L.A. boosts cleanups of homeless encampments
But number of sites has changed little, data show
Los Angeles public works crews have cleaned up 16,500 homeless encampments since 2015, removing more than 3,000 tons of trash.
But the $14-million citywide cleanup effort — increasing dramatically since it was launched — has made only a marginal difference in the number of encampments across the city’s sidewalks, alleys and riverbanks, a Times review found.
Inspectors for the city’s CleanStat program recorded 365 blocks with encampments at the end of last year, a 12% decline from the beginning of 2016. But other records suggested that after being cleaned, hundreds of encampments simply reformed elsewhere, usually nearby. Meanwhile, the city reported an 18% increase this year in those living on the streets.
Driven largely by complaints, the cleanups have become recurring dramas in areas favored by homeless campers — frustrating some residents who mistakenly may think that the city’s goal is to evict the street dwellers.
Officials say it is only incidental that homeless people are displaced by the cleanups, which increased sevenfold last year over 2015. The increase effectively established a new city service — trash collection for people who live outdoors.
While residents and business owners may argue that the encampments should be permanently removed, legal
settlements obtained by homeless advocates prevent city officials from confiscating homeless people’s tents and other personal property, or evicting those who have nowhere else to go.
With those constraints, public health officials define their purpose narrowly as protecting public health and safety, and follow a stringent protocol to ensure that street dwellers can remove their valuables before the crews arrive.
Public works officials defended the city’s spending on the homeless cleanup effort, even though its impact may be hard to see.
“What might have happened had we not spent that money?” said Kevin James, president of the Board of Public Works. “Who might have ended up in an unsafe situation because of hazardous material or where someone is forced to walk into the street? … The money is well spent.”
But some business owners wondered if the city’s efforts have been futile as they watch the steady carousel of homeless people who are moved from boulevard medians and beneath freeway overpasses only to return in days or weeks.
“[Work crews] clean up and they come right back,” said Joreen Chism, owner of LBI’s Platinum Shears hair salon in North Hills. “It’s just a never-ending cycle. You’d think they would come and find a place for them, but they don’t. They just tell them to move.”
Around the corner from the salon, more than 140 cleanups have been conducted along Nordhoff Street near the 405 Freeway — among the most in L.A. for a single area, records show.
Citywide, nearly a quarter of homeless encampment cleanups occurred within 500 feet of a freeway, many along the 405 in the San Fernando Valley, the 101 in Hollywood and the 110 in South L.A.
On a chilly morning in early May, Jeannine Tantin, 50, was packing her tent below the 405-118 freeway interchange in Mission Hills.
The previous night, she had slept in a nearby underpass where crews have conducted more than a dozen cleanups. She said she usually moves her belongings before cleanup crews arrive and often returns to the area for the shelter.
“They don’t really clean an area,” Tantin said. “They just take people’s stuff.”
Public Works Commissioner Heather Repenning said even if homeless people return to the same locations after cleanups, those areas are safer overall because of the city’s work.
“Part of the homeless crisis is managing people who are living outdoors, and part of managing that is making sure the basic public health levels are met and that people have outreach done to them so they can know how to access services,” she said.
Pleas for service
Some in the city frequently report homeless encampments, hoping the city will clean up the areas that often become sullied with litter and human waste.
Teri Markson, senior librarian at the Panorama City branch, has called the city’s 311 line multiple times to request that encampments be cleared from the east side of the library. She has also called the local council office and the Los Angeles Police Department for assistance in the neighborhood, where crews have completed nearly 500 cleanups.
“I do it all. Whoever gets here first,” she said.
After weeks of calls and emails, city crews removed encampment structures and carts near the library in April, but Markson arrived to work two weeks later to find a new encampment next to the building.
“Every library has an open-door policy. Our issue is not having them use the library; it’s the camping,” she said.
City’s overall plan
The cleanups are part of a $100-million effort promised in 2015 to address the increase of homelessness in L.A., a problem that officials described as a “state of emergency.”
Since then, city voters have approved a $1.2-billion bond to speed the construction of housing for the homeless, and county voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase to raise $355 million a year to fund a 10-year plan to reduce homelessness. But cleanups will most likely continue for years before those efforts take hold.
When the cleanup effort started in 2015, areas where many of the city’s homeless inhabitants reside — such as the Arroyo Seco, Tujunga Wash and countless alleyways and sidewalks — hadn’t been cleared of garbage and bulky items for years, neighbors said.
City crews caught up with a backlog last March, recording 429 cleanups in a single day. Some locations have been cleaned repeatedly.
Councilman Jose Huizar’s downtown district, which includes skid row, led the city with nearly 900 tons
JEANNINE TANTIN clears out her possessions in May near the interchange of the 405 and 118 freeways in Mission Hills. “They don’t really clean an area,” she said of cleanup crews. “They just take people’s stuff.”
BIOWASTE WORKERS remove and dispose of chemicals, human waste and sharp objects during a May cleanup in Los Angeles.
SANITATION workers must provide each homeless person a 60-gallon bag to collect his or her belongings.