LOS ANGELES – It’s been called “the skiddiest of all Skid Rows”: 50 square blocks of run-down hotels, abandoned factories, burned-out storefronts, dingy bars and seedy liquor stores, interspersed among hundreds of makeshift homes, most of them built with discarded cardboard boxes and stolen shopping carts. Located an easy walk from City Hall, police headquarters and other downtown seats of power, this last stop for the destitute has been a fixture of the nation’s second-largest city for nearly a century. Folk singer Woody Guthrie called it “the skiddiest of all Skid Rows” in his 1943 autobiography “Bound For Glory.” Poet Charles Bukowksi said it was populated by “people who are mutilated and almost dead … creeping, crawling, uncared for creatures.” These days the area has been getting a less poetic though equally hard look. With a burgeoning real estate market bringing luxury apartments and condos to the edge of Skid Row, city leaders are torn between letting gentrification roll over the area or trying to make it a more hospitable environment to get help with homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness and other troubles. Among other measures: Police have conducted drug stings, making more than 5,000 arrests during the first three months of the year, including one in which actor Brad Renfro was caught trying to buy heroin. Authorities tried to keep thousands of people from sleeping on the streets, but a federal appeals court stopped the effort until the city provides adequate beds to house all of its homeless. The City Council placed a yearlong moratorium on demolition of about 240 Skid Row flophouses while officials try to balance affordable housing needs against the conversion of older buildings to apartments that can rent for more than $1,000 a month. If all of the projects now under development are completed, the number of housing units in downtown could more than double to nearly 40,000 in five years. Some of the estimated 14,000 homeless people on Skid Row fear they could be shuffled off to the suburbs to make room for those projects. An ambitious plan by a group called Bring L.A. Home proposes the use of temporary shelters throughout Los Angeles County. “They don’t want to get rid of homeless people, they just want to move them around to where people won’t see them,” said Franklin Smith, a homeless man who can often be found perched on a shopping cart outside a small toy store along Skid Row. Steve Van Zile, an executive with SRO Housing Corp., which refurbishes old buildings and rents apartments for as little as $66 a month, said the housing boom is a concern for his nonprofit organization. “Finding properties is always the issue for us,” he said. “It is getting harder and harder,” as the price of real estate rises. Estela Lopez, who lives in the area, says the boom shouldn’t be blamed for Skid Row’s dilemma, although it may have focused more attention on a place she says has been in need of fixing for years. “In my lifetime, the area has gone from being the Skid Row for people who were down and out, down on their luck and needing help, to an area that is violent, an area that is taking people’s lives through illness and disease and drug addiction or through stabbings and fights,” she said. As executive director of the Central City East Business Association, a pro-business and property owners group, Lopez helps lead nighttime walks through Skid Row as part of her group’s efforts to take back the streets. “You’d be surprised how few people take us up on that offer,” she said, noting only four did on a recent walk. One of those who didn’t was Smith, a former dispatcher for a trucking company. Dirty and disheveled but surprisingly articulate after seven years on the street, he spends much of his time outside the toy store. The owners don’t run him off when he asks passers-by for spare change and allow him to stow the wooden box he uses as his portable toilet behind the building. Like more than half of those on Skid Row, drugs and mental problems appear to be his enemies. Although Smith said he’s never been in trouble with the law, he holds a lighter in one hand and a marijuana cigarette in the other as he speaks, quickly flicking away the latter when officers in a passing police cruiser give him the onceover. He talks repeatedly of a government conspiracy to keep him from getting his relief checks and says he shuns homeless shelters because they want to search his shopping cart before they’ll let him in. Instead, he lays his blanket down on the sidewalk near a local police station, saying it’s safer there. He is one of about 3,000 people who sleep on Skid Row streets each night, according to Don Spivack, deputy director of the County Community Redevelopment Agency. About 8,000 live in hotels that range from dirty flophouses with little more than a cot and a hot plate, to clean, recently renovated buildings like those run by SRO Housing Corp. Another 3,000 live night-to-night in area shelters. The unfunded plan released last month by Bring L.A. Home proposes spending $12.4 billion to create 50,000 units of low-cost housing and a handful of shelters throughout the county. “The idea is to make it a stable neighborhood, as much as you can for the population that you’re dealing with,” Spivack said. ——— Inside Homeless immigrants among L.A.’s poorest, both on and off Skid Row. / A5 Homeless say safety, drugs are big worries along Skid Row. / A5160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!