In an effort to drive out individuals experiencing homelessness near the Los Angeles River, public works officials placed rocks where their encampments were located, causing them to have to relocate.
Los Angeles County Public Works, under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, placed the rocks by the bike trail entrance alongside the LA River located at San Francisco Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach
According to Steven Frasher, public information officer at LACPW, the placement of the rocks occurred on Oct. 10 and was conducted in order to prevent erosion from rain and flooding.
“The work is part of year-round efforts to maintain Los Angeles County flood control infrastructure in preparation for winter storm seasons,” Frasher said.
To some individuals who frequent the trail, the added rocks may not seem like a serious concern, though they have significantly impacted the housing situation of Ignacio Hernandez, 54, and his wife.
“It’s not about a clean up. It’s all about harassing the homeless…. They didn’t clean anything. They didn’t do anything,” Hernandez said. “I just watched them [from] behind a cactus as they took all my property and put it in the dump trucks, and some of my stuff they actually put in their own vehicles to take home.”
According to Hernandez, Ocean Blue, an independent waste management company contracted by the city of Long Beach, had informed those living alongside the trail that a sweep would be conducted. He said he was unaware of the exact day of the scheduled cleanup, though, so he did not collect his personal belongings.
When asked several times to answer questions regarding details of the cleanup and whether those residing in encampments would receive their confiscated possessions, Ocean Blue declined to comment.
Justin Lee, director of administration for Ocean Blue, did, however, provide the company’s procedures.
According to Lee, Ocean Blue must obtain an address of cleanup, then conduct walk-throughs with the client or agency who hired them, along with members of law enforcement and social outreach programs.
Prior to cleaning, law enforcement is supposed to ensure all individuals temporarily residing in encampments in the area have vacated, according to Lee. On the day of cleaning, Ocean Blue first sanitizes the area, obtains any personal belongings to either save or throw away, bags all trash or debris and re-sanitizes the area.
Herrnandez had gone out to the store on the day of the cleanup and said he returned to find city officials and police officers by his encampment.
Hernandez said he had already been arrested for “talking back” to the police when Ocean Blue conducted a clean up. He had been asked by a judge to keep away from the bike trail by the LA River as part of his summary probation. If he did return, he would be placed in jail for six months and charged with trespassing, the judge told him.
“They talk shit to me. I talk shit right back. Show me respect [and] I give you respect. These people don’t know me, they just judge me. Maybe it’s the tattoos, maybe the fact that I’m homeless right now,” Hernandez said. “I’m not a scumbag, and I’m not gonna let these cops treat me like one.”
After Ocean Blue conducted its clean up, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District began placing the rocks in that area.
The issue has prompted citizen activists like Sheila Muhammad, 58, to become involved in an effort to assist the community. Muhammad said she frequents the trail often and has engaged in community outreach on Sundays by the river, called Serene Sunday Service.
She said she noticed the placement of the rocks while driving on the Pacific Coast Highway bridge that passes over the trail.
“I was like, ‘wait a minute, something looks different over there,’” Muhammad said. “Then a couple days went by, and I was determined to make sure I was not seeing things. So I turned off PCH and went over to the entrance and just shook my head. I was mad. I started taking pictures and cussing at the wind.”
After the cleanup, Hernandez said he had to purchase a new tent after LA County Public Works “came in with a bulldozer and they tore up my steps [and] all the stuff that I built.”
Muhammod said that before the placement of the rocks, she was taken by “how lovely they had their encampment.”
“He had been landscaping. He made these steps out of the mud that was there, and they had tapestries up. They had partitions,” Muhammad said. “And we were amazed at how lovely they kept it.”
After Muhammad found out about the placement of the rocks, she said she informed Long Beach People’s Collective, a community outreach program. LBPC posted photos of the rocks on Instagram in an effort to raise awareness of the issue.
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According to LBPC member Jos Charles, 32, the city of Long Beach has enough resources to accommodate those experiencing food and housing insecurity and should be doing so.
“There is enough space, shelter, food, capital—there has been and there is. The problem is a system of distribution which hoards it for a few rather than all,” Charles said. “So, as long as the city doesn’t distribute fairly, doesn’t serve us, we will try as we can, and so should you. And who knows, maybe we’ll find, collectively, [that] we don’t need what doesn’t serve us in the first place.”
This story was updated on Jan. 21, 2021 to correct Muhammad’s age.