The stench of the homeless camp hits you from blocks away. It’s an indescribable combination of decay, decomposition, detritus, and death, the kind of odor you would associate with a third world slum or a World War I battlefield. It invades your nostrils even through a protective mask. After a few minutes you’re wearing it on your clothes, your shoes, your skin. It stays with you long after you leave.
Yet as suffocating as it is the stench doesn’t prepare you for what you see inside the camp itself. Even for Angelenos, who have become tragically accustomed to such scenes, the encampment on Oxford Street in Van Nuys shocks the conscious. For a hundred feet the garbage is piled shoulder high. Every step is hazardous: Rats and mice scurry in all directions, shards of glass litter the ground, and broken meth pipes are common. There are decomposing rodent carcasses amid piles of dog, rat, and human excrement. Walking through the camp one tries not to consider how many infectious diseases may be present. This is the place some 50 people call home.
Despite the hazards, dozens of volunteers from all over Los Angeles converged on the camp on Saturday to clear away thousands of pounds of garbage. Starting at 7a.m. they put themselves in harm’s way to accomplish a task the City and County of Los Angeles seem incapable of doing: They cleaned up a homeless camp. In the process they helped the neighborhood, local businesses, and the camp’s inhabitants themselves, some of whom joined the effort. By early afternoon the place was unrecognizable. The clean-up’s organizer, Scott Presler, said they had hauled away 50 tons of garbage.
Walking through the thrum of activity, one cannot help but ask why the Garcetti administration and City Council cannot accomplish the same feat, given the billions of dollars they’ve spent over the last five years. How is it that untrained citizens, armed with nothing but shovels and moxy, can do more to help our city than the people supposedly in charge of it? Why hasn’t anyone in city or county government hit upon the idea of organizing mass volunteer clean-ups like the one a private citizen put together from three thousand miles away?
The volunteers came from all over the southland and reflected the region’s diverse character. There seemed to be a little bit of everyone. One man said he’d taken the bus to the camp, while a woman rolled up in brand-new Mercedes. Teenagers worked alongside members of a church group in their 70s. One woman said that she and her boyfriend had left their Orange County home at 5a.m. so they could arrive in time to join the first wave. One camp resident walked back and forth between the far end of the camp and the dumpster, hauling two shopping carts’ worth of refuse at a time with dogged determination.
In the face of the overwhelming human misery confronting them the volunteers displayed a hearty esprit de corps as they donned hazmat suits and masks and waded into the mire. At one point a woman screamed and jumped as a rat tried to run up the leg of her suit. Her scream turned to laughter as her fellow volunteers good-naturedly mimicked her motions. They briefly seemed to be dancing.
The generosity on display was overwhelming. People brought pizzas and donuts, boxes of bottled water and juices. The hazmat suits, masks, and shoe covers were donated. Javier Perez, owner of Perez Disposal in Granada Hills, provided a large roll-off container along with a hauling truck and a Bobcat mini tractor. By noon he said that his crew already had hauled the container to a nearby landfill twice, both times filled to the top with 30 cubic yards of trash. When asked how much the day was costing his business Mr. Perez shrugged and replied, “About $3,000. But who cares? It’s the right thing to do.”
A camp resident named Robert, who described himself as the camp’s “sentry, city councilman, and mediator,” said the day was the happiest since he arrived five months ago. “Living like this,” he says, pointing to his tent where his girlfriend was cleaning up, “I get so tired. So tired. But today gives me hope. I mean, look at these folks. They don’t have to be here. They don’t have to spend a Saturday away from their families to help us out. But here they are. God bless them.” As he talked a spider crawled across his face and around his right ear. He didn’t even notice.
Clean-up organizer is a controversial figure
It may surprise Angelenos to learn that the clean-up’s organizer isn’t from L.A. He isn’t even from California. Mr. Presler is a Washington D.C. native who lives in northern Virginia. Even more surprising (to Angelenos) is that Mr. Presler, who is gay, is an avid Trump supporter and conservative activist. When he’s not organizing homeless cleanups he’s sponsoring and leading voter registration drives around the country. Yet using only with Twitter and Facebook he was able to accomplish more in a few hours than the Garcetti administration accomplishes in a year. He says that over the last few months he’s organized two clean-ups in Baltimore, as well as in Virginia Beach and Newark. He has one planned in Philadelphia in two weeks. He said that he was drawn to the Van Nuys camp in particular after hearing that there are a number of veterans among the inhabitants. Both his father and grandfather are retired Navy officers.
Mr. Presler has received negative coverage because of his politics. After his first Baltimore clean-up in early August, the Baltimore Sun ran an op-ed suggesting the event was a political publicity stunt designed to embarrass U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. The paper dismissed the clean-up as, “not really that remarkable of a concept,” and huffed that, “Mr. Presler’s presence in Baltimore reinforces the tired image of our failing urban cores.” Angelenos (and probably more than a few Baltimoreans) might respond that, well, yes, it does. Because that image is accurate.
Mr. Presler previously worked with a group called ACT for America, which the Anti-Defamation League has called the largest anti-Muslim group in the country. In past interviews Mr. Presler said that as a gay man he was motivated to address Islamic extremism after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida (the killer had sworn allegiance to ISIS and targeted the gay venue). In 2017 NPR reported that Mr. Presler cancelled a planned event in Arkansas when he learned that the organizer was a white nationalist. He has since distanced himself from the group.
To be sure, if Mr. Presler knowingly associated with a hate group he should be accountable. The mere fact that he helped organize events like the “March Against Sharia” will churn some stomachs.
Yet considering what he has accomplished in L.A., Baltimore, and elsewhere on behalf of homeless people of all races and creeds it would seem forgiveness is in order as well. In speaking with Mr. Presler, you don’t get the impression of a man who’s out to marginalize, malign, or divide. He speaks passionately and sincerely about his desire to help people. “This isn’t about politics,” he says. “I consider the clean-ups to be apolitical.” Moreover, it’s hard to square claims of bigotry with the diversity that was on display at Saturday’s clean-up, and the diversity of the camp residents his efforts helped in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the country. If Mr. Presler is a bigot, he’s not very good at it.
It’s tempting to search for a broader significance to the fact that a full-throated Trump supporter and conservative activist did more in a day to help the homeless in Los Angeles than the city’s progressive elected officials manage in a year. And perhaps there is. But that’s a conversation for another time.
For now, the story is the dozens of Angelenos who spent a Saturday in withering heat quite literally shoveling excrement to help their fellow human beings. They weren’t serving meals at a soup kitchen; they were risking their health, even their lives, in one of the worst places in Los Angeles. All to help people who’s names they will never know. That’s worth dwelling upon in these hyper-divided times.
Thanks to Mr. Presler, for a few hours the best of Los Angeles, the best of California, and the best of the United States were on display. If it took a few MAGA hats to accomplish that task, then so be it. Los Angeles is a little bit better off today thanks to Mr. Presler’s efforts. Hopefully he will be back soon.