ARCHITECTURE
Column

What those homeless camps along L.A.'s freeways mean for a public space once above it all

Christopher Hawthorne
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Jonathan Coleman is a 24-year-old drummer who moved to Los Angeles from Tennessee to pursue a career in music. He is struggling to make it. He spends most nights in a sleeping bag on a sidewalk downtown, along a stretch of Main Street that spans the 101 Freeway and is crowded with roughly a dozen tents and lean-tos.

"We try not to cause any trouble," he said, sitting with his back against a chain-link fence along the overpass and fidgeting with a large cross around his neck, the early afternoon freeway traffic beginning to back up on the lanes below.

"A lot of the people along here are elderly," he added, gesturing toward the tents to his right. "We can look out for each other."

From his spot on the sidewalk you can see both the spire of City Hall, less than two blocks away, and several other encampments nestled near the 101.

All over Los Angeles, ad-hoc tent cities like his are cropping up along, above and under freeways, a phenomenon that is upending how we think about the biggest and most conspicuous kind of infrastructure in the region.

The freeway system, which Southern Californians once saw as a ticket to freedom, an emblem of L.A.'s love of individuality and movement, increasingly serves as a landscape of hard luck and a desperate sort of community — a place to hunker down.

In pursuing a monumental scale, the freeway has historically refused to acknowledge its role in shaping, dividing or serving individual neighborhoods. Unlike the boulevard, which operates at both regional and local levels, the freeway knows only one register. It keeps its eye permanently fixed on the wider horizon, the macro city. There is no public space in the city so aloof from its local surroundings or so rigorously organized to repel people on foot.

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But the vacuum seal that once kept the L.A. freeway separate from economic and social pressures has been broken. As the homeless population grows in a city whose public realm is the haggard product of several decades of neglect, the freeway has taken on a crucial, if often dispiriting, neighborhood role despite itself.

The California Department of Transportation does not keep statistics on how many people are camped in its rights of way, but according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, an agency established by the city and county, the number of encampments and vehicles occupied by the homeless has risen 85% in the last two years alone.

"Everybody senses that the number of freeway encampments has gone up," said Adam Murray, executive director of the Inner City Law Center, a legal organization located in skid row.

Along the 110 Freeway leading north out of downtown, said Mike Alvidrez, executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, "you can see the folks on both sides of the freeway — encampments in places I've never seen before."

The root cause for the rise of the encampments, most advocates for the homeless agree, is a city that is becoming more expensive and more crowded. The ranks of the chronically homeless in Los Angeles County have grown by more than 50% in the last two years, to more than 12,000 people, according to one study. If you count all the people who are homeless at least part of the time, the figure rises to an estimated 44,000.

Downtown L.A. has long had a large homeless population, but as development and gentrification remake the area, the land alongside freeways has become a refuge.

There's almost nowhere else to go. Skid row is being squeezed on nearly every side by new construction. The city has a shortage of parks and open space, particularly downtown.

The homeless are pushed to any city's seams, its unlovely edges and forgotten or in-between spaces. And the biggest, most prominent seam in Los Angeles is the freeway system.

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With the growth of those encampments comes new, pressing and uncomfortable questions for local and state agencies — especially for Caltrans. The agency, which for decades has focused on building roads and freeways, has struggled to address the basic fact that it ought to have an overarching homeless policy, to say nothing of actually articulating one.

The need for action, however, could hardly be clearer. For a vulnerable population such as the ranks of L.A.'s homeless, whose mental and physical health are often fragile to begin with, the noise and air pollution produced by a major freeway can be especially harmful.

For the most part, Caltrans addresses the issue in a reactive rather than proactive way. The agency does close encampments, but usually in response to complaints. The encampments near freeways tend to be isolated from neighboring residents and businesses. The L.A. freeway belongs to everybody — and nobody.

"It's a safe space to the extent that it's a space that you're less likely to get harassed out of," Murray said. "When people are living in public spaces, a lot of when they have to move is when somebody calls and complains."

Caltrans spokesman Patrick Chandler said the state is well within its rights to evict people living alongside freeways.

"Under the law, they are trespassing on state property," he said. "Our crews will post a 72-hour notice. A lot of times we do go out there with people who provide services to these people."

In 2009, a large homeless encampment was cleared out beneath the 605 Freeway near El Monte after officials said it was home to several dozen adults living in especially dangerous conditions.

New encampments, though typically smaller, are popping up out in the open, and in what appear to be far greater numbers. In Caltrans District 7, which covers Los Angeles and Ventura counties, the agency controls more than 9,000 acres of land along the freeways.

Homeless services agencies are increasingly frustrated at a lack of progress in using so-called linkage fees or other strategies requiring real-estate developers to help fund affordable housing. Anyone who drives or walks near downtown Los Angeles these days is familiar with the stark contrast between encampments scattered in the foreground, along the freeways, and the construction cranes filling the skyline.

"That's the other piece of this," said Alvidrez. "There's this obvious real estate boom, and we're not capitalizing on it."

In the broadest sense, the freeway encampments — like the tent cities along the Los Angeles River and other storm channels that authorities are racing to clear before winter rains arrive — suggest a significant shift in the role played by the region's large-scale public-works projects.

It is no longer possible for that infrastructure to stand apart from the rest of Los Angeles, either literally or symbolically. The city is increasingly pushing up against it, asking it to take on a broader set of responsibilities than it was designed to provide.

Just ask Jonathan Coleman. He doesn't own a car. But it would be fair to say he uses the freeway all the same.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 26, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "No longer above it all - A largely aloof public space must confront harsh reality" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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