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1984 homeless community lays claim to downtown park

1984 homeless community lays claim to downtown park

Dec. 5, 1984: A homeless man in sleeping bag, left, lies upon flattened cardboard boxes in a park across the street from Los Angeles City Hall. On right, Tom Kent stirs while three other neighbors in cardboard boxes sleep in.

The downtown park at 1st and Spring streets included the remains of the old State Building- torn down in 1976.

These photos accompanied staff writer Miles Corwin’s article in the Dec. 7, 1984, Los Angeles Times. Corwin reported:

Near a downtown intersection, on the manicured lawn of a park across the street from City Hall, there is a small community of people who live in cardboard boxes.

Tom Kent founded the community 2 1/2 months ago. His story is not the standard holiday tale of a homeless man, temporarily down on his luck, diligently searching for work and too proud to ask for a handout.

“I haven’t looked for a real job since 1977,” he declared with a trace of pride. “Let’s face it, I’m lazy. I don’t like to work. I’d rather hang out here all day and read.”

Office workers in the area ignore him and his six neighbors. Police do not roust them because they are on state property. And the state police leave them alone, residents say, as long as they clean up their trash and do not panhandle on the property.

But for the first time since they settled in the park, their quiet way of life is threatened – and the residents are outraged.

The Homeless Organizing Team, a volunteer organization that aids residents of Skid Row, is planning a “tent city” at the small park at 1st and Spring streets. The group plans to provide shelter and food there for the homeless during the week of Christmas, said spokesman Matt Lyons.

“I don’t like the idea one bit,” said Kent, who occasionally unloads trucks at a nearby liquor store to supplement his welfare check. “Aren’t there ordinances preventing that kind of thing? We’ll have no control over who our neighbors are. All we’ll hear is: ‘Hey man, do you have any wine?’ ‘ Hey man, do you have a cigarette?’ There’ll be sponges and flakes all over the place.

“And once these people camp out here, they’ll never leave. We’re going to have to find ourselves another park.”

Kent, according to Lyons, is an exception. Few homeless people receive welfare, he said, and most would work if they could. And while Kent and his cohorts are moderately self-sufficient, there are thousands of homeless people who would benefit from a week of shelter and hot meals during the Christmas season, Lyons said.

Kent is the only resident of the cardboard community on welfare. David Rivera, who recently arrived from New York, obtained a job collecting used clothes for a Skid Row charitable agency. A man known only as “Tennessee” is a proficient panhandler. He stands on street corners, cradles a sleeping bag and in an exaggerated Southern accent tells “marks” that he is trying to collect money for a bus ticket back to Tennessee.

The other four display varying degrees of lucidity and appear unemployable. They sell their blood, occasionally beg and often live off the charity of their neighbors.

“We help each other out; we’ve got a family atmosphere here,” said Kent, 37. “If I’ve got money I buy food for others; if they have money, they buy for me.”

Most of the residents leave the park at dawn and and either buy breakfast at a doughnut shop or eat at a Skid Row mission. They return in late afternoon, bundle up on several layers of tattered clothes and blankets to ward off the cold, and scrape up money for dinner. Shortly after dark they crawl into their boxes for a night’s sleep.

Kent founded the community in late September after a patrolman rousted him from the lawn next to City Hall. The officer, Kent said, suggested that he move across the street to state property. He set up the first cardboard box, and the others soon followed.

At the foot of a gray stone wall, beside the lantana plants and red hibiscus flowers where the boxes are lined up, Ernestine Wesley has a dwelling that is coveted by her neighbors. The others sleep in flimsy, makeshift shelters made of several small boxes, held together with tape and covered with layers of plastic. But Wesley has an eight-foot-long, three-foot-wide box from a water heater that is in mint condition. She needs no tape to keep it together, the cardboard has no holes or tears, and when she puts it up at the end of the day, it stays up.

“They’ve tried to buy it, and they’ve tried to borrow it, but I’m not letting this one go,” Wesley said, patting the box. …

Dec. 1, 1984: Tom Kent reads book at his settlement across from Los Angeles City Hall at 1st and Spring Streets. This photo was published in the Dec. 7, 1984 Los Angeles Times.

Dec. 1, 1984: Tom Kent reads at his settlement across from Los Angeles City Hall at 1st and Spring Streets. Credit: Martha Hartnett/Los Angeles Times.

Kent has lived on the streets for about five years. He was raised in the San Fernando Valley, he said, attended community college for two years and worked as a computer salesman. But he became a “heavy speed freak” (amphetamine addict) and lost his job, apartment and savings. He moved to a Skid Row hotel. Then a rescue mission. Then the streets.

Now he spends his days dozing in the sun or reading books that a literate wino gives him. He uses the bathroom and water fountains in City Hall, showers at the rescue missions and picks up his mail at a liquor store where a friend works. During the last week he has read “A Flag for Sunrise” (‘entertaining but degenerated toward the end”), “The Baby Sitter” (“if it was a flick it would be a B movie”) and “First Deadly Sin” (“Lawrence Sanders is a master storyteller”). …

Kent knows he has been lucky to survive this long. A spokesman for the California Highway Patrol said “loitering” in the park is illegal, but he was not aware of any violations. So until he is forced to move, Kent will try to appreciate his surroundings and enjoy the sense of community.

“Nothing lasts forever,” Kent said with a shrug. “Hey, that’s the first thing you learn on the street.”

The tent city was erected at the park during the 1984 holidays. After its removal, the Jan. 4, 1985, Los Angeles Times reported people camping out in the park were arrested.

The “downtown park” was closed and fenced off. In 2014, the old State Building foundation was removed. Currently the corner of 1st and Spring streets is an empty lot.

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