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Unhoused Residents Displaced During Heatwave Ahead of Councilmember Bob Blumenfield’s ‘Fireworks Extravaganza’ in The Valley

“The specific location of this encampment is feet away from where the fireworks will be launched and directly under where shells of those fireworks can come down...regardless of if they are housed or unhoused,” the Communications Director for Councilmember Bob Blumenfield’s office said in a statement.

2:30 PM PDT on July 6, 2023

Photo by Lexis-Olivier Ray for L.A. TACO.

Unhoused residents living in Council District 3 say they were displaced by a CARE+ sanitation cleaning ahead of Councilmember Bob Blumenfield’s Fireworks Extravaganza, an annual 4th of July celebration at Warner Ranch Park in Woodland Hills featuring music, vendors, and fireworks.

“Please be sure to remove everything because this is the location of the 4th of July celebration,” noted a CARE+ sanitation schedule obtained by L.A. TACO through a source who does not want to be identified. “5,000 people will be in attendance.”

A LA Sanitation (LASAN) spokesperson confirmed that the cleanup happened on July 3, a day before the fireworks extravaganza.

“Our team cleaned loose litter, trash, and debris,” said Elena Stern. “There were no individuals or encampments in the area at the time of the operation.”

Jake Flynn, the Communications Director for Councilmember Bob Blumenfield’s office, said in a statement that the council member and CD 3 staff, as well as service providers, conducted outreach “for several weeks leading up to the annual event” and offered people “transitional housing at the Willows and through SHARE!." 

“So just like any CARE+ in CD 3, the focus remains outreach, services, and connecting folks with housing,” the statement reads in part.

Flynn explained that the Valley Cultural Foundation, the organizer of the annual event, “secures permits that temporarily restrict parking and usage for everyone on Vassar [Avenue]. This is because there are pedestrian barriers and such that go up to assist the thousands of people who use the street as an entrance/exit and to help ensure no one is in danger during the actual firework show.”

Flynn said that for safety reasons, nobody was permitted in the area where the encampment was, “regardless of if they are housed or unhoused.”

“The specific location of this encampment is feet away from where the fireworks will be launched and directly under where shells of those fireworks can come down,” Flynn said.

When asked how many people were moved indoors during the cleanup, Flynn responded, “My understanding is that the offers for housing were not accepted, but the encampment consisted of a few RVs, so they decided to stay in their RVs and move them from the firework zone.”

“They didn’t offer us shit,” a woman named Robin said while resting her sore legs in the small camping trailer that she lives in with her boyfriend, Mike. “They don’t even stop to give us water anymore.”

Earlier that morning, the couple pushed and pulled their trailer from Vassar Avenue to a P.F. Chang’s parking lot around the corner, in what Robin estimated was 80-degree weather. When one of the camper’s wheels fell off, Mike, who suffers from seizures and a leg infection that worries Robin and makes it difficult for him to walk, turned to a sanitation worker for help.

“They saw us struggling,” Robin recalled. When they asked if the worker had a paperclip to help secure the wheel, the worker responded, ‘We don’t do that.’”

“It was disheartening,” said Robin.

According to Mike and Robin, everyone “scattered” due to the clean-up. The couple planned to be towed out of the P.F. Chang’s parking lot later that evening. 

The July 3 CARE+ operation comes about a week after William Gude, also known as Film The Police L.A. on social media, tweeted a screenshot of an email revealing that police were planning a mass arrest during an upcoming CARE+ cleanup at an encampment a couple of miles away from Warner Ranch Park in neighboring Council District 12.

“I just wanted to let you know that the scheduled cleanup with the sanitation will take place on Thursday, June 29th," the email from LAPD Officer Brittney Gutierrez reads. "Everyone will be arrested, and all their belongings will be taken away by sanitation.”

"As always, do not approach these individuals experiencing homelessness," wrote Gutierrez. "I want to make sure all are there at the encampment on the 29th so I can arrest them. This is a hush hush task force."

In a statement, the LAPD described Officer Gutierrez's comments as “highly inappropriate” and announced they would host a “community meeting in the coming weeks.”

Mayor Bass told the Los Angeles Times that she was “horrified” by Gutierrez’s comments and she wasn’t aware of any mass arrests during encampment cleanups. City Controller Kenneth Mejia vowed to investigate the matter. Several council members and a state assembly member publicly condemned the email. 

Councilmember Bob Blumenfield tweeted that he found the email “extremely disturbing” and said he spoke “directly with the LAPD’s Topanga Division captain about it.”

“Although Shadow Ranch Park and these encampments are not in my Council district, arresting people anywhere simply for being homeless is never acceptable," the letter said. "Furthermore, cleanups are supposed to be posted, noticed, and preceded with, and accompanied by, appropriate outreach.”

“In CD3, we focus on outreach, service, and housing. Building trust is imperative, and the language used in that email is the antithesis of what we as a city are trying to accomplish.”

Robin says law enforcement told her and Mike they’d be arrested if they didn’t move by July 3 and that they haven’t been offered “housing” in the past, only tiny homes. The couple is interested in “adequate housing,” Robin says. That means a place with privacy, where they can live with their four cats, whom they consider “like family.” 

Launched in late-2019 by former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city council, the Cleaning and Rapid Engagement (CARE) program was originally intended to be a “service-led” approach to cleaning encampments, one that moved away from criminalizing homelessness and towards an approach that included services like bathrooms, showers, and housing.

Since then, the program has faced criticism from unhoused residents and activists who say that CARE's “sweeps” rarely bring services to encampments or result in people being moved off the streets. Instead, they claim the sweeps result in unhoused people being displaced and having their possessions trashed.

An L.A. TACO analysis of three years of CARE program data from LAHSA found that unhoused people are rarely moved into housing due to CARE outreach. Fewer than 10 percent of people engaged by outreach workers through the CARE program were moved into interim shelter, and less than one percent were moved into “permanent supportive housing” under Garcetti’s leadership.

A little more than 100 people were moved into shelters, motels, and other interim housing through CARE's outreach during Bass’ first four months in office, according to an analysis of data obtained from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) by L.A. TACO.

By comparison, Bass has moved more than 1,300 people indoors through Inside Safe, a city-wide effort that Bass launched in December to move people living in large encampments into motels.

In a statement, Mayor Bass told L.A. TACO:

“Over the past six months, Inside Safe operations in some cases have prevented the need for potential future CARE+ cleanups, which are directed by Council Offices, because the individuals living where the Inside Safe operations have occurred were moved inside.”

Bass has not called for any substantial changes to be made to the CARE+ program, despite recent incidents like the “hush-hush task force” email and other instances of CARE+ operations leading to unhoused people losing belongings and being displaced.

In March, L.A. TACO reported that an encampment on the outskirts of Obama Park in South L.A. was cleared for an L.A. Public Works job fair after a full day of rain.

“We want the council office and our GM to be proud of the way the area looks on Thursday,” a CARE+ sanitation schedule noted.

“They made us move. All of my stuff got taken,” said Scarlett, an unhoused woman suffering from chronic bronchitis who lost her tent during the sweep.

Referrals for interim housing were made, but nobody was moved indoors during the CARE+ operation or in the days after, according to a spokesperson for LAHSA.

“They say they put us on the list, but there’s no room,” said Scarlett.

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