L.A. fire: Homeless woman awaits return to temporary home

Woman living beneath overpass describes being awakened by 'tower of fire' from downtown L.A. blaze

Maria Joya lives beneath a vine-covered freeway overpass in downtown Los Angeles. She's used to the rumble of traffic above her or the sound of drunk men stopping to urinate on the sidewalk near her makeshift bed.

But in the dark of early Monday morning, she woke up because her feet felt hot.

She was barefoot and had her toes sticking out from beneath her powder blue Cinderella blanket. Half awake, she began to cough.

"Then I started screaming, 'Oh my God! Oh my God!'" Joya said in Spanish. "I saw a tower of fire."

The 54-year-old jumped up and thought of her friends who also live under the freeway.

"I started screaming, 'George! Tony!'" she said. "'Wake up! Wake up! Fire!' It's burning, it's burning.'"

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She ran up and down the sidewalk, trying to wake everyone up, Joya said. Then she turned around to examine the fire engulfing an under-construction apartment complex.

"There were tongues of fire," she said. "I just started crying."

The flames spread almost instantaneously.

"The ball of fire looked like it exploded," Joya said. "It went, 'Boom! Bam!' And it just started spreading."

Her eyes darted back and forth between the flames and her cart filled with the cardboard she recycles for cash.

Joya looked at her little gray kitten and piles of donated clothes that she divvies up among her friends. She looked at the little Santa Claus-shaped chocolate she'd been saving. It's all she needs in L.A. for Christmas, she says, although she misses her children in El Salvador.

"This is my little home," she said, pointing at her belongings. "And I was scared I might lose it all."

Joya, who sometimes gets work cleaning homes but has trouble because she is in the country illegally, has lived underneath the 110 Freeway for a year and a half.

In recent months, she said, there have been rumblings that she and her friends might be pushed out of the area by development.

"We knew that when this opened we'd have to move to another spot," Joya said. "The police will come around and give us tickets."

She said she liked the look of the apartments and similar ones across the street. She often keeps an eye out, especially at night when she has trouble sleeping.

"I'm like the mom here," Joya said. "I'm the security."

She said she often noticed one security guard posted outside the DaVinci construction too.

"I feel bad for the owner," Joya said, pointing toward the simmering skeleton of the building. "Imagine how much money he spent."

Hours later, Joya was still waiting to get back to the area she had been calling home. She said her diabetes medicine is still there and she isn't able to go back and get it.

Joya said she and about a dozen homeless people staying under the freeway would probably just look for nearby benches to steps to sleep on if her makeshift home wasn't reopened soon by police.

Robert Bean, 38, was lying on his mattress under the 110 Freeway when a man approached him in the darkness and told him a fire had broken out around the corner of Temple Street and Fremont Avenue. 

"Uh-huh," Bean responded casually.

But the man was insistent, telling him the fire  was burning near the homeless  encampment. Take a look, he told Bean.

Bean walked east on Temple Street and gazed beneath a gap under the 110 Freeway interchange to the 101 Freeway. He looked up.

"It was a huge fire," he said. "It was burning all over."

Bean kept walking to get a closer look. The sight was terrible, he said.

"You could just feel the heat from it," he said. "I was scared because I thought it was going to spread fast."

Bean immediately tried to alert other homeless people.

He said firefighters showed up several minutes later and forced everyone to leave. Bean said he left without his belongings as did other homeless people.

Many items, such as blue tarps, clothing and blankets, lay on the sidewalk Monday around 10 a.m. as water used to fight the monster blaze flowed along the curb.

Bean sneaked past the "do not cross" tape to retrieve a shopping cart filled with personal items.

For more, follow @marisagerber and @latvives on Twitter.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

11:32 a.m.: This article was updated to add information from an interview with Robert Bean.

The first version of this article was published at 10:37 a.m.

3:02 p.m.: This article updated with information about Maria Joya still waiting to be let back into the area under the freeway that she had been calling home.

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