STEVE LOPEZ / POINTS WEST

Now Comes the Heavy Lifting

Thousands have no health insurance, and their children go to schools with high dropout rates.

If you've got money and become addicted or mentally ill, you've got a chance at quality care. But if you're scraping to get by and become addicted or mentally ill, it can be a ticket to skid row.

"The real issue is that people don't have enough money," says Paul Tepper of skid row's Weingart Center. "It would be cheaper to help someone as they're falling off the edge rather than wait until they've plummeted onto skid row."

If we're going to start waving magic wands, I'd like to shake one at the disastrous clustering of so many services in one place, as has happened on skid row. It's created a human corral. Anyone who wants help has to go through hell to get it.

To give you an example, Nathaniel has no addiction problem and in fact is disgusted by the drug trade. But to get to Lamp, an agency for the mentally ill homeless, he has to walk the street one prostitute called " 'Escape From New York,' without Kurt Russell."

At one end is a set of Porta Pottis used as a brothel. As he makes his way down the street, Nathaniel passes the drug-ravaged masses, some of whom you have to look at twice to see if they're breathing. Fights break out, dealers talk business.

At the other corner are fleets of wheelchairs carrying the victims of forgotten wars, and just across that block are the paramedics who picked up the dying junkie.

Chief Bratton assures me the police are on the case. I hope so, because although they can't solve the social problems that created that scene, they can at least make sure a city street one block from a police station isn't turned into a brazen, lawless caldron of drug dealing and prostitution.

Come on, a guy shot up in front of the mayor, for god's sake. It's entirely out of control, and a threat to the children who get dragged onto these streets.

As for the mental illness aspect of the problem, when new services become available under Prop. 63, they need to be scattered precisely where you and the guy down the street don't want them to be.

In your neighborhood.

This would alleviate the kind of massive encampments you see now on skid row -- where people get seduced by the very demons they go there to escape.

Sometimes I wonder how Nathaniel has survived as long as he has, though I know it's partly because of the good-hearted people who do brave work on skid row watching out for the likes of him.

If despite such efforts Nathaniel doesn't get out and find a better life, I'd like to think it's possible for him to one day at least have a safer and more humane environment.

"I mean, that almost looked like Bombay or something, except with more violence," Villaraigosa says of his two trips to skid row last week.

"There is no place [in the city] where the chaos and the degradation are as pronounced. You see a complete breakdown of society."

Yes, and it's utterly unacceptable.

Now fix it.

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Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez.

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