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Column: How do we stay humane when housing homeless people comes with a view to your backyard?

Homeless in Chatsworth
Donna Nycz, 62, carries some of her belongings after Los Angeles police officers ordered homeless people out of an encampment in Chatsworth.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

When Pilar Schiavo got word that a homeless housing project might be going up near her daughter’s school, Chatsworth Park Elementary, she went on the parents’ Facebook page “to ask some questions and get the facts.”

Four hours later, Schiavo logged off — still short on facts, and chastened by an online juggernaut of parents rallying to block the project.

Later that week, a protest over what would be the northwest Valley’s only homeless housing project drew dozens of Chatsworth residents to a vacant car lot on Topanga Canyon Boulevard proposed as a site for the complex.

It was a reprise of protests over homeless housing that have taken place in other communities: Venice, Koreatown, Sherman Oaks, San Pedro.

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Chatsworth had always seemed to me like such a live-and-let-live place. Tucked up against the Santa Susana Mountains, it’s where my girls played soccer, our family hiked and rock-climbed, and I dabbled in horseback riding. So I headed for the early morning protest to see what the grumbling was about.

Chatsworth protest
Chatsworth residents protest a planned homeless housing project at a shuttered car lot on Topanga Canyon Boulevard.
(Sandy Banks / Los Angeles TImes)

On this Wednesday morning, their protest drew dozens of Chatsworth residents to the shuttered car lot on Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

The project’s opponents massed on the sidewalk, waving “Protect Our Children” signs, buoyed by honks of support from cars and trucks crawling along the busy thoroughfare.

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One block away, on the sidewalk outside the elementary school, Schiavo stood with a small group of parents and local activists willing to give the project a chance. They had signs too — “Moms Support Transitional Housing” — but nobody honked.

Chatsworth protest
A small group of parents and activists turned out to support the Chatsworth homeless housing project.
(Sandy Banks / Los Angeles Times)

Schiavo had grilled the project developer and was passing out a fact sheet she composed “because parents just want to know more,” she said.

It won’t be a “shelter,” as protest signs proclaimed, but a building with individual apartments and resources like job training and drug treatment. It would have 63 tenants; six floors, not seven; and take three years to build.

“I’m inclined to support it if the services are reasonable,” Schiavo told me. “There are seniors and veterans and people who want to get off the streets. We can’t keep saying ‘not in my backyard.’”

But in this case “not in my backyard” literally is the project’s sticking point.

The six-story complex would dwarf everything around it; you can drive for miles in Chatsworth and not pass another building that tall.

From its rooftop terrace, residents would be able to see into the backyards of homes on the quiet street behind it.

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“We are all for helping everyone,” said Sajan Joseph, a Chatsworth resident. But he grew up in one of those houses, and his parents still live there. “That’s a lot to ask, for neighbors to give up their privacy.”

Chatsworth homeless
Jason Brackett, 49, is a homeless man living in Chatsworth.
(Los Angeles Times)

Privacy is part of the lifestyle that suburban privilege provides: “Would you want to be the homeowner looking up at a seven-story building in your backyard?” protester Marc Becker asked me.

To be honest, no, I would not.

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Chatsworth is not a place where you’re stepping around sidewalk tent cities. But homeless people sleep in the parks or frequent the local library. Battered RVs line main streets. And folks in some neighborhoods complain that homeless people bed down on their lawns. Still, most tents come down in the morning, as the city requires. And most encampments are out of sight, on side streets in the sprawl of industrial parks or tucked away in brush-covered areas near the railroad tracks or along the wash.

The opposition here is more than a quality of life issue. It’s also a clash of values, rooted in an ethos of self-reliance that dates back to Chatsworth’s pioneer roots. Some residents bristle at what they consider the willful shiftlessness of people living on the streets.

“It’s like they’re some protected class,” Becker complained. “It’s not our fault that they choose to do nothing with their life.”

