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Homeless Site Closed, Fenced

Times Staff Writer

A five-year era of homeless encampments amid the foundations of the old downtown State Building came to an end Friday when the last dozen people living there were evicted to make way for the construction of a high-rise office building.

Unlike some previous, temporary evictions from the patch of lawn and pavement across from City Hall, the end came quietly, with little fanfare. After a week of verbal and posted warnings that had already prompted most of the squatters to move out, state police and a cleanup crew showed up at 8 a.m. to begin shoveling up debris left behind.

Their resistance limited to a few grumbled complaints, the last 12 residents packed their belongings in plastic bags, gunny sacks and old suitcases and moved off in search of other shelter. Within a few hours, a fence had been erected to bar further entrance to the site at 1st and Spring streets.

“To be honest, I don’t know where I’ll go,” said Victoria, 44. “But I managed to live before this happened. I’ll manage to live again.”

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Mel Gilliard, regional manager of the state Department of General Services’ Office of Buildings and Grounds, handed out copies of a notice he said was posted a week ago at the site. The notice read:

“On Oct. 14, 1988, the California Department of General Services will erect a chain-link fence on the vacant state property at 217 W. 1st Street. . . . This property is the site of a future private development and for public health and safety considerations, it is in the best interests of all parties to restrict access.

“Any property left at the site as of Oct. 14 will be disposed of by the state. When the fence is erected, the property will be closed to the public. Entering the property after that time will be a violation of the law.”

Within weeks, officials say, construction will begin on a $120-million, 20-story office building there as part of a development agreement among the city, county, state and private enterprise.

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The 13-story state office building that had occupied the site for 42 years was leveled in 1974 after engineers determined that it had been structurally weakened by the 1971 Sylmar earthquake.

The demolition left behind the old building’s foundations, a subterranean garage and about half an acre of landscaped grounds, which local officials envisioned as a tranquil picnic spot for Civic Center employees to enjoy on their lunch breaks.

An occasional transient would spend a night on the lawn in those days, but an influx began December, 1984, when about 150 people moved into a tent city erected there by local officials to provide shelter over the winter holidays.

Returned for Christmas

Makeshift shelters were erected at the site over the holidays in 1985, and the tent city returned again around Christmas in 1986 and 1987.

The tents were removed after each holiday season ended, but many of their occupants were reluctant to leave. Erecting miniature shanties of cardboard, plastic sheeting and scrap lumber, about 75 of them hung on throughout the spring this year, not leaving until officials moved them out on June 24, hauling off and dumping many of their belongings in the process.

Officially, the site at 1st and Spring was closed to the homeless, but--perhaps because of growing controversy over the June destruction of the squatters’ belongings--nothing was done to impede them as they began drifting back onto the property. Last month, without admitting any wrongdoing, the city paid $500 to each of 42 homeless people for losses suffered in the June 24 sweep.

Then, last week, the state posted eviction notices. Gilliard said the squatters were also warned verbally about the impending evictions on Oct. 5, 11 and 13.

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By 7 a.m. Friday, two-thirds of them had already departed, leaving behind a pile of discarded possessions that included a couch, several chairs, a folding table, a stuffed toy dog almost 5 feet tall and a variety of makeshift shelters.

The last dozen squatters began drifting away about 8:30 a.m.

One man, who declined to give his name, wept quietly as he watched the cleanup and work crews shoveling up the debris and digging post holes for the new fence.

Soon he, too, was gone.

Outside the fence, a couple of homeless people laid down their bedrolls on the public sidewalk Friday evening, apparently planning to spend the night there.

Inside the fence, all that remained was a message, scrawled on a low concrete wall:

“James was here but now gone.”


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