Home of Their Own on L.A. River
Robin “Country” Boatner lounges in an outdoor chair, his back to a large tree that blunts the sunlight with the help of a white tarp stretched overhead. On a hook hangs a BB gun -- used to shoot rats.
“It’s primitive living,” says Country, as his friends on the Los Angeles River call him.
On this day, his neighbors include Dwayne Dickinson and Melissa Millner, a couple who share a tepee-like tent, and “River Ron” Schneider, who says he has made his home here since 1995.
They are among a dozen or so drifters and homeless people who live on the small islands that sprout from the undergrowth along the mostly concrete-lined riverbed near downtown.
It’s hard living. Most live in tents, cook on portable stoves and get by on panhandling or rummaging through the trash for pawnshop gold. Some suffer from mental illness or drug addiction. All must contend with taggers, gangbangers and police.
But the solitude the river offers remains a great lure. The tangle of thick brush, overhanging trees and the gentle rush of water guard against the harsher realities of street life.
Occasionally, the police even direct loiterers to the waterway, says Suzie Blatt, Country’s girlfriend.
“You’re less in anybody’s way than anywhere else,” she says. “You’re not on somebody’s personal property.... This is literally where nobody really cares.”
But river advocates care. For them, the campers are a nuisance and another obstacle in an ambitious revitalization plan aimed at transforming the river from “a cement-lined ditch” into a recreational mecca.
The city’s hope is to clean up the river and develop a series of parks, bike paths and bridges over the next 20 years along key stretches of the channel that extend from Canoga Park to Boyle Heights. Last month, officials identified five sites for future development.
“People are beginning to see the possibilities,” says City Councilman Ed Reyes, chair of the council’s river committee.
As part of this effort, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced legislation in April seeking nearly $80 million in federal funds that would be devoted to new flood-control systems, graffiti removal and restoration of wetlands.
The city is also taking steps to rid the river of taggers and squatters, who authorities say put themselves at risk during the rainy season. Last spring, rescuers plucked a homeless man from the river after he failed to evacuate in time.
Los Angeles police recently launched a river patrol, dispatching officers on bike and foot to monitor the segment of the channel from the Pasadena Freeway to Los Feliz Boulevard, said Capt. Morris Smith. Their main focus is to discourage taggers and gang members who frequent the river, he says.
Tony Taylor, whom Country has dubbed “duck man” because he regularly feeds the waterway’s ducks, says he has complained for years to city officials about the river’s campers. He sees them as a blight, much like the graffiti along the concrete banks.
“They think if they’re out here, it’s their property,” Taylor says. “You can’t say anything to them.”
But officials from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority say coaxing campers into shelters is not easy.
“We’re just trying to gain their confidence and get some kind of a way in,” says Rodolfo Salinas, an emergency response team manager. “We have success, just not the success that clears the river of all homelessness.”
Gina Chovan, an LAPD senior lead officer, cautions that police must also be sensitive in dealing with the homeless.
“We don’t just go down there and yank them out,” Chovan says. “These are human beings.”
Sharing a Cigarette
Candles softly illuminate the river camp on a recent night.
“Suzie,” Country asks, “do you want to roll a cigarette?”
She nods, and Country points to the paper for wrapping loose tobacco. “Or we can splurge and have a Marlboro.”
“Oh yeah,” she replies, bringing him a lighter. They share the cigarette, as they snack on a box of crackers, occasionally tossing some to Dottie, their dog, who darts in and out of the camp, chasing another mutt.
At one point, Country, 48, shines a flashlight on a tiny mirror ball hanging from the tarp ceiling, creating an open-air dance floor that bops to the “freeway music” of nearby Interstate 5.
Though the decor constantly changes, the couple’s camp is arranged much like a normal home. There is a separate living room, bedroom and kitchen distinguished by colorful rugs, knickknacks and bits of furniture.
The main living area is partially enclosed in yellow netting that shields against bugs. A large blue and pink rug covers the sand.
In one corner, a set of wooden shelves holds a vase with fake flowers and a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream.
Another space includes several bathroom amenities, such as a vanity mirror and a rope that serves as a towel rack. Country and Suzie rely on a nearby gas station to use the toilet and a neighborhood fire station to shower.
The couple cooks what food they can afford on a gas stove. And Suzie watches “Mission: Impossible” and old movies like “Carnival of Souls” on a portable television in their tent.
“It’s just life down here like anywhere else,” says Country, who has lived on the island near Atwater Village on and off for the last seven years. It is one of a handful of islands on this stretch of the channel.
Country says no matter how much care the city takes in removing them from the river, they’ll still be out of a home.
“It scares the hell out of me to go back up there,” he says, referring to the streets.
A native of Nashville, Country came to California in 1991 by way of Georgia. The former musician says he fled after his marriage fell apart.
He later ended up in West Hollywood. Over the years, he tried to revive his musical career, but those efforts fell through and he spent much of his time living on the streets.
He met Suzie in 2000 through her ex-boyfriend. Born in Hollywood and raised on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Suzie attended Cal State Chico, where she majored in religious studies.
Eventually she found herself drifting from the life she knew.
Suzie, 47, says she lives on the island because of Country but doesn’t much like it. She worries about the river washing away their things. “I have nightmares all the time,” she says.
Life on the river can be dangerous. There are the “mental cases,” Country says, like the man dressed in army fatigues who used to throw bottles and rocks at him and River Ron.
There were also rumors of a nighttime assailant who attacked campers by thrusting a knife through the fabric of their tents. And then there’s the constant rustling in the bushes, the sounds of animals and the rumble of cars and trucks on the freeway.
Earplugs are a necessity, Country says.
One of the scariest times, he recalls, was when police asked him and Ron about the killing of a grafitti vandal not far from their camp. The victim had been shot nine times, but no one heard the gunfire.
“You can’t lock out the bad guys,” says Country, who sleeps with a machete close at hand.
He and another friend, Tyrone Hart, the self-proclaimed “River-master,” also watch out for each other. Tyrone, 44, lives nearby on his own island.
The two spend their days searching through trash for items to sell, such as recyclables, rugs and flashlights. They also sell bikes that they piece together from discarded parts. One rare find was a carved table inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Country got $40 for it.
When he’s not hanging out with his friend, Tyrone enjoys fixing up his camp.
Large stones painted red and white lie at the entrance, a few adorned with statues, including one bare-chested Buddha.
A native of Rochester, N.Y., Tyrone says he came to Los Angeles in 1997 after splitting up with his wife. Life on the river can be difficult, but he likes the freedom.
“I’m not homeless because outdoors is my home,” he says one night, while visiting with Country and Suzie. “I have a bigger house than anyone I know.”