“Stolen Voices” by Charles Porter

In the year 2000, I began to research the newly adopted Neighborhood Council process, which came into being that year as a result of LA City Charter Reform. Their purpose is to promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs. Neighborhood councils shall include representatives of the many diverse interests in communities and shall have an advisory role on issues of concern to the neighborhood. The Skid Row neighborhood (also referred to as Central City East at the time) was the ideal community to utilize such an ambitious process (as confirmed by a staffer at the newly formed Department of Neighborhood Empowerment). Skid Row has been a community impacted by systemic inequalities, sub-standard health, extreme poverty, and structural racism. The community is predominately Black (composed of a diverse mix of people of African descent) and in addition to the thousands of tenants that live in residential hotels, has arguably the largest concentration of homelessness in the nation. Organizing efforts for a Skid Row Neighborhood Council began gaining speed in 2001 with a series of community meetings. We were quick to point out the great potential to impact neighborhood change through civic participation and giving voice to the disenfranchised. At the time the business community was being represented by local Business Improvement Districts (in addition to business associations). Social Service Providers were organized as well, and regularly participated in the Community Services Roundtable, formed in the late 1990’s by Pastor Scott Chamberlain of the Central City Community Church of the Nazarene. This group (of which I formerly served as Co-chair) was an innovate forum for coordinating and informing services aimed at addressing community need. That body inspired the formation of the Los Angeles Central Providers Collaborative (LACPC) around 2001. This new group, which required dues paying membership, and was primarily run by the heads of the local missions and major social services providers, was the death knell to the Community Services Roundtable (an informal space more responsive to resident & service recipient concerns in my opinion).

There has always been spirit of leadership in the community, but the vast majority of residents and the homeless had few opportunities to be heard outside of the few community advocates fighting on their behalf. As our organizing efforts gained momentum, we realized we were competing with a very organized group plotting to include most of downtown within their boundaries. There was a requirement that neighborhood councils have at least 20,000 residents, but there were a few exceptions which Skid Row clearly met to be exempt. When we discovered this fact, we were excited to tell community members that we could have our own council with all the resources focused on our unique community needs. All of the community meetings we hosted demonstrated overwhelming resident support for a Skid Row council. I was approached by former CEO of SRO Housing Corporation, Bud Hayes (deceased), and staffers Erin Ulrich and Bill Edwards, where a vision for Skid Row having a seat at a large table with the developing downtown community was laid out. This is when I fully realized that there was a concerted effort by some of the local service providers to be included in a large downtown council (without the input or polling of thousands of residents/participants, predominantly Black). We made a presentation before the LACPC to get their support, yet a majority of members did not want Skid Row to have its own council. This was a major blow to our movement, as residents were being “represented” by many of these large social service providers. Orlando Ward (formerly with the Midnight Mission), Erin Ulrich (formerly with SRO Housing), Bill Edwards (formerly with SRO Housing) and Don Garza (SRO Housing resident) became the faces and voices for the inclusion of Skid Row into the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council (DLANC). The most common argument expressed was the concern that Skid Row would be “marginalized” if we did not have a seat at a very large table with “important” people (even if this required that resources and attention to local priorities be divided equally among all participants). Ironically, the neighborhood council process was designed to address the same “marginalization” concern they were raising, making it theoretically impossible for a community with its own council to be marginalized.

The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment certification hearing for DLANC took place in April of 2002. Skid Row did not submit its completed application for a council prior to the hearing, but the City was well aware of our organizing efforts. Our argument was that DLANC could not, and should not represent Skid Row, and that we had been organizing and needed more time to create our own council. Members of the Lincoln Heights and Historic Cultural Neighborhood Councils also argued reasons for their autonomy, and as a result DLANC’s proposed boundaries were carved away. But the most passionate battle that day was the fight for Skid Row, as many community members showed up and voiced their concerns that Skid Row should have its own council. Erin Ulrich presented hundreds of signatures she collected from SRO tenants as “proof” they supported Skid Row’s inclusion in DLANC. Despite this attempt to manipulate and consolidate community voices, Commissioners Jimmie Gray-Woods, and Tammy Membreno were inclined to remove Skid Row from DLANC’s boundaries as they were not convinced that Skid Row would have proper representation. It was at this moment that DLANC representative Michael Gagan asked that their application be withdrawn (which he attempted unsuccessfully to do again later during the hearing). Commissioner/President Ronald Stone asked him to wait as they were split on the issue, and he was not inclined to remove Skid Row from DLANC. Commissioner Tony Lucente then proceeded to state that despite his mixed feelings, he felt that Skid Row might be isolated and could achieve greater empowerment through this greater entity (DLANC). He felt adequate outreach was done, they had a proposed homeless seat, and that excluding Skid Row from DLANC would create a situation of the rich and the poor. He also felt that those speaking in support of a Skid Row council were from the same organization (despite more than 200 signatures from Skid Row stakeholders supporting their own council) or Lincoln Heights (several speakers from this area voiced support for our efforts). His comments swayed Commissioner Membrano who said she would be comfortable keeping Skid Row in DLANC if they worked with the Skid Row (Central City) leadership to come to an agreement on the concerns and needs for that area. President Stone proceeded to sway the tide further by questioning the number of people in Skid Row, stating that “11,000 residents, that is definitely too small a number for the plan for us to be able to certify on its own.” That statement was not factual, as Department of Neighborhood Empowerment staff person Romero had earlier described how the Historical Cultural Neighborhood Council met the criteria to be exempted from the 20,000 resident requirement (as did Skid Row). The President’s comments about Skid Row not having enough people also swayed the position of Commissioner Woods-Gray who conceded Skid Row to DLANC with the caveat that we come back to report if and when the needs of Skid Row are not being addressed. You know the rest of the story. It has been nearly 15 years, and DLANC is unable to adequately address the myriad needs, concerns, and priorities of Skid Row. After this decision, came a major effort to displace/relocate poor families of Skid Row (2004), followed by the implementation of the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI) by the Los Angeles Police Department in 2006 (which included the deployment of 50 additional officers in the area). Much has been written about the impact of SCI on the community, but I will note that LAPD started out hosting meetings for community input, including discussion about possible neighborhood enhancements, but as time progressed opportunities for community input/feedback by the most impacted ceased. So here we stand today with a monumental opportunity to hear the voice of our community, challenge structural inequalities, and improve the neighborhood. Let’s not let the voice of Skid Row to be stolen or suppressed again.

(Based on personal experience and transcripts from April 27th, 2002. Shout out to LA CAN for their strong mobilization efforts during this initial attempt. I will be posting selected testimonies from that hearing as the same arguments stand 15years later.)

#VoteYES4skidrowNC #fearofablackcouncil #udontspeak4us

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