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After A Day Of Rain, The City Cleared Homeless People From ‘Obama Park’ For A Public Works Job Fair

11:15 AM PDT on March 17, 2023

On Wednesday morning the City of Los Angeles planned to clear Michelle and Barack Obama Sports Complex in South L.A. of homeless encampments. “The cleanup is mainly due to the Public Works Job Fair,” a March 15 sanitation schedule obtained by L.A. TACO noted.

The schedules are typically sent out to outreach workers and service providers during the week either the evening before a cleaning or morning of. They’re not made available to the public and the Karen Bass administration as well as L.A. Sanitation has declined to forward them to L.A. TACO, despite multiple inquiries. Typically city council offices work with L.A. Sanitation and the mayor’s office to coordinate clean ups.

“Our GM Barabara Romero wants to be sure we assist [Recreation and Parks] with getting the park in shape for the job fair. We need to process any encampments, clear any illegal dumpings and assist Recreation and Parks where needed.”

The sanitation schedule noted that there was at least one homeless encampment inside of the park as well as an “encampment on park property on the front of the park near where MLK & Obama merge before La Brea.” As well as potentially encampments in the back parking lot.

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

On Thursday, Elena Stern, Senior Public Information Director of the Department of Public Works, told L.A. TACO that due to “wet weather” the sanitation cleaning was limited to “spot cleaning only.” Which typically means that unhoused people are not required to take down their tents and move.

According to L.A. Municipal Code 56.11—a city law that bans tents in public spaces during the day—tents can remain up “during rainfall or when the temperature is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.”

In a statement Stern said that the comment on the sanitation schedule “was not made by GM Romero” and that Romero “has never commented on daily [sanitation schedules].” According to Stern, sanitation schedules are prepared by staff “and someone inaccurately projected what they thought [Romero] wanted.”

Stern attributed Wednesday’s cleaning to flooding. “The cleaning yesterday at that location was an emergency because the parking lot at the recreation center was flooded. In advance of hundreds of potential city employees coming to the Department of Public Works Career Fair today, the water had to be removed and the area had to be made safe for passage and parking. Such emergency cleanings were requested across the city to clear flooding caused by the most recent storm."

On Friday, John Ma, an outreach volunteer with West Adams Mutual Aid (WAMA), told L.A. TACO that unhoused residents living near the park were displaced by the cleaning on Wednesday and they lost belongings such as tents, weatherproofing materials and personal items. Ma sent a photo of a receipt that shows the mutual aid group purchased three tents from a Big 5 on Crenshaw Blvd to replace the tents that the city either trashed or moved to storage.

According to L.A. Municipal Code 56.11—a city law that bans tents in public spaces during the day—tents can remain up “during rainfall or when the temperature is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, California’s 11th atmospheric river led to widespread flooding in the Southern California area. Likely due to the storm, only four council districts out of 15 scheduled CARE+ cleanings (outside of cleanings near A Bridge Home Shelters, which happen regularly). And no other cleanings on Wednesday mentioned flooding.

Launched in 2019 under former L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, the Cleaning and Rapid Engagement Program (CARE) was intended to be a services-led approach to cleaning encampments. The program pairs outreach workers with sanitation crews.

But critics of the CARE program say that the cleanings, or “sweeps” as they’re commonly referred to, are organized by the city to strategically displace unhoused people from public spaces—rather than house them.

Ahmad Chapman, spokesperson for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA)—the city’s leading homeless services provider—confirmed that LAHSA outreach workers were involved in Wednesday’s cleaning but nobody was placed into shelter or housing.

Last year, more than a dozen unhoused people—some of whom live with serious health conditions—told L.A. TACO that they’ve lost valuable belongings like warm clothing, electronics, money and tents to “sweeps, while they struggled to obtain housing. Outreach workers and service providers, including LAHSA, have said displacing people through “sweeps” makes it more difficult to connect unhoused people with services and housing.

An outreach volunteer with Hope Street Distro who works with unhoused people south of the 10 Freeway told L.A. TACO that CARE+ cleanings have “decimated” their neighborhood in recent weeks. An unhoused person who lives in the West Valley said their encampment was “wiped out” due to a March 16 CARE+ cleanup.

“Haven’t heard of a single person being sheltered,” the outreach worker in South L.A., who didn't want to be identified by name, said via text.

An L.A. TACO analysis of CARE data from LAHSA found that few unhoused people received temporary housing through the CARE program under the previous administration. And almost nobody ended up in permanent supportive housing.

Out of more than 30,000 enrollees, less than 10 percent were moved into interim housing and less than one percent moved into permanent housing.

On average, less than 10% of people engaged by outreach workers through the CARE program were moved into temporary shelter. And only 62 people out of more than 30,000 enrollees found "permanent" housing.

January data from LAHSA obtained by L.A. TACO, shows that CARE enrollments have plummeted under the Karen Bass administration. During Bass’ first full month in office only seven people were sheltered through the CARE program. By comparison, this week Mayor Bass said the city will have "housed" 1,000 people through her Inside Safe initiative by early next week.

When people are sheltered through the CARE program, it can take weeks and in some cases more than a year. According to LAHSA’s January data, one unhoused person enrolled in the CARE program waited more than 500 days to be admitted into a temporary shelter.

Zach Seidl, spokesperson for Mayor Bass, declined to comment on our findings or answer questions related to this story.

In early-February, Seidl stated that “The Mayor is focused on housing as many Angelenos as possible through Inside Safe,” when asked about the future of the CARE program. “As we scale up we will update our usage of different programs including clean-ups.”

On Thursday morning, hundreds of city employees and people looking for jobs arrived to Obama Sportsplex. The fields were still soaked with water and the grass on Obama Boulevard was freshly cut. An E-Z Up tent with Councilmember’s Heather Hutt’s name plastered on it was placed in front of the gymnasium where hundreds of prospective city employees walked by to enter the job fair. The only signs of homelessness observed by an L.A. TACO reporter who attended the job fair were four tents lining the north side of Obama Boulevard about a block east of La Brea Avenue. Blades of wet grass covered the bottom of some tents.

A spokesperson for Councilmember Hutt did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

This story is part of an investigative series centered on homelessness and health for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2022 California Impact Fund.

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