By Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor
Neecee, who asked that her last name not be included in this article, has been homeless for the past three years. She often gets the free meals offered at Mary Star of the Sea Church or Kurt’s Kitchen on Pacific Avenue in San Pedro. At 45 years of age, she carries her life in a shopping cart filled with blankets, clothing and other personal affects. Neecee’s 23-year-old son and her brother also are homeless.
In circumstances as these, a shower is difficult to come by. When the opportunity arises to get one, you take it.
A couple of weeks ago, around about the time the recent storm hit Southern California, Neecee was given permission to shower at a friend’s house. When she returned to the place at Plaza Park where she left her cart, all of her belongings were gone.
Someone from the Beacon House, a men’s addiction recovery home across the street from the park, told her that the city took her belongings.
“It’s hard to survive after something like that because, you have nothing but the clothes on your back,” she said. “I was really depressed after that.”
She doesn’t even know where to go to get her things. When it happened, she was trying to see if there was dump where she could take her stuff, but nobody knew anything. Since then she tries to take her things with her wherever she goes or asks someone to look after her belongings.
While other homeless people have attested to getting harassed for being at the park and losing their belongings to some type of city department, no one, from the Los Angeles Police Department Harbor Division to District 15 Councilman Joe Buscaino’s office to the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks has taken responsibility for such actions, begging the question, “Who done it?”
At the urging of Random Lengths News Managing Editor Terelle Jerricks a newspaper employee called the council office pretending to be a constituent who was upset about the homeless population at Plaza Park, The rationale was to ensure the press was receiving the same information as concerned community members. The constituent services representative told the Random Lengths News employee that homeless advocates make it more of a point not to criminalize homelessness, including the city attorney’s office. However, Los Angeles Recreation and Parks department issue 72-hour notices to vacate to the homeless camping out at local parks.
The Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation then cleans up anything left. Often, the homeless move and not much is left.
Plaza Parks has been placed very high on the council office’s list for homeless encampment clean up.
“Property rights are civil rights,” said Karen Ceaser, a homeless advocate who volunteers with the Department of Mental Health. “Many times that’s everything they own. It’s devastating.”
And this is not an isolated incident, Ceaser said.
In San Pedro many homeless people congregate at Plaza Park, despite objections from neighboring residents and businesses. Because the ungated park officially closes at 10 p.m., the homeless have to find a place to go for the night.
The problem is that there is no housing in the community. There are organizations that offer assistance to homeless families but not individuals. While Los Angeles County operates a winter shelter program between Dec. 1 and March 1, there are not enough beds to accommodate all of the homeless, despite the extra beds that were added recently.
Moreover, people must be in the right place at the right time to be able to get on the list for shelter during the winter.
“What I’m really tired about is people making comments about, ‘these people don’t want services,’” said Ceaser, who volunteers with the South Bay Coalition on Homeless and chairs the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness. “That is absolutely, positively, not true.”
Even people who receive general relief cannot afford to rent a place.
“There is no true affordable housing,” Ceaser said.
Many, who carry their belonging in grocery carts, are hassled for doing so.
“That’s a big issue: the grocery carts,” said Ceaser. “That’s what they can criminalize them with.”
Councilman Joe Buscaino spokesman Branimir Kvartic said that’s the first he’s ever heard about the city taking homeless belongings.
“Nobody in the city can legally do that,” said Kvartic, who acknowledged that the council office has sent emergency response teams for the homeless. “They would never do something like that. Nobody in the city is allowed to take anything from them.”
Neecee said a man in a uniform, who identified himself as Officer Martinez, has been harassing some of the homeless in the area.
“He said he’s the head of the Homeless Task Force and he gives out tickets for illegal lodging,” Neecee said. “I was sitting on a bench in the park. That’s all I was doing.”
According to Los Angeles Municipal Code 41.18 (d), under a settlement agreement, “No person should be cited or arrested for a violation … unless a peace officer for the City of Los Angeles has first given the person a verbal warning regarding such section and reasonable time to move and the person has not complied with that warning.”
