By Joel Sappell
On a recent bright Saturday afternoon, a day for play at the Eagle Rock Recreation Center, the new dog park was a swirl of fur and the picnic tables were packed with families.
Into this carefree scene wandered 64-year old Lani Johns, who lives in a homeless encampment directly across the road.
Johns haltingly jaywalked her way into the middle of Figueroa Street, her sights set on the recreation center’s public restroom. Cars zipped past in both directions as she waited for a break in the traffic. No one slowed or stopped for the slouching woman in flip-flops, a blur of a person.
In a larger sense, this is what life feels like for her and thousands of other unsheltered people across Los Angeles. As encampments have become a flashpoint for one of the most perplexing and contentious issues of the day, the people who live there say they’re reduced to stereotypes, their unique circumstances and hopes invisible.
“We really just want to be normal people. We don’t want to hurt anybody,” says Johns, a former dog groomer who says she lost her South Pasadena apartment several years ago after her mother died and her daughter moved in with a boyfriend in the Antelope Valley.
Like other residents in her Eagle Rock encampment, Johns says she grew up in the area and does not want to move downtown for the only available housing or overnight shelter.
“We love this place, just like you do,” Johns says of the neighborhood, although she admits there are plenty of bad actors living on the street. “There’s good and bad with everything,” she says.
The most recent greater Los Angeles homeless count, released in early June, has only fueled public frustration over the growing encampments and what to do about residents like Johns.
Although more than 21,000 people were housed and hundreds of millions of dollars spent in 2018, homelessness rose by 16% in the City of Los Angeles and 12% countywide. Simply put, the system could not keep pace with the numbers of people tumbling into homelessness, the result of an unprecedented affordable housing crisis, says the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, or LAHSA.
In Eagle Rock, where homelessness dominates the civic debate, there are two large encampments. One is on Figueroa, north of Colorado Boulevard. The other is under the 2 Freeway on Broadway.
In June, the Boulevard Sentinel took a deeper look at these encampments to better understand the experiences of people living on the streets and the intensified efforts of government to confront the challenges they pose. The paper spent hours talking with Eagle Rock encampment residents and interviewed key players in the fight against homelessness, including service providers, government leaders and police.
In the shadow of the 134
Residents of the Figueroa encampment know they’re not wanted.
One recent night, someone rained firecrackers on them from an overpass along the 134 Freeway. Nerves were rattled, but no one was injured. On another night, paintballs fired from a passing car just missed a number of residents.
“They think we all steal and do drugs,” says a sturdily built, self-possessed young man in his early 30s who says his name is David. “There are people living in their houses doing more drugs than we do. They’ve got their pharmaceuticals, their liquor, their Adderall.”
David says he’s been on Figueroa for more than a year, since losing his job providing home care for an older gentleman in Glendale. “This is my family now,” he says, nodding to the half-dozen or so tents along the littered sidewalk.
Standing next to David is a gaunt and dusty 34-year-old who calls himself Pedro. He says he’s been homeless for seven years. His eyes are sunken and sad. He acknowledges that he’s a heroin addict.
“One thing I do well is drugs,” he says softly. “I’ll be honest, I get bored. That’s why I do it. ”
Asked what he’d like to say to those in the neighborhood who want to see him and his encampment gone for good, Pedro responds: “I don’t care what they think or want. I’m just trying to survive.”
The two say they take care of each other in ways big and small, like others do in their homeless community. “I got the milk one day, he got the cereal,” says Pedro, as he reaches into a bag of Fruit Loops.
Pedro and David insist that contrary to perceptions, they survive not by stealing but by recycling every last can and bottle they can find.
“I’ve never worked so hard for so little,” says Pedro.
Relentlessly reaching out
For years, Monica Alcaraz has been an outreach worker in Northeast Los Angeles, first as a street-level volunteer and now, thanks to funding from the voter-approved Measure H sales tax, as a coordinator of multi-disciplinary teams through Exodus Recovery, a mental health and homeless services agency.
During that time, she says, “I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t want housing.” But getting them off the street is another matter.
The outreach teams, which offer services to people in various stages of homelessness, include a nurse, mental health clinician, substance abuse counselor and case manager, with other specialists summoned when needed. The engagement process is relentless, Alcaraz says, requiring countless visits to establish trust and momentum.
The goal is to get people indoors—whether it’s into a shelter bed, “bridge” housing for those who need temporary help getting back on their feet, or permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people with a diagnosed mental health or physical disability. Once indoors, Alcaraz says, people are more likely to access services and work to keep their housing.
The stakes are life and death.
