If you wandered onto the corner of 5th and San Pedro Streets in Downtown L.A.’s Skid Row neighborhood about 10 days ago, you couldn’t have missed The White House—a glammed-out tent structure replete with a queen bed, jacuzzi (with shower), and gas stove. The tent’s owner, Stephanie Arnold Williams, had been meticulously building and maintaining the structure over the last decade while living on Skid Row. She even put the tent on a wheeled wooden platform, to clean underneath it regularly.
Wow #SkidRow pic.twitter.com/U2j9K6v1DU
— 2UrbanGirls (@2UrbanGirls) February 5, 2023
Recently, word of Williams’ White House quickly swept the neighborhood—and via a viral video and tweet, the internet—causing a stir in the community. But on Feb. 13, the White House was demolished during an LAPD-accompanied early morning Sanitation & Environment sweep—one that the department has called a “routine cleanup.”
“They targeted me. They came straight to me with bulldozers. That’s not a routine cleanup to come with a bulldozer,” Williams told LAMag this week. They didn’t offer me housing. They didn’t offer me anything. They took my blankets, my contact lenses, all my food. They threw away pots and pans and cups and things I needed to eat.”
Williams said that she spent most of the 30-minute notice she was given to vacate begging an attending LAPD officer for an alternative solution—either to move the structure around the block or to at least give her some time to sort out her situation. The people living in the tents located across the street from The White House were given two weeks’ notice to vacate.
“I said to [the officer]: ‘What do you want me to do now? What do you want the homeless to do? You want us to lay on the ground?’ So I lay on the ground for him. I just laid on the ground while the reporters took pictures,” she said.
Born in Indianapolis, Williams arrived in L.A. in 2013 to pursue a career in fashion, leaving behind her three adult children in Indiana. At first, the grandmother of eight found herself living in an emergency services shelter for six months before she landed on Skid Row, where roughly 8000 residents make up one of the largest stable populations of unhoused people in the nation. where she used her sewing skills to make special pillows and perform alterations. She said that over the years, she’s watched others obtain housing and move off Skid Row. Some asked her to join them. But she decided to stay after witnessing the inequity and conditions on Skid Row. She’s since become a vocal advocate for the community.
“I had nowhere to go, so I came to live on Skid Row,” she said. “While I was here, I witnessed the police officers kill a brother in his tent. That moment was when I decided that I needed to be a full-time freedom fighter… to come here and record the police and see what they’re doing.”
Now Williams is a key Skid Row personality. Area residents and other community activists dropped by to greet her over the course of our interview.
“They respect me. I’ve earned my seniority,” explains Williams, who’s known by some as “the Governor,” and Mama Stephanie. “I provide tents around me while people are waiting for housing. There are also protesters and a community watch team that help watch the community. And we’re our own security.”
She came up with a solution to the unsanitary conditions of tents on the sidewalk by repurposing a wheeled platform, which she obtained from a nearby community center. It’s not just the city not accepting this solution that frustrates Williams, it’s the total inaction on a range of issues facing L.A.’s unhoused population.
“I put wheels on my house so that you can clean underneath. I’m the one that gets on my hands and knees and scrubs this ground with a mop. I use a toothbrush to get into cracks. There’s not even a cigarette butt on this ground. I’m the best cleaner. I had a solution,” she says. “I called my place the White House because the government’s not doing their job properly. And I’m here to show them how it’s done. Those guys did not think of an idea. They don’t have a plan.”
Our interview is interrupted by the arrival of Jarvis Emerson, a representative from the Mayor’s Office of City Homelessness. He’s come by the remnants of the White House to speak with its former owner. Emerson told Williams he was in shock and “had nothing to do with” the demolition. Below is a transcription of a piece of their conversation.
Williams: I’m mad at you, Jarvis.
Emerson: Why are you mad at me? Because I’m trying…
Williams: I’ve been asking you for how many years? You could have stopped this, you could have helped me.
Emerson: I’m telling you I did not know.
Williams: You could have helped me and prevented it. You could have given me electricity and water; I could have said it came from you.
Emerson: Let me tell you–- everything that you’ve asked me for. I’m definitely trying, I’ve been trying so…
Williams: Trying? These people are in desperate need right now.
Emerson: I do ask, I do ask!
Williams: And what do they say?
Emerson: I’ve got to go through different departments… and so it’s not a thing where I can just–…
Williams: So we have to help ourselves…
Towards the end of the conversation, Williams told Emerson: “We’re in a real state of emergency. We’ve got to get these tents off the ground… If you can’t help me right now, you aren’t helping.”
Since her home was destroyed, Williams is temporarily staying in a hotel. She doesn’t plan to resurrect the White House, though. Her future home is likely more permanent, a “tiny home” structure she owns in a parking lot near the corner of 5th and San Pedro, where the White House used to be found. Despite the systemic social issues contributing to the current housing crisis—of which she is well aware—she says that in lieu of providing meaningful solutions, the city should leave Skid Row residents in peace.
“People are always going to be homeless. There’s always going to be evictions, there’s always gonna be somebody who can’t pay their rent,” Williams proclaims. “You’ve got to fill out an application and have credit, and have three rent receipts and all this stuff to qualify [for housing]. You can’t just lay your head down. Some people don’t qualify to lay their head down. And so that’s why there’s a Skid Row. If you can’t help us, then you have to leave Skid Row alone.”
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