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Fire Brings Attention to Homeless in Hills and Canyons

Times Staff Writers

Sometimes when he wants to be alone and doesn’t want to ride his 15-speed bike miles away to a friend’s home in Rosemead, Steve Vazquez scouts for a hidden cove under some low-slung canopy of vegetation in Elysian Park.

Vazquez, 43, hides his bike, which has a child cart to carry his recyclables, and hunkers down for the night, confident he won’t be bothered.

“I stay in places where nobody even goes down there,” said Vazquez, a trim man with curly salt and pepper beard, a SpongeBob SquarePants watch and worn tan boots. “There’s places up here like you won’t believe. You could sleep here, ain’t nobody going to find you. You could stay here for two, three years, and ain’t nobody going to find you.”

Transients have been living in the hills around Los Angeles since before the Hollywood sign was erected on Mt. Lee in the 1920s. And for the most part, residents of the Hollywood Hills have come to coexist with the homeless people who sometimes set up camp beyond the shrubs and deep in the canyons.

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But Tuesday’s fire in Nichols Canyon, allegedly started by a homeless man cooking dinner in an elaborate camp he set up in the brush above Hollywood Boulevard, has some residents on edge about the potential fire danger homeless residents may pose.

Homeless camps have been an issue of concern periodically in communities from Laurel Canyon to Elysian Park. Authorities say they discover and clear out about three camps a week from L.A.'s parklands, including Elysian Park, where rangers said encampments appear to be most prevalent. The danger from the small fires that homeless people build to cook or keep warm is usually minimal, officials said.

“It’s not something that’s a constant threat, but it poses a risk,” said Los Angeles City Fire Capt. Ernie Bobadillo, a 27-year veteran. “A typical call from a concerned resident involves a homeless person building a little warming fire, or a fire to warm food.”

Fire officials said they try to reason with homeless people.

“We respond to an illegal burning, get over there, and talk to the homeless person,” Bobadillo said. “We tell them what they’re doing is not legal, have them put out the fire, and that’s usually what it boils down to.”

Some residents say that’s not enough.

Ric Waugh, a Nichols Canyon resident whose home is near where the fire started Tuesday, said residents have called the police before about fires started by homeless men.

“Every once in a while, they’d come and get them,” said Waugh of the police. But Waugh said the homeless would come back and the police didn’t always have time to come back. “It got to the point that they just wouldn’t come anymore,” he said.

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Officials who work with the homeless are quick to point out that transients are easy scapegoats for fires and that anyone can start a blaze. Homeless advocates worry that Tuesday’s fire may cause some to exaggerate the problems of homelessness in the hills -- a point underscored by park officials, who say the homeless problem is less severe than it was 15 years ago.

“There are always going to be folks up in the hills,” said Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority program manager Jeanette Rowe. But she says seclusion also means longer distances to services and food.

Authority executive director Mitchell Netburn said it was possible that the revitalization of Hollywood Boulevard and increased outreach programs for the homeless had prompted some transients to seek refuge in the hills.

The most popular spots for homeless people appear not to be in the Nichols Canyon area but on hillsides farther east. Elysian Park near downtown Los Angeles has long attracted homeless encampments -- from “caves” dug into dirt hillsides to makeshift adobe huts made of mud and straw, said Margaret Kelly, the 600-acre urban park’s maintenance supervisor.

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The attraction, Kelly said, is that the hilly terrain and gnarled vegetation make it easier to find a place to stay and sleep without being bothered, and it’s not that far from downtown Los Angeles. Although park rangers frequently clear out homeless encampments, sometimes an old encampment and debris are found hidden in thick brush, she said.

Occasionally, even park officials have been surprised at the inventiveness of the homeless, who have tapped into power sources to use televisions, air conditioners and fans.

“About three years ago there was a gentleman who had a washer, a television and two very sturdy houses -- small but sturdy houses -- that he had built,” said Albert Torres, chief park ranger for the city Department of Recreation and Parks. “He wasn’t noticeable from anywhere.”

Rangers eventually spotted the man, and the area was cleared out. Most encampments, however, are far less sophisticated.

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“Usually what it is is a shopping cart, a bedroll, maybe sometimes a combination to make a tent,” Torres said.

He said his office generally clears out three encampments a week after speaking with the residents and posting signs to let them know the area will be cleared. Fires that could have originated at homeless camps break out once or twice a year in Elysian Park, Kelly said, but they are usually relatively small and quickly contained.

As he sat on a concrete wall in the park overlooking a vast rail yard and the Los Angeles River on Wednesday, Vazquez, a father of two adult sons, said he was not surprised that another homeless person was suspected of causing the Nichols Canyon fire.

Vazquez never brings food that requires cooking when he stays overnight, he said. He said he never begs, counting on the $6 to $8 he sometimes makes from collecting cans and plastics.

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But either way, the homeless have no monopoly on starting fires big or small, he said.

“If you’re homeless, people like to blame you for everything,” Vazquez said. “Anybody could start the fire. You, me or anybody out there that ain’t homeless can start the fire.”

Alejandro Cortez Jimenez, 44, an illegal immigrant from the central Mexican state of Nayarit who was in the park Wednesday and is homeless, says he sometimes goes there to rest or to cook, but usually on one of the grills.

Jimenez, a carpenter, said he left home more than six months ago. During most of that time, he has been homeless. Most mornings, he takes a bus or walks to the corner of Pico Boulevard and Broadway in downtown L.A. to stand with a group of other immigrants looking for work.

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When he has relatively steady work, he stays at the Cecil Hotel on South Main Street downtown in a $120-a-month room. When he’s forced into homelessness, he usually takes the bus to Santa Monica, where he sleeps near the beach.

Occasionally, he goes to Elysian Park to rest, as he was this day -- shirtless and shoeless, his head reclining on a camouflaged backpack -- and to cook his food on one of the grills. Near him lay a bag with ground Mexican chorizo sausage, eggs and a gallon of strawberry soda.

But he said he never sleeps overnight at the hilly park. It spooks him.

He would rather, as he said he did once, walk more than four hours along Wilshire Boulevard to the beach.

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“They say it gets kind of hairy at night,” Jimenez said in Spanish. “Since when you’re a little boy, you hear stories, legends I guess, from your grandparents about ghosts and ‘La Llorona.’ They say there’s a guy who chases you that comes out here at night without a head. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s what they say.”


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