Los Angeles (CNN) — On a recent Friday morning, sanitation workers, homeless workers and Los Angeles Police officers arrived on a small street in the west of the city. Jasmine Avenue is lined with low-rise apartment blocks, a towering Catholic church, a school, and a handful of dilapidated mobile homes.
On Jasmine Avenue that morning, they offered camper residents $500 gift cards and a motel room. The city also offered to tow and destroy their campers. One of the vehicles managed to drive away under its own power, with what looked like sewage running down the road. This cleanup is a small part of what has been a piecemeal approach by officials trying to deal with a burgeoning phenomenon of people living permanently in trailers on these streets.
“I’ll take a motel room,” a camper owner told me as he packed up after about six months on Jasmine Avenue. “See what happens”. But he didn’t let the city tow and wreck his trailer. He towed it himself, with a chain and a beat-up SUV. He wants to keep her.
“The thought that our clients sometimes have is, ‘What if this doesn’t work? If it doesn’t work, I’m back on the street. I’m back to the beginning,'” explains LaTonya Smith, interim CEO of the nonprofit St. Joseph Center. for profit that helps the city find housing for the homeless. “People who live in campervans are considered housed, and in order for them to leave that RV, sometimes we have to incentivize them.”
According to him last count, there are more than 11,000 people living in campers throughout Los Angeles County. And that number has been increasing. The covid-19 pandemic forced more people into poverty. Some of those who live in trailers have jobs but can’t afford or want to pay rent for an apartment in a city where the median cost of a one-bedroom apartment is about $2,500 a month.
Some of those who live in campers own the vehicles, but others rent them for a monthly fee ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000, Councilwoman Traci Park told CNN.
In Los Angeles is allowed to sleep in a vehicle in some streets. Of course, there are parking restrictions on many more. But as the number of campers has grown, it has become more difficult to enforce those restrictions. Large, immobile mobile homes require large cranes. And, according to the city, destroying a dilapidated mobile home that may contain harmful chemicals can cost up to $9,000 per vehicle.
Workers at the St. Joseph Center interact regularly with camper residents. A spokesperson told CNN: “Staff encounter a large percentage, probably safe to say up to 80-85%, of individuals who are ‘renting’ a camper or may have purchased one that is not fit to live in or through of a ‘legal’ sale”.
Park and others argue that these trailer homes endanger residents and blight neighborhoods, act as magnets for crime and harm the environment. Some homeless advocates agree that the impact on city neighborhoods is an issue.
“There can be trash everywhere,” says Smith of the St. Joseph Center, “People come into their neighborhoods and homes, that’s not something they really want to see.”
In the five years since Los Angeles County commissioned one of many reports about the RV problem and possible solutions, the number of RVs on county roads has increased by more than 50%: from more than 4,500, in 2018, to more than 7,100, at last count. The reports are regularly requested and produced by various city and county departments.
“I’m tired of studies and reporting,” Park told CNN recently in her freshly painted City Hall office. She was elected last year on a platform brimming with intent to address the various homeless issues plaguing Los Angeles. One of her first targets are what she calls “RV lords,” some of whom rent shabby and unsafe campervans.
“There is a thriving trade in campervans being rented as homes on the Internet,” says Park.
Park proposed a motion that would explicitly add mobile homes to a portion of the City Code that “prohibits a person or entity from reserving any street, parking space, or other public space without written authorization from the City while conducting business involving new and used vehicles.” The motion would also require RV owners to comply with a state law, “which requires that any recreational vehicle offered for sale, sold, rented or leased within California meet the American National Institute for Standards and the Fire Protection Association.
Right now, he said, “apparently anyone in the city of Los Angeles can buy a junky RV off a salvage lot and without any kind of oversight or regulation, rent that unsafe, inoperable vehicle to a vulnerable person as a housing unit.” .
“This is not about criminalizing the homeless. This is about regulating what is currently an unregulated market that is causing serious public safety and environmental consequences across the city,” Park said.
“Too often, mobile homes used as street dwellings in Los Angeles are in a serious state of disrepair,” Park’s proposed motion reads, in part. “This means that the people who live in them face unsanitary and sometimes dangerous conditions.”
Not everyone agrees with her.
“Actually, it’s good to provide people with accommodation,” even if it’s an RV, said Dmitry Korikov, a filmmaker who says he volunteers helping people, mainly refugees from Russia and Ukraine, navigate campervan life in the Los Angeles streets. “I lived in a mobile home myself for two years. So I know how [funcionan] things, how the system works”.
Korikov tells RV-dwellers which streets they can park on and puts them in touch with private companies that service the vehicles for a fee: they fill the drinking water tanks, empty the sewage tanks, and sweep the sidewalks.
“Everyone should have the right to use public roads,” Korikov told CNN. “If you can’t give them an apartment or give them a job so they can afford an apartment and you tell them they have to be in tents on the street, but not rent someone’s RV, that’s evil.”
CNN exposed Korikov’s arguments to Park.
“I understand the dilemma,” he said. “On the other hand, I’ve seen too many of these explosions and these fires and we have to deal with the collateral impacts that these vehicles are causing in our neighborhoods.” A small number of people have died in RV fires on the streets in recent years, according to reports local.
Park says she is concerned that homeless people are being exploited by RV owners. And he worries about the impact campervans are having on neighborhoods in his district, which includes Venice and much of West Los Angeles, where the homeless population tends to be highest.
A Venice resident told me that he recently came home from work to find that the sewage tank of a mobile home had emptied onto the road. He had to walk through human excrement to get to the door of his house.
“We haven’t solved the mobile home problem yet,” stated Mayor Karen Bass to the Los Angeles Times in March. “But we will, because it is a very serious matter.”
One of the first steps she took upon taking office as mayor late last year was to declare a state of emergency regarding homelessness. Her first target was not the mobile homes on the streets, but the tents on the sidewalks. Her administration has swept out more than a dozen tent camps and moved more than 1,000 people into temporary motel accommodations, according to stated the city administrative officer. The operation was dubbed Inside Safe.
The idea is to end up moving all those people into permanent housing, in line with an increasingly popular doctrine among housing researchers known as “housing first” or “housing first.” The theory is that the most effective measure to prevent a person from becoming homeless is to provide housing and then offer other services, such as mental health or drug abuse treatment.
Bass’s office, the city manager’s office and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority cannot say how many of the people who left the streets under “Inside Safe” now have permanent housing. The mayor will hold a press roundtable in the coming weeks to discuss the data, her office said. The St. Joseph Center found permanent housing for 32 people. A spokesperson told CNN that the center expects those numbers to increase in June.
“I’m not going to leave people on the streets while we build,” Bass told CNN this spring. “People are dying on these streets.”
As for the mobile homes, a pilot program in a town hall district, in about 15 months, it has managed to get 41 campervans off the streets and move seven people to permanent housing. “For this reason, our program will be used as a model throughout the city, represented in the 2023-2024 budget, approved in May 2023,” Councilwoman Mónica Rodríguez told CNN. That city budget includes $1.3 billion to fight homelessness.
City officials have approved a plan to address the RV problem that includes a concerted campaign to reach out to RV residents, encouraging them to move into motel rooms, creating secure parking areas where RVs can fit. and finding permanent housing for those who live in it. Now you have to put that plan into practice.
This last and fundamental piece of the puzzle is possibly the most difficult.
“We need more housing. We need more safe, affordable housing,” Smith says. But housing is expensive and takes time to build. And for now, for thousands of people, an RV roof is all they can afford in Los Angeles.
Source: CNN Espanol