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Column: Encampments are dangerous eyesores, but they’re the only community homeless people know

Teresa Robles, 63, and her dog Notcho sit outside their tent along Ocean Front Walk in Venice.
Teresa Robles, 63, and her dog Notcho sit outside their tent along Ocean Front Walk in Venice on May 18. Robles says that she has been living in the area since August after her home burned down in Santa Barbara.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Homeless encampments are the latest battleground in a raging debate about how to combat Los Angeles’ homeless crisis.

This battle is decidedly one-sided. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles City Council, facing intense political pressure, voted 13 to 2 to create a new law that includes harsher penalties for sitting and sleeping near places like schools, parks and fire hydrants. Across the Southland, the reopening of businesses has been accompanied by a crackdown on homelessness in public spaces.

Residents say encampments are often dangerous fire traps where drug use and violence are rampant, and that’s often true. But I think these encampments, though deeply flawed, are also examples of homeless people attempting to meet their own needs and make their own homes. What if the encampments could offer clues that could help us end homelessness? Before we bulldoze these communities, I thought we should learn what we can about them.

So I spent this week driving around various homeless encampments in West L.A., handing out bottles of water in exchange for conversations. I learned that homeless people group together for safety and mutual exchange. They respond to societal ostracizing by forming deep friendships with one another that they’re reluctant to abandon, even for housing. And in their makeshift community, they fill roles that help raise their self esteem — block mom, bike fixer, spokesman, negotiator or class clown.

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The first homeless person I encountered was a shouting, tattooed man, shirtless and gesticulating at drivers near a 405 Freeway overpass.

“That’s just Crazy Eddie,” said Stacy Lagway, 28, another resident of the encampment. “He’s not dangerous.”

Lagway, though only 28, calls himself the unofficial therapist among the small cluster of tarps and tents underneath the freeway. He listens to his homeless friends talk and tries to offer advice. When business owners, residents or police confront the encampment, he sometimes acts as a peacemaker.

“This life can steal your soul. People are so indifferent to you. I try to tell my friends, you can find love in everything, in the air, in the soil, in each other,” Lagway said.

So he’ll explain to a gas station attendant that Crazy Eddie has schizophrenia; that his twitches are just seizures caused by epilepsy; that the constant noise of the freeway underpass makes it hard for Eddie to concentrate.

When his friend, nicknamed “Uppercut,” approaches people with goofy grins and incoherent mumbles, Lagway supplies the context: “He’s just a happy drunk and he’s had too much to drink.”

A worker from St. Joseph Center talks with a homeless couple along Ocean Front Walk in Venice.
A worker from the nonprofit St. Joseph Center talks with a homeless couple along Ocean Front Walk in Venice on July 7.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Like every homeless person I spoke to, Lagway was keenly aware of people’s complaints about encampments. He’s even magnanimous about the time a nearby resident threatened the encampment with gun. He thinks it’s an understandable reaction to someone defecating on your lawn.

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Most of all, Lagway understands that nobody wants them here.

“If you want to survive, you got to be invisible,” Lagway counsels. “The key to being invisible out here is being clean. Clean up yourself, I always say. If people see you are dirty and creating trash, they’ll call the cops. Dirty gets you noticed.”

Lagway has been homeless for eight years. He’s stayed in shelters, been to jail and tried to rent hotel rooms, but he always ends up back on the streets. People need him here, he said. He fixes bikes for other homeless people and charges what they can afford. Most of the people living under the freeway offer services or supplies to one another and they all try to take care of each other.

On the streets he can earn his own income, be there for his friends and fill this important role as a peacemaker. These small acts of agency have helped him feel more like a human being than any other program or intervention he’s participated in. In fact, if he ever finds housing, he doesn’t want to go alone. He wants his friends to come with him.

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“Being there for other people, it gives you a reason, something to wake up for in the morning,” Lagway said. “We all need that, us especially.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, homeless encampments grew dramatically in Echo Park and Venice Beach. What are the root causes driving Los Angeles’ homelessness problems?

Closer to the beach, I met Danny Parker, 53, of Bakersfield. Danny was open about the mistakes that led to his drug addiction and alcoholism. He started using when he found out his wife was cheating on him and ended up in jail. He lost his car, his address and finally his driver’s license.

Danny isn’t afraid of work — when he was incarcerated, he worked as a firefighter for three years, running a chainsaw in dangerous wildfires. But for a lot of homeless people, he said, obtaining an official proof of identification is the first and most difficult hurdle in what’s already a daunting journey back to society.

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For a full month, he would trudge on foot to the post office in Bakersfield, trying to receive mail from the Department of Motor Vehicles. On the 30th day, he was finally told that the mail had been sent back. He hasn’t had his ID since.

That means he can’t get care for the hernia he’s been suffering from. It causes him so much pain that he can barely stagger the three blocks from his sleeping place to the street where he gets meals each day.

Down the street, I met Scott, a good-natured blond man with a shy smile who would only give me his first name. He came to Los Angeles from Illinois at the age of 16 because after he came out as gay, his family started physically, mentally and sexually abusing him. He’s been homeless ever since.

Scott agrees that street encampments are incredibly dangerous. In Venice, local gangs exploit and attack homeless people. He’s been beat up multiple times and coerced into committing crimes.

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But his encampment — a small community of artists and other LGBTQ homeless people up the street — helps him feel safer. They all look out for one another.

“At the end of the day it’s all about safety. Please just give us a place to feel safe. A lot of people don’t understand that we all want to become better people,” Scott said.

Scott introduced me to the members of his crew, including Dawn Little, their unofficial “block mom.”

Little helps keep everyone fed and watered. She’s the glue of their little tribe, lifting their spirits on tough days and asking after everyone. She’s been interviewed by newspapers and considers herself an unofficial spokesperson. She says homeless people themselves even harbor anti-homeless attitudes. She tries to convince them that they do have rights.

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“You don’t have to stand with me. Just stand behind me, or just stand. I will be that person for you. I will speak for you,” Little said.

Gus Tierney, 23, lives in one of the assigned hotel rooms from Project Roomkey. But this past week, he was back in front of Little’s tent, catching up with the crew. Little might be more of a mom than he’s ever had. A native of Arizona, he’s spent most of his life being shuffled around the foster care system. He’s been homeless since he was 14 years old — he came to Los Angeles on a road trip, and his ride left without him. Tierney has a role too, of a kind: comic relief. He spent the afternoon cracking jokes about his romantic struggles.

Encampments may be horrible and dangerous eyesores. But they also offer homeless people something that may be more helpful than taking the right medicines and entering the right programs: agency, community and a sense of value in themselves.

This was the main lesson I took from the camps: Home is not just where your house is. It’s where your people are, where you feel needed and important. We can’t forget that in the rush to house homeless people and clear public space in Los Angeles.

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Lagway is one of the few homeless people who does still have a home to go back to. He’s on good terms with his mother, and he knows he is lucky. His mother is still trying to bring him home. Every time she can afford the gas for the drive from South L.A. — about once a month — she visits him and pleads with him to return. She tries to give him supplies. She cries. Sometimes he cries. It’s hard.

“Every time I see her leave, I think, maybe next time I’ll go with her,” he said, his voice cracking. “But life is short. Sometimes I think maybe we don’t have that many ‘next times’ left.”


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