One elderly woman, who refused repeated offers of help last year, died just feet from the baseball fields of the Eagle Rock Recreation Center. Alcaraz was there when paramedics tried to save the woman, who was at least in her 80s and had started living in a tent after losing possession of an RV.
“This is a lady who lived in Eagle Rock probably most of her life and she lost it all,” says Alcaraz.
Another resident of the Figueroa encampment, a gravely sick veteran, narrowly avoided a similar fate. Outreach workers reunited him with his family. “He looked like he was going to die,” Alcaraz says. Today, he’s living in better health with his family in Northern California.
Alcaraz also says that, over the past several years, six people from the Figueroa encampment have been successfully placed in permanent supportive housing, with more possibly on the horizon.
On Broadway, a different story
The Broadway encampment presents another set of challenges. The population there, Alcaraz says, is more fluid and less approachable—characteristics that other homeless advocates (and the Boulevard Sentinel) have encountered as well.
“It’s a different feel there,” says Alcaraz.
An older man named Andy, who was evicted from his Pasadena apartment and now lives in a small green tent at the encampment, says most people there keep to themselves because they’ve been disappointed by past offers of help and “feel judged all the time.”
The prevailing attitude, he says, is: “Who is anyone to judge us?”
Unlike the loosely structured Figueroa encampment, this one is largely run by an Eagle Rock native named Art Garza, who functions as a sort of landlord and has told outreach workers he’s not going anywhere.
In January, Garza pleaded no contest to a charge of rape of an unconscious 22-year old woman at the encampment. Under the terms of his plea, he was released for time-served—roughly the year he spent in custody awaiting trial—and was ordered to register as a sex offender.
While Garza was behind bars, the encampment largely disappeared. Now he’s back and so are nearly a dozen tents.
LAHSA, which has its own two-person engagement teams, says it visits the Broadway encampment about once a month, compared to once a week or more for the Figueroa encampment. The homeless people living on Broadway have largely rejected LAHSA’s services, says Victor Hinderliter, the agency’s associate director of access and engagement, and “we don’t push too hard.” In contrast, he says, LAHSA recently helped someone along Figueroa get into a single room occupancy hotel downtown.
Homeless advocates say that one of the biggest obstacles in getting people off the street is that many encampment residents do not want to leave communities where they were raised, have family ties and feel safer.
But in Northeast Los Angeles, like many other parts of the city, there are no overnight shelter beds and no available permanent supportive housing units in which to place them. Without neighborhood options, Alcaraz says, the encampments will not go away.
Councilman José Huizar’s office says that situation could soon be changing.
Plans are moving forward to create emergency housing in Eagle Rock for about 12 homeless families at the dormant St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on Chickasaw Avenue. Huizar has asked city financial officials to explore funding options to help LAHSA with the building’s potential conversion.
The councilman’s spokesman, Rick Coca, says “there wasn’t anybody who stood up and screamed” when the idea was discussed at an Eagle Rock community meeting on homelessness in May that drew about 100 people. It was an encouraging sign, he says, that residents are “open to a conversation” about increasing homeless housing and services in Eagle Rock.
Rules of encampment engagement
Despite growing calls for stronger action, Los Angeles authorities cannot simply dismantle encampments and oust their residents. Federal courts have ruled that people have a right to sleep on public sidewalks if there is not enough housing or shelter for them.
But local authorities can intervene to protect public health and safety. In Los Angeles, that includes sanitation sweeps, which, under municipal codes, must be posted at least 24 hours in advance so encampment residents have time to remove their belongings.
Prior to any cleanup, LAHSA representatives are required to visit the encampment and verify that residents have been offered services.
The most recent records available show that sanitation crews visited the Figueroa encampment nearly 20 times between March 2017, and the end of January 2019. They visited the Broadway encampment, which is generally cleaner, 11 times during that span.
Teams led by the Los Angeles Police Department also are authorized to make “rapid response” interventions without advance notice to remove unsafe or oversized belongings and to ensure 36-inches of sidewalk passage, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In recent weeks, however, as encampment conditions have rocketed to the forefront of the homeless debate, city and county leaders have conceded that more needs to be done. And quickly.
On June 7, the county’s public health officer informed Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office that toilets and hand-washing stations must be placed at encampments to reduce the potential spread of disease. City sanitation officials, meanwhile, have vowed to intensify cleanups and seek funding for mobile bathrooms and trash bins.
At the recent Eagle Rock community meeting on homelessness, attendees were asked to prioritize services they’d like to see and possible locations for them. Topping the list were mobile toilets and showers, with one favored location being an Eagle Rock Recreation Center parking lot a short walk from the Figueroa encampment.
