A routine drive home reminds me: Nothing about the homelessness crisis is simple

Several times a week I drive the same route, taking a shortcut through a neighborhood of old warehouses and auto repair shops on my way home. I know I will see two things.

First comes a vacant lot on the corner, dilapidated, surrounded by chain-link fencing. Then, a couple blocks to the south, a homeless encampment with jumbles of rusted cars and tents, piles of junk and battered furniture, on either side of the road.

Lately, I have been imagining a connection between the two — the empty land and the camp.

With newly released statistics showing that homelessness continues to rise dramatically throughout Los Angeles County, the sight of people living on the streets has become so common, so much a part of our urban landscape, that we often drive past without noticing. We are saddened, frustrated, resigned.

But what if the residents of the small encampment on Deering Avenue could get shelter and services they need in that unused lot — not to push them out of the way but to provide a safer space with portable toilets and showers, maybe even a security guard? Though it wouldn’t be a permanent fix, social service agencies would know exactly where to bring food and other help.

It could be a first step to getting people back indoors. A simple enough idea, right?

A homeless encampment on Deering Avenue in Canoga Park. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Nothing about the homelessness crisis is simple.

Though I knew this from the start, the message was made clear when I got out of my car and walked along Deering Avenue one day. Someone from the encampment had taped a cardboard sign to the wall, with words scrawled in black ink: “We don’t bother you, so don’t bother us.”

A woman named Maylin — she didn’t want to give her last name — was running a broken plastic comb through her long, black hair. The 32-year-old said she had been living in the encampment for about five months, ever since her car broke down. Her two kids were staying with relatives while she tried to get back on her feet.

Maylin hesitated when asked if she felt safe on the streets. There is drug use in the camp and occasional fighting. She nodded at the mention of the lot up the road, saying she would welcome a more secure place to sleep.

“Yes,” she said. “Of course.”

But there was a catch. Several times in recent months, she had declined invitations to a homeless shelter. “Mainly for legal reasons,” she said. “I don’t want to put my name in the system because my kids and my family get benefits, like food stamps. I don’t want my situation getting in the way of that.”

Her explanation did not make a lot of sense to me but Maylin insisted that she would stay in a camp only anonymously, no signing in or signing out: “I don’t want my family to lose their benefits.”

The urban campground as seen from the 4th Street bridge, the day before it was shut down on Sept. 24, 1987.

The urban campground as seen from the 4th Street bridge, the day before it was shut down on Sept. 24, 1987.

(Los Angeles Times file photo)

Then-Mayor Tom Bradley took a shot at creating an “urban campground” in 1987, designating 12 acres near the L.A. River for people on Skid Row. The experiment — armed with $400,000 worth of social services and day care — lasted just 103 days before succumbing to a chaos of dust-filled air, leaky showers and inadequate drainage.

The city tried again in 2021, briefly opening an East Hollywood parking lot to about 70 tents, each with its own 12-by-12-foot space, at a reported cost of $180,000 a month for sanitation and security. Other attempts have focused on less-expensive temporary shelters and safe lots where people living in their cars can stay overnight.

The nonprofit Hope the Mission has built several tiny-house villages, bringing construction down to $40,000 a bed. Ken Craft, the founder, believes that getting people into a stable environment — and out of street-survival mode — is an essential first step.

“When it comes to interventions, I’m agnostic,” Craft said. “I don’t care if it’s safe camping, safe parking, a tiny home … the most important thing is that we provide a place where people can be safe, be out of the elements and have their basic needs met.”

Not everyone agrees. Los Angeles County’s struggle to house an estimated 75,000 homeless — a 9% increase over last year — has given rise to a confusing web of government and private agencies with different strategies. There is no consensus about how best to help people like those living along Deering Avenue.

An empty lot at the corner of Deering Avenue and Roscoe Boulevard in Canoga Park.

An empty lot at the corner of Deering Avenue and Roscoe Boulevard in Canoga Park.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Planning department records show the lot at Deering Avenue and Roscoe Boulevard is owned by a company that has earmarked it for future retail use. The city would have to broker a deal; it might be easier to use some of the estimated 126 government-owned parcels currently vacant throughout L.A.

Cost is one obstacle. The debate over short-term versus long-term solutions is another. While advocates such as Craft believe in employing a variety of approaches, others worry that anything less than permanent housing equates to nudging the homeless out of sight, out of mind.

“In Los Angeles,” said Pete White, executive director of the L.A. Community Action Network, “the temporary very often becomes the permanent.”

And then there is the NIMBY crowd, the homeowners and renters who have shown a ferocious determination to keep homeless shelters and housing out of their neighborhoods. Imagine their response to a safe-camping site, all those tents and rusted cars crowded into a lot down the street?

“It’s a social question and a political question,” said Benjamin Henwood, director of the Center for Homelessness, Housing and Health Equity Research at USC. “This is the part where I don’t envy politicians.”

The scene along Deering Avenue in Canoga Park.

The scene along Deering Avenue in Canoga Park.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Not long ago, as Rick Conemac closed his machine shop on Deering Avenue for the day, someone from the encampment threw a bottle that shattered at his feet.

“They had let some bad people in there,” Conemac said. “I had to call the police.”

The truce between business owners and homeless people here is uneasy at best. Conemac complains about a spigot outside an adjacent building where the encampment can get water.

“That’s the reason they’re here,” he said. “Meanwhile, you’ve got the street looking like hell and I’m seeing less business because customers don’t want to come to this area.”

It doesn’t matter to him that city workers occasionally come through to collect trash and spray down the street. Nor is he mollified by the idea of moving everyone to a nearby lot.

“All they do is coddle these people,” Conemac said. “No one is on the owners’ side of anything.”

A homeless encampment on Deering Avenue in Canoga Park. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

As a five-year resident and unofficial leader of the Deering Avenue encampment, Gilberto Gutierrez wasn’t interested when someone came by recently to offer temporary housing 10 miles away in the mid-San Fernando Valley.

“That’s way too far,” Gutierrez said. “Here, we know how to do stuff.”

Like other camps around the city, the group has developed its own microeconomy, rooting through trash bins for recyclable materials and scavenging old bicycle parts to repair and sell.

There can be another reason for refusing help.

The 38-year-old Gutierrez, wearing sunglasses and black hoodie pulled over his head, kneels beside a car to shade himself from the late-afternoon sun. A motorcycle accident and long hospital stay have left him jobless and in constant pain; an addiction to meth doesn’t jibe with checking into a shelter.

“Everywhere you go, you have to follow rules,” he said. “I don’t want that.”

What about a temporary camp with fewer regulations? Might he and his group opt for a safe place to pitch their tents for a while, a place to get help? Gutierrez smiles from behind those big, dark glasses.

“There are many people who might like that,” he said. “It just depends.”

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