Los Angeles Crack users openly suck on glass pipes, gang members deal drugs on sidewalks and streets are speckled with human feces.
Yet the Los Angeles Police Department and some people who live and work on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles - the city with the nation's largest population of homeless people - say that crime is dropping and that the streets are safer and cleaner than they were just two years ago.
They credit the turnaround to a police crackdown launched 18 months ago and call it a rare success in dealing with homelessness, one of the most troubling social problems facing urban areas nationwide.
"We wanted to restore order to what was one of the most chaotic areas," said Cmdr. Andrew Smith, who supervised police in Skid Row until a recent transfer. "It's completely transformed."
Prompted in part by a downtown real estate boom that brought luxury condos to the doorstep of Skid Row, the $6 million-a-year Safer City Initiative put 50 extra officers on the streets to target drug dealers and enforce laws that forbid jaywalking and camping, sitting or sleeping on sidewalks.
There are now 375 police officers assigned to the dilapidated neighborhood spanning about a square mile on the east side of downtown. In 2007, police handled 1,132 reported crimes, a decrease of 27 percent from the 1,551 crimes reported in 2006.
Despite the drop, the effort has been derided by the American Civil Liberties Union and other activists who say it unfairly targets the homeless - many of whom are mentally disabled - and forces them out of the city or into jail.
Gary Blasi, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a report in September showing police issued about 12,000 citations in the first year of the effort, with the majority for "walk/don't walk" traffic signal violations.
That's 69 times the rate that comparable citations are issued citywide, he said.
"I don't believe it was intended to reduce the amount of jaywalking," he said.
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU's Southern California branch, said the citations often go unpaid, leading to arrest warrants and jail time.
The Los Angeles Community Action Network, an advocacy group for the homeless, has sent volunteers armed with video cameras into the streets to watch for police abuse.
"They are coming down here and wiping the streets clean," said Joe Thomas, a homeless activist who volunteers for the group.
Changes on Skid Row
So far this year, violent crime is at the same level as 2007, and property crime has edged up - though it's still lower than the days before the crackdown, said Capt. Jodi Wakefield, who runs the LAPD's central area station, a windowless, bunker-like building in the middle of Skid Row.
And though many homeless people still crash on sidewalks, often after days and nights of drug use, the crackdown has had a noticeable effect.
Towne Avenue is a case in point. The street was once lined day and night with tents, with some occupied by drug sellers and users. Now, only a handful of people sit on the sidewalks. Delivery trucks make their rounds, and cars park along the curbs.
That may have an unintended effect: Wakefield attributed the bump in property crimes to more parked cars, which tempt thieves with the electronic gadgets inside.
Tents are still allowed at night, a compromise that resulted when the ACLU sued the city.
"Although it's filthy now, this place has been filthier," said Constance Bonaparte, who has been homeless on Skid Row several times in the past 10 years.
Then and now
It's a big change from the days when Skid Row was an open-air drug den, Smith said. He recalled how one homeless man had caught and grilled a stray dog as a meal.
"It was like Mardi Gras on crack," he said. "A guy shooting up heroin hardly got a second look, because (officers) were so busy rushing down the street to the call with the guy who got his head bashed in."
An estimated 40,000 homeless people now live in Los Angeles, Blasi said. There are 5,686 beds in missions and emergency shelters in Skid Row, and the facilities are full every night, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
Hundreds of people mill along the streets after being turned out of the facilities for the day. The fire team is one of the busiest in the nation. Sirens still blare frequently as crews tend to drug overdose cases.
Police figures show the number of people sleeping on Skid Row's streets at night has dropped from about 1,800 to 780 as a result of the enforcement effort.
Raymond Arnold, 46, an admitted crack user, has mixed feelings about the enforcement effort. He said he feels safer from dealers but complained it's tougher to find drugs.
Sitting on a blanket and lighting a pipe, Arnold said that he comes from a family of law enforcers in Arkansas, but that his drug habit has led him in prison several times and left him homeless.
"I want to get help, but the question is, do I really want it?" Arnold said. "Sometimes you just don't stop until your body just quits."
LAPD Officer Deon Joseph has patrolled Skid Row for a decade and has grown used to accusations of police abuse. On a recent foot patrol, he was shadowed by an observer with a video camera.
A burly man with bulging arms and a no-nonsense manner, Joseph is well-known on Skid Row, and many people greet him by name. He acknowledged the area has a long way to go but insisted police can prevent serious crimes by enforcing simple rules.
"If you let them sit, they're going to smoke. If you let them smoke, they're going to sell," Joseph said. "When you let one form of lawlessness get out of hand, it causes other forms to take its place and get stronger and stronger."