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Skid Row dilemma: Is it wrong to use sprinklers to keep the homeless away?

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The city won't keep the sidewalks clear and clean, and you're trying to run a business. And you're not a hipster boutique that just parachuted into Skid Row a few years ago. We've got a dilemma for you.

Let's say you're a long-time business owner in downtown LA. Let's say you not only pay your taxes, but support programs that try to help the homeless.

Let's also say you've tried time and again to get the city to keep the sidewalks around your buildings clear of homeless encampments, because they hurt business.

It hasn't worked, so you use an old technique: install sprinklers that go off and make it unpleasant to camp and hang out on that particular sidewalk. Are you cringing, with images of water hoses turned on prisoners and protestors?

Steve Lee's building at 470 E. Third St., with the water sprinklers circled.
John Rabe
Steve Lee's building at 470 E. Third St., with the water sprinklers circled.

Okay, let's up the ante of this moral dilemma: Let's say you lease the building in question to a nonprofit center that - among other services - offers drug counseling to people just released from jail ... and there was drug dealing going on in the encampments on the sidewalk.

That's what's happening on LA's Skid Row at 470 E. Third St and Crocker. The business owner is Steve Lee. Eddie Kim broke the storyin the Los Angeles Downtown News:



Lee acknowledged that he installed the sprinklers and turns them on every night with the goal of clearing the sidewalks of homeless encampments. Despite that, Lee rejects the notion that he is inhumane for literally soaking homeless individuals on what is technically public property. He points to a record of trying to help the poor and struggling, including taking on county and city departments and nonprofits as tenants. Lee also has his own charitable nonprofit: The Steve and SoHyun Park Lee Foundation, which offers school grants and other assistance to low-income communities.



He is also unapologetic about his use of sprinklers as a deterrent to homeless encampments, blaming the city for allowing the homelessness crisis to spiral “out of control” and for not helping property owners keep the public spaces around their business clean and safe. “I don’t want to use sprinklers,” Lee said. “The thing is, it works. Because people get wet, and they don’t need to deal with that. You know what those homeless guys told me when I didn’t have sprinklers and asked them to please move? They told me to go [expletive] myself.” 

Listen to the audio player to hear my conversation with Eddie Kim and with Raymond, a homeless man who sets up camp just down the sidewalk from Lee's building. Raymond says he uses the sprinklers to refill his water containers (he actually prefers DWP water, after the chlorine decants away), and doesn't blame Lee: "it's a no-win situation."

By the way, yes, we're in a severe drought, but Lee told Kim the increase in his water bill is cheaper than hiring a security guard.

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