The Sweep Before The Tiny Homes Opened
At North Hollywood's Valley Plaza.
Early on an April morning next to the 170 Freeway in North Hollywood, three law enforcement agencies, five government departments, and two social service agencies converged on Alexandria Park. They were there to proverbially “clean up” the park, the adjoining storm drain channel, and the freeway embankment in advance of the following week’s grand opening of a new “Tiny Home” community located in the very same park.
What followed was chaos, confusion, and a deeply emblematic example of the government's general failure to address the profound problem of tens of thousands of people living outside. Personal property was destroyed; taxpayer money was metaphorically incinerated; and unsheltered residents were frightened and traumatized just days before they were supposed to move into the tiny home service site just a few feet away.
One of those people is Christopher Gist, a 31-year-old man who said he grew up in Southern California’s foster care system. Gist said he’s been homeless and housing insecure with his wife Michelle for the past two years. They didn’t know the cleaning was going to happen that morning. He never saw a notice, and only realized something was going to happen when a police officer woke them up and told them to move. If they didn’t, they would be detained and their stuff confiscated. Gist says he never saw any posted notice, and would have happily moved the previous day had he realized the Parks department and Sanitation department were showing up on that particular Tuesday.1
While the couple was sleeping in a tent at the park, they also own an SUV they parked by where they slept. When police said they had to move, Chris and Michelle scrambled to load all of their possessions into the SUV, and recruited one of their neighbors to help move the car, which for the time being needs repairs and doesn’t start.
Before I spoke to Gist, I watched from a distance as he tried to push the vehicle on his own out of the area where the cleaning was occurring. City crews had a tow-truck on standby, and had already removed a sedan from the area. A first attempt to pull the SUV with a rope tied to a neighbor’s working vehicle failed when the rope snapped under tension. But eventually, the other working vehicle was able to push Gist’s SUV to the other side of the police tape that marked the cleaning and property confiscation zone.
Gist was frustrated when I spoke to him a few minutes later. Doubly so when he explained that he and his wife were on the list to move into the tiny home facility just yards away from where we were talking.
“You know, we figured we were safe if we were right next to where they’re going to put us. We thought we’d be okay, and they just keep chasing us. It's this cat and mouse game. I don't know what they aim to get out of it,” Gist said.
He agrees that the area needs trash pickup, and says the situation is complicated by illegal dumping, and the fact that the nearby dumpsters they used to use have either been removed or fenced off. He and his partner chose to stay in this specific area because it was out of the way, behind the long mostly-abandoned Valley Plaza shopping center. When outreach workers asked if they would want to move into a tiny home, they agreed it would be a step up from their current situation. But multiple sanitation actions have left them wondering if they’re going to have to leave the area before the service center actually opens.
“They're having technical difficulties, or whatever, and they keep pushing the date back. Now that they're forcing us out, I’m worried we're just gonna get lost in the streets,” he said.
Gist’s harshest words were for the squad of outreach workers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) who showed up later in the morning. He didn’t feel they did much of anything to help de-escalate the tense situation.
“You have like, LAHSA just standing there, acting like cheerleaders. ‘Here's water. Here's sandwiches.’ Like, we don't need water or sandwiches right now. We need someone to stand up for us, because [the police] don't listen to us, and we're worried about going to jail,” Gist said.
I counted at least six different LAHSA Homeless Engagement Team outreach workers mingling around the tents and makeshift shelters. There were also two Hope of The Valley rescue mission workers briefly on scene, who quickly left when a pair of volunteers with StreetWatch LA asked them which agency they were with.
In any case, it was clear none of the at least eight homeless service workers on site were in charge of the situation, or even knew what was going to happen to the larger encampment on the other side of the park’s fence in an unknown jurisdiction.
In the absence of any defined authority, command was seized by a lone City of L.A. park ranger. LAPD officers on scene ensured nobody crossed the yellow tape, and CHP officers hung back at a distance watching. But Park Ranger Peter Delgadillo insisted to anyone who asked that he was the final authority when it came to organizing and executing the park cleanup.
At one point, an advocate with StreetWatch who said his name was Eugene confronted Delgadillo about how the sprinklers had just been turned on in a part of the park where one woman remained.
“You are putting her life in danger more than anyone else. She's the most vulnerable person in this camp,” said Eugene.
“I hear your opinion,” said Delgadillo.
