The new board and officers of the La Brea-Hancock Homeowners Association lost no time in jumping into serious business at their first post-election meeting this past Tuesday, March 20. In fact, aside from a quick election of new officers for the coming year, the meeting was devoted to a single issue: a large, wide-ranging discussion of how to deal with the recent proliferation of large homeless camps in the neighborhood.
LBHHA President Tammy Rosato organized the session, which included association board members, other neighbors, and representatives from City Council Member David Ryu’s office, LAPD, a homeless outreach organization, and owners of local commercial properties where the camps have been set up.
As Rosato explained in her introduction at the meeting, the discussion was prompted by the recent appearance of a number of large camps set up in the parking lot behind the currently vacant former GM automotive dealership (and, later, ACE Museum) at 400 S. La Brea. According to Rosato, the camps began popping up there (and at other residential and commercial locations in the neighborhood) after a recent sweep of homeless camps in Pan Pacific Park…a pattern that has also occurred after past police clearances of both Pan Pacific and nearby Poinsettia Parks.
Rosato went on to say that while many people and city agencies have tried to help the individuals involved, most city shelters are full. And even City Council Member David Ryu has also tried to help, he has not yet been able to place any of the affected people into supportive housing.
Rosato said the city is currently overwhelmed by need, however, and though new housing will be funded by the recent passage of measures H and HHH, it will take 5-10 years to complete those units. And we already have 15,000 people without homes in our part of the city (with more than 55,000 city-wide), a number which is up by 25% in just the last year and still growing.
Rosato said she organized Tuesday’s meeting not to complain about the recent camps in the neighborhood, but in the hope that by bringing neighbors, property owners and city personnel together, they can begin to figure out how to both help the people who need it, and how to protect the neighborhood.
LAPD Senior Lead Officer Dave Cordova said he began receiving reports about the new camps at the La Brea location a week ago last Friday, when he was out of the office. When he returned on Monday, he contacted the property owners, who quickly hired an additional security guard and began trying to clean things up. Cordova complimented the cooperation of the neighbors, property owners/managers, and the security personnel, saying, “They’re doing their job and being responsible to the community.” “They made our [LAPD’s] job a lot easier,” he said.
Cordova said by this past Monday, just a bit more than a week after the first reports came in, there were only two large camps left on the property. The people in those tents were given until 5 a.m. on Tuesday to leave, and they were gone by then. Cordova also noted, however, that the people who were forced to leave this location will now go somewhere else in the area (just as they did after the park sweep), which is why this is such a difficult problem to deal with. (In fact, several neighbors reported that another tent had appeared, just that afternoon, on the 400 block of S. Sycamore Ave., just outside the fence around the parking lot where the previous camps were located. As of this writing, however, that tent, too, is now gone.)
Other attendees noted that while the camps at the old car dealership were the biggest, most recent manifestation of the problem in the neighborhood, there have been many other, ongoing incidents. For example, Jean Robaire, who owns the currently vacant building that formerly housed the Ca’ Brea restaurant on La Brea, said that building has been taken over by squatters who have trashed the property and are preventing him from entering or showing the location to potential tenants. Robaire said he has cleared the building several times, and secured the exterior as well as he can, but people keep finding a way in, most recently through a very small opening on the roof. Robaire said he has also tried turning off the power, to help make the building less attractive to those seeking shelter, but he can’t turn it off completely because he still needs to light the parking lot at night.
Robaire said squatters have also been a problem in the garage of a rental home he owns at 401 S. Sycamore, right behind 400 S. La Brea, where people also broke in and set up camp, even running a TV off the power there.
Larger Issues and Complications
As the discussion continued, the various attendees provided detailed information on why it’s so hard to remove people and their belongings from private property…and why it’s so hard to connect those in need with services that can truly help them.
