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Homeless families sought shelter from COVID-19 in vacant houses. CHP officers evicted them before Thanksgiving

Activists stand on the porch of an abandoned home in El Sereno owned by Caltrans.
Activists in March “reclaimed” vacant houses owned by Caltrans to shelter people amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

California Highway Patrol officers forcibly removed people who had “reclaimed” vacant, publicly owned homes in El Sereno late Wednesday — the night before Thanksgiving — amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Videos of the evictions, posted on Twitter, show dozens of officers crowding the street near Sheffield Avenue and Poplar Boulevard around 7 p.m. The officers were met by a wave of protesters, who shouted “shame on you!” as authorities moved from door to door removing those who had moved into the homes.

At least one CHP team rammed open the door to one of the homes, video shows.

The evictions came just hours after 20 families moved into the homes owned by the California Department of Transportation, activists said, arguing that government officials have failed to provide the shelter that’s necessary for them to remain healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The CHP said Friday that 62 people had been arrested — 21 on Wednesday and Thursday in connection with breaking into the properties and refusing to vacate. They were charged with trespassing and burglary. Forty-one people were arrested on Thursday evening and charged with unlawful assembly/blocking officers from approaching occupied homes and deliberately blocking the right of way. All of those arrested were cited and released.

“The persons removed from the Caltrans-owned properties were given the opportunity to vacate prior to CHP making contact, and only after refusing to leave the locations were people escorted off of the property in order to allow the uninhabitable buildings to be re-secured and boarded up for public safety,” the agency said in a statement.

Caltrans owns dozens of homes in the area that were purchased years ago as part of a now-failed plan to extend the 710 Freeway. In March, a group of homeless and housing-insecure Angelenos occupied a different group of houses, citing the coronavirus.

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Claudia Lara, a member of Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community, said the families who moved in on Wednesday included children as young as 3 months and seniors over 70 who had been living in cars and encampments.

During a midday news conference from his Fair Oaks home, Newsom said that everyone in his family has tested negative for the virus.

Lara said she watched as officers descended on the homes after the group wrapped up a news conference pleading for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s support.

“To do this during the holidays, it is inhumane. It’s really irresponsible,” she said. “Housing is a human right, and all families deserve to have safe shelter, especially during the global pandemic.”

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Housing activists sent a letter to Newsom on Wednesday notifying him that people were moving into the houses and asking for his support while those living in the homes used them to “shelter in place” during the pandemic.

“We, people of color, are certainly facing ‘The Darkest Winter’ not only because COVID-19 is again spiking, but because for us, the economic crisis has worsened and the tsunami of evictions is dwarfing the already minuscule number of available affordable housing statewide,” the letter said.

“As you said, we are safer if we have the ability to self-quarantine and safely isolate in a home. We therefore ask that you, as Governor, direct Caltrans to allow the new families to immediately turn on all their utilities: heating and running water and electricity are essential to shelter safely in place.”

Newsom and his family are currently in quarantine at their Fair Oaks estate after his children were exposed in two separate incidents to someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.

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In response to Wednesday night’s evictions, Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León tweeted that his office has worked to secure hotel vouchers and “other rapid rehousing solutions” for those in immediate need, while negotiating with the state to secure permanent support for families.

De León, who was elected in March to represent the city’s 14th Council District that includes El Sereno, said he reached out to the governor this morning to “highlight the need to restore these remaining properties.”

“It is unconscionable that anyone should be forced to spend Thanksgiving, or any day of the year, on the street,” he said.

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De León also criticized “using such physical methods of enforcement. The images I saw from last night are heartbreaking, and unacceptable.”

Records kept by The Times show that in 2015, 37 of the El Sereno homes were listed as “uninhabitable,” including two dozen apartment units. Over the years, residents have complained of break-ins, mold and vermin infestations. That figure appears to have increased in recent years.

In a statement, Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco confirmed that vacant homes along the 710 Freeway were “unsafe and uninhabitable.”

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“As such, Caltrans requested the CHP remove trespassers so that the properties can be re-secured and boarded up,” Rocco said.

The agency has been working with local governments to lease several of its available properties for use as temporary emergency shelters, he added. He said Los Angeles’ housing authority recently signed a lease to use 22 of the vacant properties owned by Caltrans for the city’s transitional housing program.

“As Caltrans continues to sell the remaining homes on the corridor, it is committed to working with local entities and other stakeholders to ensure the properties are used for affordable housing,” Rocco said in the statement.

In March, the families who took over homes in El Sereno said they were inspired by a group of homeless mothers who took similar action in Oakland late last year. Those women took over a vacant, corporate-owned property and, after they were evicted, secured backing from the governor to force the Bay Area property’s sale to a community land trust.

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Times staff writer Liam Dillon contributed to this report.


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