Huizar’s office says that before committing to the recommendations, the councilman is awaiting results of the “Pit Stop” pilot program he has championed, which has placed attended mobile bathrooms at five locations across the city. At that point, he’ll share the information with Eagle Rock stakeholders “so we can make a collective decision on what serves the community best,” says Coca.
Uneasy neighbors come face-to-face
Senior lead officer Fernando Ochoa of the LAPD says he gets a pretty good sense of public attitudes towards Eagle Rock’s encampments when he accompanies sanitation crews on sweeps.
“Out of ten cars that go by,” he says, “seven will give you a thumbs up. The other three, they’ll give you the other finger and tell you to leave them alone.”
Increasingly, Ochoa says, officers are caught between neighborhood complaints and legal restraints—especially when it comes to the Figueroa encampment, which shares close quarters with the popular Eagle Rock Recreation Center. Ochoa says needles have been found throughout the city-owned park—on the playground, the ball fields, the picnic areas.
Ochoa says narcotics use is endemic to the encampments. But to arrest someone for drugs, there must be an outstanding warrant, he says. Otherwise, police can only write a citation to appear in court and book the drugs as evidence.
“The public can’t believe that if we come across someone with heroin, we can’t take them to jail,” Ochoa says.
Ochoa and others say complaints about the encampment escalated in May after the long-awaited opening of the dog park. To get inside the entrance on Figueroa’s west side, visitors unhappily found themselves sidestepping tents and trash on the sidewalk.
Angry complaints already had been flowing in to Huizar’s office from teachers and parents of a nearby charter school whose students were regularly navigating the encampment to enter the adjacent recreation center sports fields for their physical education.
Alcaraz says she knew the dog park’s opening—and the public’s sudden close encounter with Eagle Rock’s homeless population—was going to be an issue.
“Oh my God,” she quotes dog owners as saying, “I have to walk through this? My dog has to walk through this?”
To help resolve the impasse, Alcaraz says, she encouraged encampment residents on Figueroa’s west side, nearest the dog park, to move and join the tents on the other side of the street. “Let the sidewalk be clear,” she urged them. Today, with that sidewalk empty and clean, “the complaints have gone down,” she says.
On a grander scale, of course, the Figueroa détente “is a small sort of thing,” says Huizar spokesman Coca. “But for people living their lives, whether it’s the homeless people or people trying to watch out for their kids, we found a little compromise we can work with and build on.”
Call it a work in progress.
Recently, a new complaint surfaced about a shoeless encampment resident named Jason, who’s been passing time on the dog park’s new benches. Officer Ochoa says some park-goers “didn’t like him touching their dogs.” Ochoa used it as a teachable moment.
“Unless he’s committing a crime,” Ochoa says he told them, “we can’t tell him to leave, we can’t write him a citation, we can’t arrest him for just sitting there and we can’t force him to leave the dogs alone.”
“I just can’t go to Skid Row”
Lani Johns is undertaking her own encampment sweep.
A young man from Highland Park, Bernardo, who says he sometimes helps the homeless people along Figueroa, has just delivered a new broom to Johns, and she’s wasting no time attacking the sidewalk and gutter.
Johns may not have a house, but she takes pride in her home.
On this particular June day, Alcaraz has come to the encampment, too. Outreach workers have been gently coaxing Johns for months. She tells Johns that there may be housing for her downtown. Johns says she’ll take a look.
But later, talking to a reporter while tightly hugging her beloved Chihuahua, Apple, she says, “I just can’t go to Skid Row. I’m a tough old bird, but I’m not Skid Row tough.”
She’s also worried about what might become of one of her two daughters, who, confronting personal and financial problems, left her Antelope Valley boyfriend and has now been living in her own tent at the encampment for several months.
“It’s hard to talk about,” Johns say. She says she’s just grateful that, despite everything, her two girls are still in her life. “I’m so proud I never lost my kids to the system.”
As Johns talks and tidies, a gleaming gray Maserati comes to a fast stop along the painted island on Figueroa. The juxtaposition of car and encampment is jarring.
The driver, whose arms and neck are covered in colorful ink, waves Bernardo over. In less than a minute, the Maserati has roared back into traffic and Bernardo has returned to the curb—with a $100 bill.
He quotes the Good Samaritan as saying, “Look, just take care of some of the people over there.”
Johns, who has moved down the street, broom in hand, is unaware of the unfolding events. Bernardo calls out to her. “Come on! Come with me!”
“Where we going?” she shouts back.
“We’re going to the market,” he says.
With that, the two cross the street, climb into Bernardo’s small blue Nissan and disappear along Figueroa Street.
Joel Sappell, a former reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times, lives in Eagle Rock.