First of all, in response to a question about demographics, Rosato said people are without homes for many different reasons. Also, each individual’s situation is unique, so there is no single cause…or solution. In general, however, Rosato said, recent counts show that among LA residents without homes:
- 25% are chronically homeless
- 9% are veterans
- 33% are mentally ill
- 24% have substance issues
- 4% have HIV/AIDS
- …and many of the rest are women and children fleeing troubled domestic situations (including abuse, LGBTQ kids kicked out of their parents’ homes, and former foster kids who have aged out of the system at 18)
Rosato also said that, contrary to popular belief, 70% of people on the streets DO want help, and many are on waiting lists for various services. But only the very worst cases are given priority; others may wait years for help.
Cordova added that LAPD officers now spend up to half of their working hours dealing with homeless-related calls and issues. And, both he and others said, changes in both local and federal laws in the last 30 years have made the problem worse.
For example, in reaction to old laws that allowed people to too easily commit relatives to mental-health facilities without the individual’s permission, federal regulations were tightened in the 1980s so that involuntary hospitalization/commitment is now almost impossible, and people can only be held without their own permission for 72-hours of observation. That change, as well as various budget cuts, resulted in the closing of many old mental health facilities, and many people who were or would have been housed in those facilities wound up on the streets. (Several new bills have recently been introduced to help deal with this issue, both at the state and federal level, but none have yet become law.)
Also, according to LBHHA Board Member Bob Eisele, while the federal government used to build a lot of low income public housing, that kind of spending was cut under the last three presidential administrations, and developers have not picked up the slack because they can’t make a profit on low-income units. So even though more people are now without housing (whether due to mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or just gentrification and rising rents) than at any time since the Great Depression, there are fewer and fewer housing options for those in need.
According to Cordova, city laws make it illegal for people to be in public parks between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., so police can legally sweep people out of the parks during those hours. There are no such laws for private and commercial property, however, so when people are chased out of parks, they move into residential and commercial areas, where it is actually legal to sleep on sidewalks during certain hours.
Also, when people set up camps on city property (sidewalks, parkways, etc.), according to Cordova, they cannot be removed unless a complaint goes through the local city council office, services are offered and refused three times, and then a 72-hour notice to move is posted at the location. After 72 hours, police can come and give the person an additional 20 minutes to move. But what happens at that point is they usually just move about 100 feet down the street, to a new location, and then the process has to start all over again.
Cordova also said that several new laws, such as those decriminalizing certain kinds of drug possession, also mean that police can no longer charge people on the street with certain kinds of minor crimes, which means they can’t be arrested or held for such offenses, and, in some cases, can’t be forced to go into treatment programs, which used to be a way to at least temporarily get people with substance abuse issues off the street.
Finally, Cordova said, even when a homeless person is arrested for trespassing on private property or loitering on public property, they’re usually released from custody “before the paperwork is done,” because the offense is minor and city jails are full.
Dillon Negrete, who works for Fortuna Property Management, the company that manages the 400 S. La Brea building, added that while the city does have trespassing laws that most people think would make encampments on private property illegal, there are also laws preventing property owners from removing people and their belongings, which trump the trespassing laws. If property owners want legal authority to remove trespassers, he said, they have to register with LAPD and post “No Trespassing” signs…a process that takes several hours at an LAPD police station. After that registration and posting, however, owners and police do have the right to remove trespassers…and any unattended belongings they leave behind can be considered trash and thrown away. (Negrete recently went through this process at LAPD’s Wilshire Division for the 400 S. La Brea property.)
Another problem building owners and managers have, according to Negrete, is that camps like the one at 400 S. La Brea generate a lot of trash, overflowing the businesses’ contracted collection bins and often containing hazardous items like drug paraphernalia. So the building’s contracted trash service will no longer empty the overwhelmed bins, and the building owners or managers have to hire a special crew to get rid of the accumulation.
Rosato told the Buzz that as of yesterday (Friday, March 23), the camps behind 400 S. La Brea are still gone and the parking lot is clean.
Negrete also promised the residents at Tuesday’s meeting that his company will power-wash the sidewalks on the Sycamore side of the block, and will institute a regular maintenance schedule in that area.
But while the neighbors said that such efforts are “huge,” and they “can’t thank you enough,” everyone acknowledged that the larger problems remain, and until help is found for those without home, they will just continue to move from place to place in the area. (In fact, other camps have appeared recently behind businesses on the 400-600 blocks of S. La Brea, and Negrete noted that his company manages a number of commercial properties around the L.A. area, and many have had problems with homeless camps “much worse” than the situation at 400 S. La Brea.)
