Thirteen-year-old Kevin Cedano steps onto the stoop of the Ohio Hotel.
“Watch out for the doo-doo.”
The words tumble out through the peach fuzz on Kevin’s upper lip. They come with no hint of judgment, or pain. He might as well be warning you about a pothole or a low-lying tree branch, though the deposit has been left outside his home, and not by a dog but a woman in a blue cardigan who is now toddling off down Ceres Avenue in Los Angeles.
Kevin lives on skid row, where the streets, despite the recent efforts of the Los Angeles Police Department, remain littered with the detritus of failure and addiction and poverty—half-eaten cans of baked beans; spilled suitcases; the occasional corpse.
It seems almost frivolous to worry about playtime. But kids must be kids, even here. So over the last two months, city officials, skid row advocates and police have hatched a plan that seems radical only here: to let children play in a park, once a week.
These days, scores of homeless people and addicts gather there in relative peace, to sleep, to play cards. But at times, the park has degenerated into a “crime orgy,” said LAPD Officer Deon Joseph, who has spent 10 years patrolling skid row. Not long ago, a heroin enterprise left behind piles of colored balloons used to package drugs.
Now, on Friday afternoons, a phalanx of police cars pulls up to the park shortly after noon.
Adults are cleared out. Officers pick over every blade in the tiny section of grass, on a hill overlooking a colorful mural and six palm trees, to make sure there aren’t any stray syringes. Then they open the green iron gates, this time for kids only.
“They don’t have any place to play,” Joseph said. “This is one place for them to come and get away from everything.”
Still, the district’s 50 square blocks are believed to be home to 400 registered sex offenders and 3,000 people on probation or parole for violent crimes or drug charges. According to some estimates, though no one knows for sure, half the residents have some form of mental illness. Just a few blocks from Kevin’s hotel, there is a woman known to all as the Doctor because she can find a vein for intravenous drugs when even the most hardened junkie has given up.
Authorities concluded long ago that this was no place for a kid to grow up. But even though hundreds have been relocated in recent years, there are still at least 150 children on skid row. For many, the future is dark.
Even now, a hand-written sign next to the front desk, just a few feet from Kevin’s apartment, is meant to ward off troublemakers: “Sí, su visita es problemática.” Yes, your visit causes a problem.
Outside, it’s no better.
“¡Todos son animales!” a tiny, hunched woman, clearly mentally ill, screamed at Kevin one recent afternoon after he walked outside. “You’re all animals!”
It’s not easy, officials have found, convincing kids who’ve been effectively home-bound that they can suddenly start playing outside.
“What are you up to?” asked Officer Stephen Nichols, 49, an 11-year LAPD veteran and one of the officers overseeing the program.
“Nothing,” Kevin said quietly.
“Well,” Nichols said, “hang out for a while. This is your park.”
Kevin plopped down on a bench, not bothering to take off his backpack, not convinced that there was anything for him here.
Soon, a few more kids filed in, then more, until there were 65 kids inside, a few whom Kevin knew from school.
Someone started a blacktop soccer game.
“¡En tu masca!” shouted the lanky boy who scored the goals. It’s a colloquialism they use to one-up one another; it translates loosely to “In your face.”