Amid Skid Row bedlam, activist makes a difference

AP News
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Posted: Nov 30, 2009 3:35 AM

Jeff Page barely walks half a block along Skid Row's teeming streets before he's waved down by someone with a problem _ taco trucks parked in front of a restaurant, drug dealing in a residential hotel or just a case of hard-luck blues.

In this neighborhood awash in woe, there's no shortage of tasks for Page, better known as "General Jeff" _ Skid Row's go-to-guy who's made it his mission to turn the squalid, square-mile neighborhood into a decent place to live.

"The bottom of the barrel doesn't have to be that deep," said Page, whose 6-foot-4 frame makes him easy to spot as he strides down the sidewalk where's he constantly stopping to greet people with a knucklebump and a "how ya doin,' brother?" "We're trying to get people to see this is a community, that people are putting down roots."

Fashioning a community out of chaos and neglect is no mean feat.

Skid Row houses the nation's densest concentration of homeless people, mostly addicts, parolees, the mentally ill and disabled. Some 700 people bed down nightly on trash-strewn sidewalks that stink of urine while thousands of others pour into rescue missions, seedy hotels and transitional apartments.

During the day, the street is their refuge. A man slashing himself with a knife, a woman baring her chest and and people spewing epithets into the air pass for normalcy. Police maintain a heavy presence.

For Page, who speaks animatedly with emphatic hand gestures slicing the air, that's the "broad stroke" of Skid Row. Behind the bedlam, he said, lies a vibrant community of people who have made the destination of last resort their home.

Page, 44, is one of them. A former South Los Angeles rapper who now lives on disability for mental and physical illness, he landed at the Union Rescue Mission three years ago after falling on hard times. "I thought, 'How can human beings live like this? I'm not going to be here long'," he recalled.

That was before Page found new purpose by transforming "General Jeff" _ a nickname dating to his high school basketball days _ into the man that many say is the de facto "mayor of Skid Row."

Dressed in a tie and suit vest with velveteen slippers and the ever present cap on his head, Page patrols the neighborhood, jotting down broken street lights, clogged storm drains and trash piles. Then he fires off emails to city agencies on computers borrowed around town. He gets not only answers, but action.

When the city first fixed lights and drains after his complaints, he was amazed _ and empowered _ to press on. "That was pretty big," he said.

Now everybody, it seems, knows General Jeff, from city officials to those who sleep on the sidewalk next to their shopping carts. "There are three shifts here _ day, night and midnight," said Page, who never seems to run out of energy. "I make it my business to know the people on every shift."

A man approaches asking Page to intervene on behalf of tenants who want to use a community room in their building, a woman asks him to help her cut red tape to see her kids in foster care. He listens without judging _ many Skid Row residents are entangled with the law or social welfare agencies.

"She's not good with her words," Page explains. "So I help her out. There are a lot of things in the system that frustrate people and lead them to escape to drugs and alcohol."

Page weaves through the crowd lining up for a meal at the Midnight Mission and bounds by a building owned by the Skid Row Housing Trust, which runs small apartments for the homeless. Earlier this year, he intervened for a group of residents who wanted the trust to waive overnight guest fees. The trust is trying out the new policy on a trial basis, said Molly Rysman, special projects director.

He hasn't been as successful with other projects. He points to horse droppings on the street from police mounted patrols. He's written letters asking the cops to clean up the street or diaper their horses, but it was no go. "They said it's just hay and water," Page said, rolling his eyes.

Page launched his civic action by taking charge of security at the apartment building for the homeless he moved into, then joined a project to clean up Skid Row's Gladys Park, a smidgeon of greenery shoehorned into a block corner like an afterthought.

Page got Nike Inc. the LA84 Foundation and the city to revamp the park with a basketball court, bleachers and equipment, as well as exercise bars, chess tables and water fountains.

The park project led to Page's election as a Skid Row representative on the Downtown LA Neighborhood Council with 35 votes _ more than his three challengers combined, he noted with obvious pride. The council, one of 88 throughout LA, distributes $50,000 a year for community projects.

Page has extended that role to be a Skid Row advocate at public meetings ranging from a hearing on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's plan for a downtown rail extension to a Los Angeles school board session on educating homeless kids. He's got a beeline into City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district encompasses Skid Row. "I like working with him," Perry said with a chuckle.

Page ends his day at Skid Row karaoke night. A rag tag crowd packs a church community room, some decked out in their best duds, others barely dressed at all. They take turns wailing into a microphone as others sing, twirl and gyrate.

It's not long before Page gets a call: a resident of a homeless apartment building says employees are dealing drugs to tenants. Page snaps closed his cell phone. "This is not a sprint. This is a marathon."