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Amid Hollywood glitter, police clear squatters from abandoned building, describing grim conditions

More than 60 people who were living illegally in a vacant building without electricity on Hollywood Boulevard were removed by police early Wednesday morning. (Video by Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Just steps from the tourists taking selfies at the famed corner of Hollywood and Vine, a different Tinseltown scene was unfolding inside an old commercial building.

From the outside, the structure looked abandoned amid the sea of upscale developments spreading across a revitalized Hollywood.

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But inside, dozens of squatters had created a makeshift home — complete with framed-out rooms scattered with inflatable mattresses, personal belongings and garbage. Illegal wiring powered microwaves, coffee makers and other electronics.

When authorities arrived at the building Wednesday morning, they said, the filth and stench of human waste was overwhelming. Police detained more than 60 people who were living in what residents described as an artists community.

The conditions were similar to those at the Ghost Ship, an Oakland warehouse-turned-artists residence that caught fire in 2016, killing 36 people. That building also had been powered by makeshift wiring and filled with debris. It remains unknown exactly what sparked the Ghost Ship blaze.

“It could have been an absolute disaster. It could have been a fatal situation for these people,” Los Angeles Police Det. Meghan Aguilar said Wednesday of the Hollywood building.

Both the Ghost Ship and the Hollywood space point to the growing desperation of people, particularly artists and performers, looking to secure a place to live at a time of rapid gentrification and rising housing prices.

Some of the squatters said they actually had paid rent, roughly $400 for a room. Aguilar said detectives have not confirmed whether people were giving money to the landlord or to someone who had designated themselves — legitimate or not — as a property manager.

The landlord could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Andre Bergerren, a former resident of the building who moved to Los Angeles from Houston in 2016, said some people had arrived there after being evicted from a nearby artists collective. Many of the residents feared that the Los Angeles Police Department would lose or destroy their possessions after the raid. Others had a more basic worry: Where would they sleep?

“These people are gonna be on the street,” Bergerren said.

Jasmine Acosta, 25, said officers entered the building before dawn and ordered residents out. She said she pleaded to be allowed to get her three pit bulls out of the building after the raid.

With rents in Hollywood and across Los Angeles soaring, she said, the space felt like home. She and other residents were in the process of putting up lights and painting the walls.

“It’s just like a safe home that we made on the boulevard,” she said, adding that many of the people inside had moved to Los Angeles to follow their creative pursuits.

The building had been the home of the iO West improvisational comedy theater until it closed in February.

It wasn’t long before community members began complaining about increased drug use along that stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. In June, officials narrowed in on the building and removed 20 people who had been living there.

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This time, investigators and SWAT officers arrived about 3 a.m. — search warrant in hand — and began calling for people inside to exit. Eight people walked out of the building on their own. Dozens more left when officers began combing through the building, room by room, over the course of several hours.

By the end of the sweep, 62 adults, four teens and three large dogs had filed out of the building. Most of the occupants were released after being cited for trespassing. Those with warrants for their arrest remain in custody.

Police also seized drugs and two firearms, a shotgun and a rifle, Aguilar said.

The building was not supposed to have electrical service, Aguilar said, but residents had pulled wires to create their own power, which could have sparked a fire.

The Ghost Ship blaze prompted a crackdown on illegal warehouse dwelling both in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles. Authorities about the same time cleared out numerous illegal spaces across the state and vowed more aggressive inspections and prosecutions of those who put the lives of desperate tenants in jeopardy.

But the efforts sparked a backlash from some renters who said such dwellings were the only shelter they could afford.

This was the view of many in the Hollywood building.

It was a tough morning for them. Some argued with police about getting access to belongings, such as wallets and identification, that they had left inside.

Acosta said she believed authorities could have warned residents before forcing them into the streets.

“Even if we are squatters, there should be an eviction notice,” she said.

Police said they had no choice but to act, saying the building was unsafe.

“It’s not like we’re trying to put people out on the street. But buildings like this one are havens for all kinds of criminal activity,” Aguilar said. “We can’t have buildings like this in Los Angeles.”

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