page is known to L.A.'s homeless as "The Mayor of Skid Row."

Photo by Ted Soqui for NationSwell

How Do You Breathe Life into a Neighborhood That's Been Forgotten?

As the unofficial mayor of Skid Row, activist General Jeff Page fights for his neighbors to have a voice in the governing of their community.

General Jeff Page walked under the crooked backboard and onto the dusty concrete floor. The basketball court, one of two in downtown Los Angeles’s Gladys Park, seemed like it had once been painted green, now dulled to gray, marred by dirt and grime. General Jeff couldn’t find any basketballs, only deflated rubber kickballs that plopped onto the ground when he tried to dribble. Nearby, cardboard boxes and tents surrounded 40 single-room occupancy hotels and a couple of nonprofit missions. None of the squalor came as any surprise to General Jeff, who, in August 2006, was a brand-new arrival to Skid Row, an area that consists of 50 blocks and is home to a sizable chunk of the county’s 44,000 homeless residents, many of whom are black males struggling with substance abuse, mental illness and trauma. Compacted into one district that borders a resurgent downtown, Skid Row contains the largest concentration of unsheltered people in America.

Skid Row, in downtown Los Angeles, has the city's largest concentration of homeless people who regularly live on the sidewalks in tents and cardboard boxes. Photo by Ted Soqui

As General Jeff, an experienced basketball player, nailed jump shots (and retrieved bounceless rebounds under the basket), homeless guys sprawled under the shady queen palms and California sycamores, dodging the heat. When he took a break, a squat, elderly man waved him over. General Jeff thought he knew the guy — an old-timer, Manuel Benito Compito, known as “O.G. Man” on the streets. From beneath O.G.’s graying mustache came a gravelly voice: “Hey, man, I want you to help me start this basketball league.” General Jeff swiveled, looking for eager players. But the vagrant men on the sidelines were mostly gabbing or shuffling through their stuff. “I’ve only been on Skid Row a few months,” he explained. “I’m not sure I want to be involved,” he said and left.

After more pestering, General Jeff (whose name, he says, refers to his willingness to tackle any problem, like high-ranking military commanders do) gave into O.G.’s request. Over the course of a decade, he’d take on many more projects in the community: fixing streetlights, cleaning up trash, painting murals, setting up chess clubs and art collectives and fighting for a seat on the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. People started calling him the unofficial mayor of Skid Row.

Jeff on the basketball court at Gladys Park. Photo by Ted Soqui for NationSwell

From that shoddy basketball court, he and O.G. launched the Positive Movement, a paradigm shift asking Skid Row residents to reclaim their section of the city as a functioning neighborhood, rather than a containment zone. By offering more activities, the Positive Movement provides alternatives to drugs and other undesirable activities. In the process, as residents help themselves, the movement undoes the negative images of substance abuse that have tainted the area. As part of the initiative, next spring, Skid Row residents will ask their fellow downtown citizens to recognize the neighborhood as its own space. With this change in status, citizens would be able to make planning and land use decisions (such as preserving low-income housing from developers, advising city leaders on public transportation and policing and distributing a small coffer of funds for community projects). If downtown residents approve the change, the vote would mark the first time the city has recognized Skid Row as a unique neighborhood, rather than its unofficial status as a dumping ground for lost souls that don’t belong elsewhere in the City of Angels.

“As human beings, we adapt to our environment. And if the environment is completely negative, we’re going to adapt to that…When we talk about Skid Row, when we hear about it on paper, we think of it as a place of rehabilitation, just like a hospital where a human body can heal. But when you think of Skid Row and a hospital, you get two different visuals,” Gen. Jeff says. “As soon as you go into a hospital, the human subconscious, the mind will allow itself to heal. There’s a different smell, a sense of energy, sanitized rooms and walls. You go to Skid Row, and you say, ‘Oh no.’ This is dirty, this isn’t healthy, this isn’t good. It’s hard to heal and truly, naturally rehabilitate on Skid Row.”

Which is why General Jeff set out to change that feeling from the inside out.

This memorial tree was planted in memory of Barbara Brown, a homeless woman who died at the site. Photo by Ted Soqui for NationSwell

General Jeff came to Skid Row from another notorious L.A. neighborhood: South Central, a place known for its race riots and gang violence. A rap producer who once worked with Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg, “writing, producing, mixing, rapping, deejaying, pop, lock and dancing,” General Jeff says. “You name it, I’ve done it.” After traveling the world, he returned to South Central to organize community members to end gun violence, but ran into difficulties getting them to the table and gave up hope. When the bills started to mount, he gave up his place, stuffed a wad of cash in his sock and started sleeping on the street, finding shelter in warehouses and cooking food with heat lamps. When he moved to Skid Row, he carried two suitcases: one full of clothes, the other containing a drum set — his last tie to his former life. “I don’t know what I am doing, I don’t know why I am here. There’s no blueprint or degree or beacon of light,” he recalls. “The drum machine, that was reality.” He spent a few nights in the park, then at a mission (where men sleep in gigantic dorms with no privacy), before ending up in a single occupancy room (a type of housing for low-income individuals, where, to save on rent, they live alone in a tiny residence, often with a shared kitchen or bathroom) in one of the district’s many hotels, and meeting O.G. in Gladys Park.

