At ‘epicenter of the homelessness crisis in San Pedro,’ encampment cleanups have continued despite pandemic

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While sweeps of homeless encampments were largely suspended throughout Los Angeles during the pandemic, one council district has been continuing with comprehensive cleanups for months.

L.A.’s encampment cleanup program, CARE+, has been partly on pause since the pandemic took hold in 2020 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that clearing encampments could lead to people dispersing throughout the city and spreading the coronavirus.

Then, in July 2020, the L.A. City Council voted to resume the comprehensive cleanups, but only in zones outside “A Bridge Home” shelters set up by the city. The overall encampment cleanup program is now set to resume citywide on Sept. 1.

But Councilman Joe Buscaino’s Harbor Area-based district has been conducting the comprehensive cleanups in all major encampments since December, when the councilman got an exception to continue the cleanups throughout the district. Homeless advocates have spoken out against the cleanups and described them as disruptive.

Now the councilman, who is running for L.A. mayor in the 2022 race, is touting success in reducing the size of the district’s largest homeless encampments, attributing it in part to the area having several different housing solutions.

Beacon Street in San Pedro had been the site of a sprawling homeless encampment that exploded at the beginning of the pandemic to over 200 tents, according to Buscaino, who described it as “epicenter of the homelessness crisis in San Pedro.”

There were 120 people staying along the street in March 2020, according to Buscaino’s office. Now, just a handful of tents could be seen this week, with 10 tents further down the street and outside the bridge shelter “Special Enforcement Zone.” Buscaino’s office couldn’t say exactly how many people had been provided shelter.

“There wasn’t social distancing happening in these dangerous encampments, so I asked my colleagues, if you don’t want to clean the rest of the city, let me at least start cleaning and engaging with the homeless in my district,” Buscaino told KTLA. “What we’ve seen is, without resuming of comprehensive cleanups, it attracts nuisances.”

Along Beacon Street, the cleanups happen every week because it’s in a special enforcement zone, near a shelter that opened in July 2020.

Unlike “spot cleanings,” comprehensive cleanups require people to move their tents so sanitation crews can remove trash and power wash sidewalks.

“This was our Venice Beach Boardwalk. This was our Echo Park Lake,” Buscaino said, referring to two locations in the city that have garnered attention for large encampments and controversial efforts to clear them.

While Buscaino’s office says their approach has greatly helped reduce the size of encampments, including another one at Lomita Boulevard and Mccoy Avenue in Harbor City, homeless advocates oppose the cleanups. They argue the sweeps displace people who could just end up elsewhere on the streets.

“They are harmful, and destructive and they break up communities,” said Danielle Nunez, Street Watch L.A. organizer and San Pedro native. “If you had to move your belongings every single week for the past seven months, that gets tiresome. … We should not be punishing people for being poor.”

Some also oppose the cleanups while the coronavirus increasingly circulates.

Chris Venn, San Pedro resident and member of the Services Not Sweeps Coalition, often comes out to monitor the sweeps in the area.

“My concern is, why are these residents being forced out of their tents in a period of a resurgence of the COVID pandemic?” Venn said.

One woman, Kelly McCard, lived in a tent on Beacon Street for a year, but has since relocated to the nearby shelter. She said moving indoors helped get her drug treatment and the support she needs to find permanent housing and a job.

“I was ready to go inside,” she said. “I had enough. It wasn’t safe for me to be out there.”

Where she is now, the mother of seven can count on being safer than when she was out on the street.

“It was horrible, especially with the crime,” McCard said. “And for females, it was really tough.” 

Others remain in the encampments, with several telling KTLA they’re still trying to get alternative housing. One unhoused resident, Jennifer Morris, said she is keeping her belongings in a tent on the street despite having shelter because there’s nowhere else to put them.

Buscaino said many of those still living on the sidewalks have been offered transitional housing “many times,” but have not accepted.

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