After a. brush fire broke out near an illegal homeless encampment in Lake Balboa Park last Tuesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti claimed it hadn’t been hot and dry enough to order the camp cleared. It was a curious assertion, considering that during the summer months the mercury regularly passes 100 degrees in Van Nuys. It was doubly curious given that Councilwoman Nurey Martinez, whose district includes the park, claimed today that her office had planned a cleanup of part of the park before the fire. Regardless, to call the park a tinderbox is an understatement. Considering the homeless population with their illegal gasoline generators, electric wires, propane tanks, and camp and cook fires, the city is setting up yet another potential disaster area.
On Sunday afternoon it was somewhat cooler in the ravine along Bull Creek, where homeless people have set up not so much an encampment as a small town. It’s completely separate from the camp where the fire started. It’s a quarter mile away, on the other side of Balboa Boulevard. It is one of at least four distinct camps that remain scattered throughout the park. So far, the city has only tackled one, during a sweep this week in which workers are collecting and hauling out garbage and refuse by the truckload.
Only a chain link fence separates bucolic Lake Balboa, where people fish for tilapia, bass, and carp, from Bull Creek, where an encampment of roughly 100 homeless people sprawls across roughly a square mile of what was once a stream teeming with fish itself. Unfortunately, some of the people who live in the encampment all too often use it as a trash dump or toilet. A man who gave his name only as Roberto was raking the ground in front of his camps site, which like most of the sites around the creek was cleaner than others you routinely see around Los Angeles. Indeed, some people spoke proudly of the relative orderliness of their own camp sites. A woman named Leanne said, “If the city would provide some dumpsters or something, we’d clean this place up ourselves. Most of the trash and stuff is from people who were here before.”
Roberto has been homeless for two years, since arriving in L.A. from Utah. He spends his days collecting recyclables. For eight to ten hours of rooting through garbage cans he earns $15-$20 a day, enough to buy food. He’s 38 but looks ten years younger with a lean, tattooed frame. He has family in Jalisco but prefers living here, even though his illegal status makes it difficult to find work. When asked if living in a homeless camp next to a fetid creek surrounded by trash was better than his life in Mexico, he instantly replied, “Yes.”
Fires are “a fact of life” in the camps
Last week’s fire didn’t faze the folks in the ravine. They’re making a life here, and they take fires in stride. “It didn’t get close enough to bother us,” said a woman who has lived here for two years, who declined to give her name. “We keep an eye out. Fires are just a fact of life around here.”
Roberto says that folks in the camp often put out fires themselves. He describes how a tent caught fire a few weeks ago in the middle of the night. He and several others grabbed a hose and attached it to a spigot in the park. They had the flames doused before the fire department even arrived. He said there are fires once or twice a week, and that, “Most of the time we get them out pretty quickly,” he said. It was not exactly reassuring.
Suffice it to say, relying on homeless people to extinguish their own fires is not a sustainable long-term solution. A walk through the encampment revealed hundreds of yards of electrical wires running through bone dry grass and undergrowth. Wires ran past propane tanks, through the middle of garbage heaps, and directly into tents and other makeshift dwellings. Outlets lay in overgrown weeds. The next fire is not a matter of if, but when. As a firefighter said to The All Aspect Report last week about the situation throughout California, it’s a game of Russian roulette.
The reality in Lake Balboa Park also raises troubling questions, in particular about the efficacy of cleanup efforts. Clearing one camp often just scatters inhabitants to nearby locations. As has been widely reported in local media a huge proportion of L.A.’s chronically homeless population simply refuse services and shelter. What good does it do to clear a camp when the practical effect is to disperse people to other places where they maintain the same lifestyle and living conditions? How does it address the massive threats to public safety posed by these illegal encampments and activities?
The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t.
A sense of order, of sorts
The colony at Bull Creek is relatively orderly, by the standards of illegal homeless encampments. Unlike the sheer anarchy of Skid Row homeless camps and the lawlessness of the ones in Venice and Santa Monica, it exudes a sort of order. A walk around the perimeter of the camp triggers the camp’s sentries. A half dozen men on bicycles shadow anyone who isn’t known to the community.
In a loop of the entire camp and its scores of individual campsites (one man called his place a “homestead”) there weren’t hypodermic needles, which are of course a staple of other camps. There were no signs of other drug paraphernalia, and only a handful of empty liquor bottles. There was no evidence of rats or other rodents, though ants crawled everywhere. With the except of a single, tragic looking young woman whose skin was covered by meth scabies, no one was openly intoxicated. Indeed, everyone seemed to be in decent health. Several people had dogs who also seemed healthy, in contrast to the flea and mange covered specimens in camps elsewhere.
It’s the sort of place where people know each other, socialize with each other, and look out for each other. They refer to each other as neighbors. Many of the camp’s inhabitants are undocumented, illegal immigrants. Leanne, one of the few native Angelenos encountered in the camp, said, “The folks along this stretch of the wash, they’re pretty good. We look out for each other.” Another person said, “These are good people. They’re not the stereotype of homeless. I wish people knew that.”
If fires are regular occurrences in a relatively stable community, what can Angelenos expect elsewhere?
Moreover, the order doesn’t suggest the camp is not filthy – it is, relentlessly so, despairingly so. The creek, which feeds into Balboa Creek on its way to the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, is fetid beyond saving. Yet compared to other camps around Los Angeles, in terms of personal safety it feels almost out of harm’s way – so long as you don’t do anything that attracts the sentries’ attention.
The camp – and the three others like it that remain in Lake Balboa Park – is a hazard to the park, the neighborhood, the community, and perhaps most of all to the people who live in it. As noted, the city cleared the first camp starting on Monday. Under the relentless sun city workers loaded and trucked out several loads of garbage.
The cleanups are notoriously ineffective. Similar efforts in Venice Beach, Mar Vista, and Skid Row have yielded no permanent improvements. Indeed, camps usually reappear within hours of a cleanup. As soon as the police and city employees are gone, the streets return to the vagrants’ domain.
All of which raises a question for Mayor Garcetti and the City Council: If one camp is enough of a hazard to clear, why not all the rest? Will it take more fires, more loss, more risk? Will it take innocent lives before the city’s political class get serious about solving the crisis once and for all?
These questions have many Angelenos wondering when the heat will rise enough for our political class to get serious about the crisis. So, Mayor Garcetti and Councilwoman Martinez: Is it hot enough for ya’?