General Jeff believes that the negativity of Skid Row can make it hard for residents to rehabilitate themselves, which is why he created the Positive Movement. Photo by Ted Soqui for NationSwell

After the Vietnam War, servicemen flooded downtown, taking up residence in Skid Row’s dilapidated hotels and using cheap liquor and drugs to obliterate the memories of battle. From that point on, through the crack epidemic in the 1990s, chronic homelessness on Skid Row has been associated with substance abuse and recovery. A 1970 book, “Stations of the Lost: The Treatment of Skid Row Alcoholics,” found that most of the neighborhood’s homeless only spent one-third of the year without a roof over their heads; the rest of the time, they shuffled through jails, mental hospitals, rehab and the missions, before landing back on the streets. Forty-five years later, not much has changed, says O.G. “You go to Union Rescue Mission and spend some nights there. You relapse, then you go to the L.A. Mission. You relapse, then the Midnight Mission. You keep going next door,” he explains. That cycle reveals itself in L.A.’s extremely high percentage of chronically homeless individuals. About 15 percent of all the city’s unsheltered have been on the streets for more than a year or several times over three years. While there’s no data available on why this population remains homeless, it can be assumed that drugs and alcohol continue to play a role.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” one homeless woman from Las Vegas tells the L.A. Times in 2005, when three people died of an overdose on the same day. “People getting high on the streets like it was legal.”

In Skid Row especially, temptation is always around the corner. Most of the shelters let men out of the large dorms at 5 a.m., and some prevent them from reentering until the evening intake. With few constructive activities in the area, grabbing a beer might suddenly sound like an attractive way to pass the time during non-work hours. Add to that the armies of drug dealers and liquor store owners who profit at users’ expense. (One infamous profiteer, Recondal “Ricky” Wesco, is said to set up his beer cart outside rehab centers and hawk tall boys for just $2, undeterred by more than 50 arrests.) General Jeff feels that the infrastructure of Skid Row itself is designed for people to fail — making the Positive Movement’s “outlets” like basketball, chess, visual and dramatic arts so crucial to the neighborhood; they provide a better way for residents to occupy their time.

General Jeff helped get the mural in the background installed on Skid Row's San Julian Street. Photo by Ted Soqui for NationSwell

But as soon as these groups got off the ground, the basketball players asked for whistles, scoreboards and uniforms, and the photography club wondered if they could afford an extra camera. General Jeff realized he would need sustained funding to keep them around. Across Los Angeles, 96 elected neighborhood councils, which can range from seven to 30 members per board, are each allocated $42,000 by EmpowerLA, a city-funded umbrella organization, for discretionary use. General Jeff heard that the education committee of the council that oversees Skid Row — the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council (DLANC, pronounced “dee-link”) — would be willing to help fund the Positive Movement’s operations, so he simply added an educational component to the basketball league. (The team would discuss various concepts, like teamwork, family, and punctuality before tip-off.) Pretty soon, the team sported jerseys emblazoned with “Skid Row Streetball League,” and the camera club had 10 new digital cameras and an exhibition timed with the Downtown Art Walk.

When General Jeff returned to DLANC a few weeks later to thank the council for the funds, a board member asked why the name “Skid Row” was printed on the jerseys. The elected official was ashamed of the name, painting it as a blight on downtown, General Jeff recalls of the tense meeting. Stating that players were proud to wear their community’s name on their chests, General Jeff argued that if Skid Row didn’t own up to its reputation, it would be easy for the rest of the city to forget about the homeless. After all, he’d seen it happen before. In 2003, “South Central” was renamed “South Los Angeles.” The rebranding effort scrubbed away the images of gang violence associated with the name — a boon to developers hoping for growth but a blow to activists wanting to launch a public relations campaign highlighting old issues that persisted onto the new map. After the meeting ended, General Jeff found out the angry board member was, in fact, his representative for “Central City East,” the preferred name for Skid Row among developers and bureaucrats. General Jeff had never considered a career in politics before, but wanting the person off DLANC, General Jeff ran against him and won in a landslide in 2008, capturing more than half the votes in a four-way race.