“I know that they are trying to clean San Pedro, but the way they did it is just, you know, I don’t know,” she said. “If we could go somewhere without being told, ‘You got to go, you to go, you got go.’ If there was a designated spot where we could just be without being harassed, that would be helpful.”
While Neece said that the man had a uniform and a black and white car, the Los Angeles Police Department doesn’t even know who he his.
“I asked LAPD, ‘Is this guy even a cop or is he impersonating a cop?’ because something is going on?” Neecee said.
LAPD Harbor Division Capt. Gerald Woodyard said that neither the possession of the homeless’ belongings nor the illegal lodging has been an undertaking of his officers.
“That was not spearheaded by the LAPD by any stretch of the imagination,” Woodyard said.
Woodyard said that while he has gotten calls from residents complaining about the homeless, his answer is always the same, “Being homeless is not a crime.” Unless, a homeless person, or any person, is committing a crime his department does not get involved, he said.
Yet, read some of the comments on social media about them and you would think that homelessness is exactly that: a crime. On Nov. 14, Buscaino placed a post on the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Watch Facebook page that read:
My office and I are familiar with the homeless encampment situation on Beacon Street in Plaza Park. We are working with LAHSA (Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority) who also are familiar with the area and have history with some of the dwellers. When offered shelter by the LAHSA Emergency Response Team which was requested by my office, the homeless individuals were resistant to any offers of services or recovery programs. The ERT is going out regularly and attempting to work with the homeless. Today, the area is clear, and we hope it remains that way, but if not, we will be vigilant and continue to offer services.
Some of the community comments:
“Move em to skid row I’ll donate a blanket. No more nodding n smiling and just doing what offcials say. Get rid of em for good.”
“I live on Beacon and to have them camping out with all their stuff and not just one but many, is unappealing and disrespectful to the people that live in that area.”
“This is TOTALLY Unacceptable. A Park is not a Sleeping home for the homeless. It is for people to re-create in. Some of you may want this, but the residences around the Parks want it to be humane and usable for them. It is INHUMANE to encourage and allow people to do this to themselves and Society. Thank You Councilman for doing The Right Thing!”
“ My kid should be able to use a park and not have to worry about disturbing the “sleepy man” or go to the bathroom without seeing someone “bathing” in the sink.”
Others responses were more compassionate:
“ I wonder how many of the angry neighbors take the time to say hello…bring coffee in the morning. ..ask to hear their stories? We are all a few steps away from homeless…a bad break or bad decisions and everybody acts like they have the plague.”
In fact, on Dec. 3, Officer Jacqueline Lopez, who several homeless people referred to highly, organized a Homeless Outreach Day at the Bartlett Center, across the street from Plaza Park. Several organizations set up booths to provide resources to homeless people in the area.
“Transients have been, and homeless have been, an eyesore for the San Pedro residents,” Lopez said. “There are people who complain about them, there are people who also are advocates for homeless. So, I wanted to be the mediator, the middle person, and help these individuals get off the street.”
She believes in building a partnership between the City of Los Angeles, LAPD Harbor Division and these organizations, so that everyone can have a better understanding of how the process works.
“We’re committed to partnering with anyone who wants to help with the homeless issue,” he said. “We are also committed to identifying services for the homeless population. But we can’t do it by ourselves.
One solution is looking at better options for permanent housing. Once that happens, other issues such as mental health or substance abuse could be addressed through case management. That can be accomplished through government assistance programs, foundations and private donations, as well as advocacy for landlords to be more open to renting to homeless people or people living in poverty.
“We need permanent housing for individuals, because once they are in housing their whole life changes,” Ceaser said. “If people really, really want to embrace the cause, it’s there. Our elected officials have to be willing to proceed to recognize the need and be willing to maybe go against the grain and not worry about what the NIMBies (Not In My Neighborhood people) say.”
Neecee also suggests having a locker system that they could rent affordably so they don’t have push around their carts.
Neecee is on a waiting list for housing. Winter shelter just opened up, but she feels guilty because her dreads the idea of her son Jared being out on the streets while she is in a shelter.
“The rain was hard, because there was nowhere to go and I was just sitting in the rain getting wet,” she said.