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Friends mourn man who touched many lives while living in L.A. River encampment

Cynthia Caldwell, a neighbor of Jeffrey Pereira in the homeless encampment, touches his photo at a vigil in Bond Park.
Cynthia Caldwell, a neighbor of Jeffrey “Animal” Pereira in the homeless encampment along the Los Angeles River in Atwater Village, reaches out to touch his photo on Sunday during a vigil at Bond Park.
(Nick Agro / For The Times)

He was “ebullient,” “effervescent,” maybe a bit “childish,” friends said. The seizures that he had were the penalty of a past life he was trying to renounce. His new path brought him into a circle of friends from the congregants of his church to the community volunteers who spent years trying to bring him indoors.

Those friends gathered Sunday in a sliver of a park on Los Feliz Boulevard to recall the life of Jeffrey Pereira, 54, who died Friday in his encampment nearby on the banks of the L.A. River.

Pereira was one of the more than 1,200 people who died on the streets of Los Angeles in 2020. Unlike so many, he was neither unknown nor alone.

A photo of Jeffrey "Animal" Pereira, posted on a tree during a memorial at Bond Park in Atwater Village.
A photo of Jeffrey “Animal” Pereira, posted on a tree during a memorial at Bond Park in Atwater Village on Sunday. Pereira, who was living in a tent along the Los Angeles River, died Friday after having a seizure.
(Nick Agro / For The Times)
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“I really loved Jeffrey,” said his pastor, Kyle Joachim of the Silverlake Community Church. “My wife and I had him over to our house. We tried to have him house-sit. Gave him a key. He just never showed up. We weren’t mad at him because he’s just such a sweet guy.”

To Mike Batistick of the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council, Pereira “represented the conundrum that the unhoused struggle with and our struggle as activists and service providers and allies of the unhoused.”

Pereira was originally from Oklahoma but had lived in the L.A. River homeless community as long as anyone remembered.

Friends of Jeffrey Pereira, members of SELAH and the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council at Bond Park.
Friends of Jeffrey Pereira, members of SELAH and the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council join together for a memorial at Bond Park in Atwater Village on Sunday.
(Nick Agro / For The Times)
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He stood out among the dozens of people who make their home in the river — either along its sandy and wooded shore where it runs from Griffith Park toward downtown or beside the bike path above its concrete bank.

Partly it was his involvement with the Silverlake Community Church. Pastor Kyle, as Joachim is known, said religion was central to his transition from the youth nicknamed “Animal” who had been in and out of jail.

“At some point he had a conversion experience that was pretty powerful and made him want to get away from the ‘old me,’ the person he used to be, a person he described as being very violent and volatile,” Joachim said. “He attributed to me he wanted to leave that ‘old me’ behind for his Christian faith.”

The seizures were a lasting effect of head trauma from a fight years ago, Joachim said.

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Though he never officially joined, Pereira became a regular at the church, helping Joachim set up in the morning and bringing others from the river to the Saturday food banks held by the church and SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, a volunteer group that conducts outreach in the river encampment and elsewhere in Los Angeles.

The tent where Jeffrey Pereira died along the Los Angeles River in Atwater Village is seen on Sunday.
(Nick Agro / For The Times)

“He became like our ambassador,” said Dorit Dowler-Guerrero, a veteran social worker and co-founder of SELAH, an acronym for the group’s turf — Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz, Atwater and Hollywood. “He was someone who tried to connect people to the outside even though he didn’t connect to the outside as he should.”

The ceremony was simple, incorporated into one of SELAH’s regular “grab and go” potlucks for the river residents. Under an oak tree, Danielle Bond of the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council’s outreach and engagement committee sang “Ave Maria” with her mini poodle Poppy in her arms.

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Batistick, also a SELAH volunteer, remembered Pereira as the glue of the neighborhood.

“He’s that guy on the corner that has information on what was going on in the neighborhood,” he said. “Suddenly it feels like a giant light has been extinguished.”

Pereira’s neighbors from the encampment posted memories on sticky notes.

Like others, Ty Hart, 58, who sat with his miniature spaniel mix Rocky, said he had known Pereira for about 20 years. They were part of a crew who migrated to the river from Hollywood after it became overcrowded with “outdoor” people.

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“I’m not homeless,” Hart said, capturing a sentiment that others echoed. “I consider myself an outdoorsman. I like it outside. I look for what I need today. I meet those goals. Tomorrow’s not here yet.”

Robin “Country” Boatner, 62, who has recently obtained a nearby apartment, said he comes back to see his friends.

“I still like being homeless, to be honest with you,” Boatner said. “I’ll probably keep a camp down here and camp out all summer even though I got a place to go. Where I’m at now is boring. But I got a TV and a bed.”

After the ceremony, Justin Szlasa and Celeste Voce, SELAH volunteers who do outreach along the river, walked across the Los Feliz bike bridge to the tent camp, consisting of about a dozen tents squeezed between the bike path and the Los Feliz onramp to the 134 Freeway.

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There, Pereira was remembered as a complex figure. Over the years, he had been in and out of jail, in and out of housing and, finally, in and out of the hospital. He struggled with sobriety.

He had been close to getting housing once, but declined because his pit bull Ace couldn’t go with him. He was one of the first accepted into the new city shelter on Riverside Drive, but left, he told others, because a woman there was doing voodoo on him.

Camp resident James A. Hall, showing off a lump under his right ear, said it was a BB received from Animal in a dispute over cookies.

Nonetheless, Hall said, he performed CPR on Pereira, to no avail, when he had a seizure and turned blue in a friend’s tent.

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Unable to reach Pereira’s mother, thought to live in Orange County, Hall said, members of the community had distributed his things and burned what wasn’t taken, including the tent. Next to its charred remains “RIP Jeff” was painted on the bike path.

Pastor Kyle, who was unable to attend the memorial pending results of a coronavirus test, said he connected with a side of Pereira that others didn’t see.

“My relationship changed when I realized that he really in some ways was an 11- or 12-year-old boy in a giant man’s body,” he said. “When I started treating him with empathy and firmness and love that you would treat an 11-year-old boy, my love of him started to grow.”

Joachim is planning a more formal memorial for Pereira on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at Silverlake Community Church, located at 2930 Hyperion Ave. in Los Angeles.


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