The Homeless Shuffle in CD 10

Homeless since 1984, James Moss knows all about the “freeway life.” Despite the closure of the pedestrian walkway that he called home, he is not worried. This area has been his home for decades and he isn’t planning to go anywhere.

“That’s okay with me,” Moss said,“because when they close it off, I go to the other side.”

The dozens of individuals who lived in the pedestrian walkways nestled along the I-10 freeway serve as a microcosm of the 58,423 homeless people in Los Angeles County, according to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). The agency’s biennial survey found that the number of transient individuals increased by 16 percent from 2011 to 2013 due to high unemployment rates, lack of affordable housing, and the release of many parolees through AB109 prison realignment.

2dechomeless
This homeless community lived in the walkways for years until the Los Angeles City Council approved a motion to fence up the corridors in September 2013. Based on high crime rates and a large amount of complaints related to the immediate area, the motion was introduced by City Council District 10 and was supported by a number of community groups and members of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Moss said some of the walkway residents were
“people who use crack cocaine.”

Photo by Matthew Woitunski

The closure was the easiest and most cost-effective solution to address the growing encampment and the ineffective efforts to clean up the walkways and assist the individuals living in them, according to Los Angeles Police Department Senior Lead Officer John Biondo. 
“I raised concerns that there would be unintended consequences, that these people have a history here and that we were going to displace them,” he said. “Many of them would be redispersed in the immediate area.”

Before the closures, there were a number of agencies visiting the area regularly to clean it, assist its residents, and address criminal activity, he said. The agencies included LAHSA, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County of Department of Mental Health (DMH), and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In addition, The LA Conservation Corps’ Clean and Green program, the city Fire Department and the Sanitation Bureau cleaned and washed the walkways down.
“All those pieces were in place, but they weren’t working quickly enough for some people,” Biondo said.

The closure operation itself did not involve any forced removal, Biondo clarified. 

“I’m not interested in criminalizing someone who’s homeless,” he said. “That’s not going to solve their problem.”

The sanitation department notified the transients ahead of time, in compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court order that bans the city from seizing or destroying property left unattended momentarily. 

The procedure also deployed social workers to assist walkway residents with relocation resources, as these operations typically include, said Acting Senior Lead Officer Jackie Fort. After the notification period ended, those individuals who were still in the walkway were asked to vacate along with their personal belongings.  Immediately following the assessment, the walkways were cleaned and fenced up the same day.

The homeless community isn’t going anywhere. Many of the walkway residents have lived in the area for decades. The closure does little to address the underlying problem that brought the homeless people to the walkway, Biondo said. 

Moss, for example, has lived in the area since 1979. Being homeless since 1984, he said he and his friend “Mac” were some of this homeless community’s founding members.  To them, this is home.

“One of the things the people didn’t think about was that those individuals don’t just disappear into thin air,” Biondo said. “It’s hard for people to see… that all we’re doing is shifting them around. We’re not really seeing what we can do to try to get rid of the problem.”

The homeless encampment’s previous venue was at the formerly vacant site of the Rosa Parks Villas. Transients also lived in other areas along the freeway and under the Crenshaw Blvd. freeway overpass, according to Biondo. 

Resident complaints surged in recent years, not necessarily because there were more homeless people on the streets but because the transient community was no longer tucked away into vacant lots or under bridges.

Crime related to the specific area has decreased as a result of the closure, Biondo said. However, this activity appears to have scattered throughout adjacent areas. The Crenshaw and Adams Boulevard intersection is one of the most active zones. Reports of narcotics use and sales have increased at this busy crossing, according to Fort, who policed this area until the end of November.

“We started getting a lot of emails, phone calls, and complaints about the homeless sleeping on the sidewalks and setting up, barbequing, moving couches, just posting up like it was their living room,” Fort said.

Biondo and Fort agreed that residents in the area are very active about both cleaning up their streets and addressing the transient population. But few understand that fencing up walkways doesn’t solve the root problem.

“I try to educate them on the resources and things we’re doing and give them a little background on how complex homelessness is in Los Angeles, in general,” Fort said.

This dialogue often stirs a better understanding of the problems the homeless face and the obstacles agencies find in helping them or removing them from city streets.

“You just can’t arrest someone for being homeless,” Fort said.

By the same token, officers also educate and develop a relationship of mutual respect with the homeless people they engage with. 

“I’m not going to let you drink in front of me because you’re disrespecting me, you’re disrespecting the community and you’re disrespecting yourself, too. I represent you but I also represent everybody else,” Biondo said.

Individuals such as Moss respect the relationship as well and understand the role of law enforcement and the rules they enforce.

“They have a job to do, and they worry about us getting hit by a car or something like that,” Moss said, as he remembers his friend “Slick” who was struck and killed by a car on the freeway off-ramp.

Moss said he has his “regulars” — those who help him on a regular basis, including his friend “Aisha” who visits him weekly to give him food and chat about life.

“I love the freeway because there’s so many beautiful people who come down,” Moss said.

Despite claims of collecting an average of $1,000 per week in freeway donations from people who feel compassion for the wheel-chair bound Moss, he said most people on the street don’t ever collect this much money.

He falls into the U.S. Department of Housing’s “chronically homeless” designation, as a person with a disability who has been homeless for at least one year. It has been 29 years.

“[As transients] become more insular in their own psyche and they develop procedures to deal with their homelessness, it becomes much more difficult to convince them that there’s a better way. They’ll have to leave what they know,” Biondo said.

Despite a certain level of resistance to restrictive homeless, transition, mental health, and drug abuse programs, a number of local agencies continue offering resources and visiting the streets between 2-3 times per week. Some examples of nonprofit organizations offering services can be found on The Neighborhood News’ website at: http://www.theneighborhoodnewsonline.net/community-info/free-low-cost.  Or go to website, click 'Community Info' then 'Free and Low Cost.'

The Southwest division’s strong alliance to the services and programs by LAHSA, DMH, Sanitation and the Council office is essential to addressing homelessness, according to Biondo, who is also developing partnerships with local faith-based organizations for the same purpose.

Dramatic improvement is not in the forecast for the homeless population of Los Angeles.

Fort does not envision a complete turnaround in his division, though he does see small advancements stemming from the increased visibility of homelessness in the community.

Biondo anticipates the number of homeless veterans will decrease because federal allocations to veteran transition and assistance programs are on the rise. Congress has appropriated more than $460 million in funds to the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program since 2011. This has already led to a 23 percent decrease in homeless veterans from 2011-2013, according to LAHSA.

Local elected officials are aware there is more work to be done.

“Homeless individuals are among the most vulnerable people in our communities and we can and must do more to help them access new jobs, secure the new affordable housing we are building throughout the country, and regain their footing in society,” said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas in a recent LAHSA press release.
In the meantime, Moss’ lack of a brick-and-mortar address does not shake his sense of self nor his appreciation for his “freeway lifestyle.”

“I’m ok with everything because I have life itself,” Moss said. “The lifestyle I chose, I chose it.”

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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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