Cordova and the other speakers at Tuesday’s meeting also explained that the city is working on the larger problem, and that it is also working to change the way it responds to homeless individuals in the community. For example, many calls and complaints about people on the street are now answered by an LAPD Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement (HOPE) team or an “E6” team, which, according to Rosato, includes an outreach worker, social worker, nurse, and other personnel in addition to an LAPD officer. She noted, however, that such resources are limited, and there is just one such team currently covering the area from Fairfax Ave. to downtown.
Rosato also noted that one of the biggest problems in matching people who need homes and services with those things can be finding them when space becomes available — and chasing them away can only exacerbate the problem. If camps are dispersed too widely or too often, she said, service providers may not be able to locate qualified individuals when help is at hand. Also, because many people without homes tend to lose track of required items like official ID during their movements and clearance of their belongings, they are more at risk for not meeting the basic requirements when services are offered. (To help with the ID issue, Rosato said, the DMV does reserve special hours twice a week to help issue IDs to homeless individuals, and there are organizations that can help get people there…if they can find them.)
Eisele said that in the future, after the nearby Purple Line Subway contstruction is complete, development of vacant spaces in the area will probably leave less space for homeless camps. But that’s many years away yet, and the lots on the Sycamore Ave. side of the 400 S. block are currently zoned for single family homes, with height restrictions which might lessen the location’s appeal to developers. Also, local preservation measures may prevent denser development of those lots as well.
But Negrete said the 400 S. La Brea building owners have no current plans to re-develop the site, and are now actively in talks to lease the property to another automotive dealership. The negotiations have not been concluded yet, however, because the old ACE Museum is still tied up in bankruptcy proceedings, and still has property inside that the building’s owners can’t move.
In the meantime, Eisele urged neighbors to remain involved with the issues. Those who live closest to the site, he said, will be “most passionate” about it’s maintenance, but even those who don’t live immediately across from or adjacent to the building “all need to pitch in.”
Rob Fisher, field deputy for Los Angeles City Council Member David Ryu, also invited neighbors to contact the CD4 office when there is a local problem. Staff there, he said, can provide some help with things like bulky item cleanup. Also, he said, the city is working on new ideas for RV parking areas for the homeless, and possibly opening church parking lots as well, especially for homeless women and children.
The meeting concluded with an introduction of Rudy Salinas – Chief Program Officer for the Center at Blessed Sacrament, which provides homeless outreach and services to homeless individuals Hollywood.
Salinas complimented the LBHHA group and its conversation, saying it’s rare that communities have this keen a sense of who the homeless are, and a deeper understanding of the issues involved, as discussed at this meeting. “You are all serioulsly unique,” he said, offering to continue talking and working with the group as they continue to address these issues.
Salinas noted that midtown Los Angeles does now have a Coordinated Entry System Registration Coordinator to help identify homeless people and services needed in certain “hotspots.” But although funds from the recently passed Measures H and HHH will eventually help to build more low income housing units, he said, services that will need to be put into those buildings are still not funded. Also, he noted, the new units will take time to build…and currently, less than 2% of housing in LA is open to people in dire need, such as those with Section 8 vouchers.
In the meantime, Salinas said, LAPD is forced to be the first responder for homelessness issues, even though it’s not their primary area of expertise. Cordova agreed, and invited residents to call him personally, at (213) 793-0650, when there’s a problem. He noted, however, that he should be people’s “second” call. The first call, to ensure the fastest response, he said, should be to 911 (if there’s a crime in progress or a life-or-death emergency situation) or to 1-877-ASK-LAPD, if it’s a non-emergency situation.
Finally, Rosato concluded the discussion by advising the neighbors to introduce themselves to and get to know the managers at local businesses, and to talk to them – not just complain – when issues come up. If people say “we need your help” to deal with the issues, she said, the businesses – like the 400 S. La Brea management – are more likely to work with the community to solve the problems.