From his new position, General Jeff highlighted his neighbors’ concerns. Unlike elsewhere, city maintenance rarely happened in Skid Row. Streetlights burnt out (or were shattered by drug dealers seeking a cover of darkness) and weren’t replaced. Garbage and feces littered the gutters because trash cans and public restrooms in the area were limited out of concern they would become sites for drug use or trafficking. Along with O.G., General Jeff started a cleaning force to pick up trash and made a map of broken streetlights. His most significant battle on DLANC erupted in 2014, when a nonprofit developer wanted to bring in a restaurant with a liquor license on the ground floor of a permanent supportive housing unit that hosts recovery programs and addict support groups. DLANC board members, worried about the impact of pouring drinks around residents with histories of substance abuse and the steady encroachment of gentrification into the area’s borders, fought back. The Skid Row community largely won the fight, but General Jeff lost any goodwill with downtown business owners in the process.

All of General Jeff’s work of the past 10 years started to unravel last spring. He lost his post on DLANC to a newcomer, and he seemed disillusioned with the system. After homeless counts of Skid Row residents hovering roughly around 39,000 for several years, the numbers suddenly spiked to 44,359 people. Charities and public services strained to meet the need, but with no new housing lined up, a long-term solution wasn’t readily available.

Meanwhile, police relations, historically turbulent, frayed even further as law enforcement continued to crack down on residents. Since the launch of the Safer Cities Initiative in September 2006 (the program piloted in 2005), cops had begun to break up sidewalk encampments and issue tickets for minor infractions. Based on former police chief Bill Bratton’s theory of “broken windows,” (combating minor quality-of-life crimes like vandalism or public drinking as a way to keep order in urban areas and deter more serious crimes) law enforcement wrote 1,000 citations for jaywalking and loitering every month during the program’s first year, according to an independent UCLA study. (General Jeff has been arrested for loitering in 2013, but successfully fought the case at trial and avoided a conviction. A related charge of resisting arrest, however, resulted in a sentence of 20 days of community service.) Tensions came to a head in March 2015 when police approached Charly Leundeu Keunang, a 43-year-old Cameroonian national living on Skid Row, known to his friends as “Africa,” and tried to take him into custody for a suspected robbery. Keunang, mentally ill and high on meth at the time, reached for the gun in an officer’s holster. After a brief scuffle, six shots were fired, hitting Keunang in the chest, torso and left arm. Bystanders captured his death on camera, and it was viewed millions of times on Facebook. Skid Row might have looked safer to outsiders, but it didn’t feel that way to its residents.

A memorial in the spot where Charly Leundeu Keunang was shot and killed. Photo by Ted Soqui

Skid Row citizens have a different set of priorities for day-to-day life, where staying sober or getting to work is an accomplishment, says John Malpede, an artist who started “the other LAPD,” the Los Angeles Poverty Department, an arts group for those who live or work in Skid Row, 30 years ago. “We’re the biggest recovery community anywhere. Skid Row is a resource for not only all of Los Angeles, but also for all of Southern California. It’s a place where there are services and an understanding and a long-term community that suits the needs of people who are suffering from all kinds of disabilities and traumas, whether it be domestic abuse or wars or addiction,” says Malpede, who came to Skid Row to work at a free legal clinic and began offering art workshops when the lawyers weren’t around. “We’re tarred and feathered on a daily basis. They always say there’s drugs and alcohol on Skid Row. Well, there is everywhere, and it’s also true that there are 80 recovery meetings run by community members every week. It’s a very sophisticated recovery culture.”

General Jeff decided to solidify that ethos by creating Skid Row’s own neighborhood council. Through it, Skid Row residents could fight developers to preserve the $365 median rents in the area and other low-income housing, prevent businesses from acquiring liquor licenses and fund community programs. In formation meetings chaired by General Jeff, residents have been discussing the board’s ideal structure. They’ll submit a formal application to break away from DLANC in October, and then start campaigning for the special election that could happen as early as spring 2017. There’s one main issue standing in the neighborhood’s way: a previous requirement that each council must oversee a minimum of 20,000 residents; the Skid Row zip code, according to city data, was just 8,096. Stephen Box, a spokesperson for EmpowerLA, confirmed that the average neighborhood council serves 40,000 residents. But he also pointed out that councils represent communities that greatly differ in size, from the massive 103,364 people served by Wilshire Center-Koreatown’s group to the tiny 7,323 residents in Elysian Valley Riverside.

"We’re getting up and doing something positive for ourselves. We’re not waiting for a handout or even a hand up," says General Jeff. Photo by Ted Soqui

“Historically, going back to stereotypes, they’re all drunks bums and addicts. They’re all panhandlers. They don’t contribute anything productive to society. ‘Why don’t you get up and do a job? Why don’t you do something?’” General Jeff squeaks in a high-pitched voice, imitating his critics talk about Skid Row community members. “Let me tell you, that’s what we’re doing,” he says. “We’re getting up and doing something positive for ourselves. We’re not waiting for a handout or even a hand up. We feel that we have something to contribute. We want to add our voice to the conversation that dictates our future.”

Come election season, General Jeff and his neighbors will see whether the rest of downtown is willing to let them assume decision-making power — or whether the poor of Los Angeles will continue to be voiceless.

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]