His Chatsworth is a mix of modest tract homes on quiet streets, ranches and rustic canyon cabins, and gated mansions on hills with million-dollar views. Some folks still ride horses and raise chickens. On its main drag, Les Sisters soul food restaurant sits across from the Cowboy Palace, a country music joint.

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Many of the people I spoke to at the protest say they voted with the majority three years ago to tax themselves to build 10,000 units of housing for homeless people across Los Angeles.

Chatsworth homeless
Janet Barrett and her German shepherd Sam, right, are confronted by Los Angeles police officers who ordered homeless people out of an encampment in Chatsworth.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Yet, their San Fernando Valley council district is the only one that hasn’t yet committed to building a single unit.

Some locals see the problem through a veil of resentment, filtered by stereotypes: They’ve worked hard to buy nice homes in safe neighborhoods, and they’re not going to bring their community down by hosting vagrants from around the country or coddling drug addicts.

This project has become a lens through which they view the ills of the big city: The developers are greedy, the mayor is grandstanding, city officials are inept and no one listens to them.

“This is a community where we watch out for one another,” Shannon Wetzel told me, as she handed out fliers urging protesters to voice their opinions before the plan goes to the L.A. City Council for approval. Chatsworth has been “handcuffed,” she said, to something that will only hurt them.

“I am not being insensitive to those people who ARE homeless, but me helping them should NOT be at the expense of MY lifestyle,” Wetzel complained in an email asking her councilman, John Lee, to get more involved.

“The silent majority HAS to speak-up in an educated fashion or we will get run-over!”

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Kathy Huck runs a homeless outreach ministry. She lives in suburban Simi Valley, but she knows what it feels like to be stranded on the streets. Domestic violence had her on the run when she was young, until she was able to tap her military service benefits and earn her college degree.

Now she’s part of what she hopes is the true silent majority: churchgoers, do-gooders and everyday people who try to make things easier for people living on the streets.

Chatsworth homeless
A homeless woman in Chatsworth.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Every month, Huck makes the rounds of homeless encampments in Chatsworth, delivering clothing, food, supplies and spiritual support. On the day of the protest, she showed up to answer questions residents might have.

“They told me, ‘We’re worried about how are we going to monitor what they’re doing?’” Huck said, shaking her head at the irony: As if homeowners are the only ones entitled to privacy.

“I understand their side,” she insists. They worry about trash, disorder, falling property values.

But the way she sees it, that’s not much different from what people thought 50 years ago, when her father tried to use his GI Bill to move their family into a suburban neighborhood near Chicago.

“No white family would sell to us,” she recalled. “They thought blacks would bring the neighborhood down. When I see that same resistance here to homeless people, it hurts me personally.”

Still Huck is hopeful, because she’s seen standoffs resolved. She shared the story of a nearby business owner determined to evict the homeless folks who camped on his property at night. “What he was really upset about was the trash they left behind,” she said.

She got the campers to promise to clean up after themselves. The business owner supplied a hose and every morning the homeless people washed the area down. They didn’t want to be a nuisance, and the business owner didn’t want to be unkind.

I understand the competing impulses in play when we’re trying to tackle an issue as complicated as homelessness. You want to help, but at what cost to yourself? The question of how much to sacrifice often depends on how worthy we consider those who need our help.

I paid a visit that afternoon to a few spots where homeless people were trying to camp unobtrusively. I heard stories of lost jobs, broken relationships, stubborn addictions. They struck me as people who could be lifted with the right help.

After all, homeless people settle in Chatsworth for the same reasons that others do: the open spaces, the clean, wide streets, the sense of safety, the orderliness.

“Everything is a struggle when you’re homeless,” said Jason Brackett, who’s been homeless for 11 years. He’s from Pasadena, but feels at home on the streets of Chatsworth. “This is so much better than skid row.”

It would be nice, he admitted, to have the sort of amenities a shelter would provide: a place to get a haircut, wash his clothes and charge his cellphone. But what bothers him most right now is something much easier to fix:

“People walk past me all the time. Nobody says, ‘Hi.’”


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