“It’s not an opinion. Go talk to her, and look her in the eye. I know her, and am trying to advocate on behalf of everyone here,” said Eugene.
“That’s fine but, you’re putting her over everyone else. I don’t have the option to put some people over other people. If I’m gonna do a job, I have to be unilateral. The entire park. I’m sorry your feelings are hurt, but that’s just the reality of it.” said Delgadillo.
The ranger walked away, while repeating the name of the Recreation and Parks Department’s Public Information Officer.
What I haven’t spelled out just yet is the particular jurisdictional chaos of this site. While the city park was clearly in the ranger’s jurisdiction, the storm drain and the freeway embankment were not. On this particular Tuesday, the key question was: what jurisdiction is the larger encampment outside the park in?
The storm drain is under the jurisdiction of L.A. County, and the freeway embankment under that of State of California and CalTrans. But the dirt road alongside the storm drain was the object of question. While CalTrans and CHP officers were on site, they repeated they were only cleaning up trash by the freeway, and didn’t intend to displace anybody on that day. There were no County Sheriff on site, but two trucks from the county's Department of Public Works (DPW) did arrive, apparently to replace part of the fence around the storm drain.
The DPW workers believed the camp was on CalTrans property, but CHP officers on site said the camp was on county land. In the words of a County DPW worker who did not give his name: “Where’s the line? That’s always been the problem.”
Victor Nuño, a 46-year-old resident of the camp-of-jurisdictional-question said outreach workers and park rangers told him that morning a myriad of contradictory information.
“This guy’s saying something, and then this other guy comes in saying something else. So we move our stuff this way, now we got to move our stuff that way. Oh now they’re saying we don’t have to move it anymore,” said Nuño
Nuño has been housing insecure since he was released from prison in 2017. He said he was incarcerated for 13 years, and has had a difficult time adjusting to life after incarceration.
“This is my world right here,” he said, pointing to the storm drain camp. “ I don’t come out of here because I’m scared of that world over there. Not scared but it’s like—I get butterflies. I don’t know how to deal with a lot of people,” said Nuño.
Nuño said he was not interested in moving into a tiny home. The curfews and other site rules would regulate his ability to come and go on his own time, and the facility’s architecture reminds him too much of being incarcerated. He refers to the tiny homes as a “stretched out dog house.”
He chastises politicians and service providers who claim they understand resolving homelessness requires more than a one-size-fits all “solution.”
“They expect that size is going to be everyone’s solution. It’s not,” he said, pointing to the site with one-hundred 64-square-foot tiny homes. “You have to go to every single one of us, and find out what those reasons [for homelessness] are. Because you're not gonna help me exactly the same way you’re going to help [my neighbor]. You see what I'm saying?”
Two days after dozens of government workers and police descended on the camp just north of the tiny home site, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Councilmember Paul Krekorian held a press conference celebrating the opening of the tiny home site. Opening officially on April 26, the facility adds 200 beds to L.A.’s homeless shelter system. The tiny homes sleep two in a 64-square-foot space, and have neither a bathroom nor a kitchen. The site will be operated by Hope of The Valley rescue mission at a public cost of $55 per bed per night.
Unmentioned was the cancellation of a planned “sleepover” at the tiny home site, originally scheduled for Friday and Saturday night. A week prior, invitations to “local media, talent, influencers, donors and friends of the mission” were sent out, promising “an intimate night in the village including special guests, activities, gift bags from local businesses, and complimentary meals.”
The program was set to be broken up into two nights. The first was “leadership night.” The second was “date night,” inviting couples to spend the night in a tiny home before it opened to unsheltered clients. It was reportedly cancelled after L.A.’s class of progressive activists learned of the program, and roasted it online. (Hope of The Valley did not respond to my requests for more information).
In any case, the unsheltered residents nearby are still on edge, and worried that another sweep is going to target them before the shelter site opens. Stephanie Jaeger, director of the NoHo Home Alliance, said she was disappointed with the confusion and lack of transparency in the days before the shelter’s opening.
“I want to see honest, straightforward, accurate, timely information so we can help give our unhoused neighbors clear, and hopefully better and more helpful options for camping and for shelter,” she wrote by email. “That would take a lot more coordination and engagement and courage than we have right now.”
When I searched the site earlier in the week, I located only a single posting about a 5 minute walk away from where Chris and Michelle were staying. It was on the construction entrance of the tiny home site.