L.A. boosts cleanups of home­less en­camp­ments

But num­ber of sites has changed lit­tle, data show

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Ben Pos­ton and Doug Smith

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

Chris­tian K. Lee Los An­ge­les Times

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.”

Pho­to­graphs by Chris­tian K. Lee Los An­ge­les Times

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.

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