At 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Los Angeles police tried to finish a job they had started two weeks ago: dismantling a homeless encampment near Staples Center.
Police had used a bulldozer Dec. 30 to clear the camp on Golden Avenue. But some of the homeless simply picked up their belongings and moved around the corner, where they’ve since been living on a sidewalk beneath a Harbor Freeway overpass.
Police gave the residents warning of the sweep last week. Still, about 20 homeless stood by their tents and grocery carts Saturday, weighing their options. It was either be arrested, move somewhere else or accept help from county social workers -- who many said they don’t trust.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Gilbert Minjares, 40, as he cleared his space on the sidewalk. “I just know that what little I have, I’ll lose. All they’re doing is moving us in circles.”
Minjares, who has been living on the streets for five years, had set up a makeshift room. An old mattress frame standing on its side served as a wall -- albeit one that could be seen through. Inside was a mattress and small table. An air freshener stick sat on the table.
“It’s a very sympathetic situation,” said Capt. Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police Department. “I’m doing everything I can to see the issue from both sides and to enforce the law in a fair and compassionate way.”
Beck was in charge of the operation. After the homeless were told to pack up their things, Beck’s officers retreated and waited for them to leave.
The sweep is part of a renewed effort by the LAPD to prevent the homeless from permanently taking over parts of the city, Beck said. In the department’s view, such encampments are often hotspots for drug use and disease, while interfering with neighborhood businesses.
“The only saving grace of this is we get some of them in social services,” Beck said. “Last time, we got four, and this time it looks like we’ll get three. That’s not a lot, but it helps reduce the problem.”
As people packed, representatives of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Agency tried to persuade them to enter a homeless shelter.
Jeanette Rowe, the agency’s coordinator, said she can understand their reluctance to accept help. “How do you trust the system that got you here on the streets?”
Still, the agency can get people back on their feet and off the street, she said. Although Los Angeles County has an estimated 84,000 homeless, there is usually room in shelters most nights for those weary of living on the streets.
But during Saturday’s sweep, Rowe became embroiled in a tug-of-war with longtime homeless advocate Ted Hayes over Melvin Ladd, 68. Rowe wanted him to accept a stay in a hotel -- meals included -- at the county’s expense. She said that would give the agency time to find permanent senior housing for Ladd, who uses a walker to get around.
But Hayes urged Ladd and the encampment’s residents to “stick together” on the streets. He has long contended that most people who accept help from the agency are homeless again within days.
Ladd had been about to climb into the van, but backed away. “I’m staying with my people,” he said, moving toward Hayes and the other homeless.
Rowe, who has seen this type of thing before, said that she didn’t believe Hayes was doing the homeless any favors by telling them to stay on the street.
Hayes said of Ladd: “He knows that what these people will offer him won’t meet his needs.”
A few minutes later, Ladd again changed his mind and climbed into the van. He sat in the back seat, chatting with Jeff Gonbosi, 27, a self-professed heroin addict who also decided to accept Rowe’s offer of help.
By 10:30 a.m., most of the homeless were gone, leaving behind piles of belongings and trash.
Standing nearby in the shade of a scrawny tree was Kevin O’Donahue, 53. His hard-luck tale involved a car accident, hand injury and lost job, all of which landed him on the streets. He held a pipe in one hand and a can of beer in the other.
“When the authorities leave, I’ll find someplace else to pitch my tent,” he said. “I’m like a dog chasing its tail.”
A few minutes later he was out in the sun, pushing his grocery cart west down 8th Street.