Photojournal: What a failed homeless camp cleanup looks like in Los Angeles

Less than a week after Councilwoman Nury Martinez announced a third cleanup in Lake Balboa Park in as many months, piles of garbage remained and homeless people were returning to illegal campsites

Part Two of an occasional series

LAKE BALBOA PARK (November 10, 2019) Massive trash piles remained after a city homeless camp cleanup, the third in as many months. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

The man’s voice screamed from a dense grove of willow trees on the west bank of Bull Creek in Lake Balboa Park on Sunday afternoon: “Who the f*** is there? Who the f*** is it? My dog will f*****g kill you!”

As if to confirm the threat, with the man’s encouragement a dog started barking and snarling. Suffice it to say no one in their right mind would have ventured any further. It was one of countless places in the park that remained unsafe for anyone but the homeless who continue to live in illegal encampments despite multiple city cleanups and official promises to clear them once and for all.

Councilwoman Nury Martinez launched the latest effort last Wednesday. Gathered with select members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s and Police Departments she told reporters, “Today is part of an extensive cleanup on city of Los Angeles-leased property at the Sepulveda Basin that began in August and will continue until completed. The city has a duty to ensure that park hours are enforced and the Basin remains safe and accessible to all visitors.”

“Extensive” is a relative concept. Even where city workers had cleared campsites they’d left huge amounts of refuse. Indeed, garbage was everywhere, including piles of flammable clothing, wood, and electronic equipment. The stench of excrement hung heavy in the air. In places it was nearly suffocating. The water in Bull Creek was fetid.

Moreover, less than five days after the cleanup the homeless were reclaiming much of the space for themselves. Patricia Wilcox, 28, of Mesa, Arizona, said that she and her partner stayed on nearby streets for a few nights, and had returned to their old campsite on Saturday.

Many campsites appeared to have escaped attention altogether, including subterranean dwellings near the creek reminiscent of Viet Cong bunkers. There was a sense of defiance: Boomboxes blared music and the sounds of building echoed through the undergrowth and along the creek bed itself: Hammering, sawing, even power tools. People were carving new campsites into the undergrowth bare feet from the parking lot and from a hill where children rode bicycles and scooters. People unloaded everything from tents and cooking gear to furniture and electronic equipment – all of it almost certainly stolen – from dilapidated cars, vans, and campers.

LAKE BALBOA (November 11, 2019) Homeless people moved back into the encampment days after a cleanup. Photographs by Christopher LeGras

In short, despite the Councilwoman’s rhetoric and the city’s activity, resources, and promises Lake Balboa continues to be a dangerous place. Indeed, if the last two days are any indication the park has become even more perilous since the cleanups, as if the homeless have circled the wagons.

When we visited in late July after a fire in another part of the park, the camp’s inhabitants were friendly if suspicious. We spoke with many of them, and a couple provided contact information. One even gave a cell number. They spoke openly of their lives in the camp. There were sentries, but they kept their distance and nodded in acknowledgement as we passed.

Not this time. On Sunday, an air of menace permeated the park. In addition to the man with his pit bull, sentries on stolen bicycles kept vigil over strangers, making no secret of their presence. At one point one of them said loudly to another camp inhabitant, “I’m following this motherf***r who’s taking pictures.” This is what has become of too many public spaces in Los Angeles.

LAKE BALBOA PARK (November 11, 2019) Five days after an official city cleanup a new propane tank was discovered among dry brush. Photograph by Christopher LeGras

Unfortunately, there is nothing unique about the city’s failure to clear out Lake Balboa Park. Two weeks ago the all aspect report exposed homeless fire dangers in a half dozen communities – all places where members of the City Council and other officials have promised action.

It’s almost as if L.A.’s political class doesn’t want to end the homeless crisis at all.

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