Last December, a wildfire tore up a hillside east of the 405 Freeway in the Sepulveda Pass, destroying six homes, damaging a dozen others in the Bel-Air neighborhood and burning more than 400 acres. The Skirball fire, as it was dubbed, was sparked by a cooking fire at a homeless encampment embedded in a canyon off Sepulveda Boulevard. When authorities found it, all that remained was the charred detritus of campsite cookware and a portable stove. The residents are believed to have survived the fire and moved on. Now the Leo Baeck Temple, located not far from the former encampment, has filed a lawsuit against the city and county of Los Angeles (as well as the state) for damage to their buildings and grounds — estimated to be in the millions of dollars, according to one of the temple’s lawyers. The lawsuit contends that authorities knew about the encampment with its open-air fires and were negligent in allowing it to stay on public property.
It wasn’t a surprise then, or now, that homeless people are resourceful enough to bivouac in steep, brushy hillsides to hide away from street and pedestrian traffic and the hostile passersby they encounter when they camp on sidewalks. But precisely because they are so well-hidden, these enclaves are difficult to find. Not that outreach workers don’t try — often following up on tips they get from members of the public who see homeless people in a brushy area. The encampment near Bel-Air had been visited by outreach workers at some point in the year, but obviously the camp stayed in place.
In the wake of the Skirball fire, L.A. City Council member Paul Koretz — whose district includes the fire area — prodded the Fire Department to lay out steps to make sure this didn’t happen again. And Mayor Eric Garcetti set up a task force of fire and police officials and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to survey high fire danger areas across the city. Going forward, the city decided, when homeless encampments were found burrowed into canyons and hillsides, notices would be put up (on trees, fencing or stakes in the ground) that they were a danger to all and needed to be abandoned. Outreach workers would try to persuade homeless people to leave — for shelter or just somewhere else less risky — and would urge them not to use grills, generators, and the like. Finally, police and Bureau of Sanitation workers would be dispatched to dismantle the camps. People would be taken to shelters if they chose.
According to the mayor’s office, the survey completed in January identified 191 encampments on 58 different sites and all were cleared. But that doesn’t mean homeless people have stopped camping in brush and woods around the city. The city task force is expected to restart its survey and search for encampments again next month.
That’s a smart move. The danger of fire has never been more constant in this area, so it’s vital that we not allow homeless encampments to be a source of ignition. It’s dangerous for homeless people as well as for nearby neighborhoods. Clearing homeless camps in a brushy area is no different from clearing camps in riverbeds before and during rainstorms. It’s a matter of safety.
And that should be the main reason to dismantle a homeless encampment. This shouldn’t be seen as a pretext to roust homeless people from their tents at night on random sidewalks well outside the fire zone where, by court settlement, they are allowed to sleep.
But here is the most important thing for communities and city officials to remember: If there is an urgent need to move homeless people out of encampments in high fire danger areas, then there is an equally urgent need to set up more shelter and housing for them. Otherwise, they have literally nowhere to go and will simply camp elsewhere. The Skirball fire shows that it’s time for City Council members to firmly commit to constructing bridge shelters and permanent housing in their districts and it’s time for neighborhoods to accept that housing and stop fighting it. In fact, it’s past time.