By Stephen Samaniego and Jason Carroll, CNN
It's a haven for crime and the homeless sitting just blocks away from a downtown metropolis. They come from all walks of life after hitting rock bottom and having nowhere else to turn. This is Skid Row in Los Angeles.
"Not only are the people homeless, they're hopeless," says Skid Row resident and activist Jeff Page. Three years ago after his career as a rap promoter fizzled and he ran out of money and options, Page made the difficult decision to move to Skid Row. When he arrived a mission for the homeless became his new home.
Once he spent some time on Skid Row, the reality of the place began to resonate. "To actually be in the community for a long extended period of time and actually see day after day after day the living conditions of the people here and how deplorable the conditions were," says Page, "it really started to sink home how close I was on that fine line to becoming one of them."
Page launched a one-man campaign to turn not only his life, but also his new world around. Starting small, he became the self-appointed security guard for his mission. After getting positive feedback from residents, he took his ambitions to the streets.
He started organizing street clean-ups and mural paintings and getting the community involved with his cause. He eventually founded his group, "Issues and Solutions." Immersing himself in the Skid Row community, Page developed a reputation as a person you could approach with a problem and no matter how big or small, he would listen and try and help. That helped him earn his nickname, "General Jeff."
Now, he is so well-known that he can't walk down the street without being approached. As we walked with Page, a homeless man approached him and said, "I know you, I've seen you from the newspaper. General!" Almost jumping out of his shoes with excitement, Page stuck out his hand and replied, "Yeah! Hey hey!" The two strolled together and Page listened patiently to the man's latest issue with a shelter. Page promised to follow up with the man as soon as our cameras were gone.
This kind of connection with the community led to "General Jeff" running a successful campaign for the The Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. Elected two years ago with more than double the votes of any other candidate, he is L.A.'s only homeless public official. "I'm determined to succeed, I'm a finisher," Page states confidently. "So I will see this through no matter what the odds."
But the odds are stacked against the "General." According to the Los Angeles Police Department, in 2009 there were almost 1,000 violent crimes and over 13,000 arrests in Skid Row and its surrounding area. While crime overall is down, it’s still a dangerous place to visit let alone live. We witnessed blatant drug use and there was constant police activity. Page is under no illusions. "We look at it is we're in the early stages, beginning stages of the transition period."
Since his election, Page has been able to establish a relationship with city officials, putting a spotlight on Skid Row. He has successfully lobbied for shelters to accommodate families and better relations between the police and the community. He even organized a basketball tournament where residents take on the police.
His proudest accomplishment though is the renovation of Glady's park. Before the renovation, "it was like drug dealing, prostitution you know, murders, and beat downs," according to Page. He used his old sales skills as a promoter and got sponsorship from Nike to return the park to the people. They put in a new basketball court that is made from the old soles of basketball shoes, new benches, chess tables and a planted area with grass, trees and flowers. The General says, "It jump started the community and it brought, breathed a whole lotta life to our positive movement."
The General's accomplishments are not going unnoticed either. Even the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, is paying attention.
"People like 'General Jeff' are saying we need more," said Villaraigosa. "He's right we need to provide for a safety net to address the hunger and homelessness."
Much like his own life, Skid Row still has a long road ahead but the "General" is optimistic. He believes in himself and believes in the community around him. "I'm here trying to plant roots and I'm trying to establish this as a community just like any other place in America."