Kevin de León, working to clear encampments, wages an escalating fight with activists

A homeless encampment near El Pueblo in downtown Los Angeles.
L.A. City Councilman Kevin de León says the city moved more than 90 homeless people off the sidewalks near El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, home to Olvera Street.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

For the last year, Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León has focused much of his energy on reducing the number of encampments in his Eastside district, working with city agencies to move people off the streets and into temporary housing or other forms of shelter.

Last spring, he said, his office succeeded in moving 74 homeless people off a median strip in El Sereno and into two converted motels. Six months later, dozens more were relocated from a two-block section of Main Street in downtown. And since Thanksgiving, his team — working alongside outreach workers — moved about 90 people out of encampments that have long surrounded El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument and into temporary housing.

For the record:

9:49 a.m. Jan. 17, 2022A previous version of this article mentioned the group Jtown Action. The group’s name is J-Town Action and Solidarity.

Those efforts have put De León, a veteran politician known for his left-of-center challenge to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2018, in direct conflict with some of the city’s most outspoken homeless advocates, who say he is pursuing a policy of “banishment” for L.A.’s unhoused.


Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León.
Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León, who launched a bid for mayor in September, is increasingly at odds with homeless activists in his district.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

De León, a candidate for mayor, fired back last week, lodging his own allegations against those critics. At a council meeting and in interviews, he accused activists at El Pueblo of trying to persuade unhoused people to remain on the sidewalk, where they have “no plumbing, no heat, no services whatsoever.”

“We’re investing tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to connect our unhoused neighbors to housing,” he said. “And to see people sabotage and undermine this work should be infuriating to all Angelenos.”

Activists have denounced those remarks, saying they are untrue and unsupported by any evidence. Meanwhile, De León’s statements represent just one example of the aggressive messages being adopted by mayoral candidates about the homelessness crisis.

Councilman Joe Buscaino has been promising for months that he would seek a ballot measure barring camping in L.A.’s public spaces. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) unveiled her plan last week for removing street encampments, which says the city cannot tolerate “open air drug trafficking” and violence that’s “hidden behind tents.”

Last week, De León accused Street Watch Los Angeles, a group formed in part by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, of attempting to dissuade people from accepting rooms at L.A. Grand, a hotel converted into a temporary homeless shelter in response to COVID-19. Those activists, he said in an interview, also have advised people at El Pueblo not to accept rooms at Hilda L. Solis Care First Village, an interim housing facility near Union Station.

De León said that at one point last month, his staffers informed him of at least two homeless people who had been offered $20 to stay on the sidewalk at El Pueblo. One of those “bribe” offers, he said, was made last month by a person who identified himself as a representative of Street Watch.

De León said that incident was witnessed by two of his aides. He declined to release their names.

Homeless advocates have responded with fury, saying De León is telling lies about volunteers who deliver water, blankets and other essential supplies to the city’s neediest.

Miguel Camnitzer, an organizer with Street Watch, called the allegation of $20 bribes “patently absurd,” saying such statements should disqualify De León from becoming mayor. Street Watch organizers do not tell unhoused people to reject offers of hotel rooms or other shelter, he said.

“What’s happening is that Kevin De León staffers ... are coercing people against their will into temporary shelters that are not always a good fit for them,” said Camnitzer, a writer who lives downtown. “We’re out there reminding people that unhoused people deserve self-determination over their own lives and should be able to choose what’s best for them.”

Hilda L. Solis Care First Village, an interim housing facility for homeless people.
Officials said 20 people were relocated from an encampment at El Pueblo and into Hilda L. Solis Care First Village, an interim housing facility completed last year. An additional 67 went into hotels operated under the Project Roomkey program, they said.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

After hearing some of De León’s allegations last week, activists posted his private cellphone number on Twitter and mobilized their allies to bombard him with calls and messages.

“No peace for corrupt politicians who commit violence against our people,” wrote Steven Chun, an organizer with J-Town Action and Solidarity.

In an email, Chun accused De León of seeking to silence activists who are fighting for the survival of L.A.’s unhoused. The public would not need a “direct line” to De León‘s cellphone, Chun said, “if he actually did his job and was responsive and accountable.”

De León, in turn, said his critics are in fact trying to silence him, by turning to a campaign of harassment. That campaign, he said, is why he hasn’t provided the names of the staffers who witnessed the cash offers.

“When they want to intimidate, when they want to harass, they put your cellphone out, they put your information out,” he said. “They dox you.”

De León began the work at El Pueblo in October, unveiling a plan to establish no-encampment zones in the area that prohibit people from sleeping, lying or storing property on local sidewalks. Street Watch fought those efforts, saying they would push people into an overcrowded shelter system that “further perpetuates cycles of homelessness and poverty.”

The no-encampment zones were approved in November, and within weeks, staffers from De León’s office and several other public agencies were going from tent to tent, offering rooms at L.A. Grand and other facilities.

Camnitzer and other Street Watch volunteers were on the scene, recording those interactions with their phones and blasting De León for having sheriff’s deputies staff the operation.

Rep. Karen Bass, one of the candidates for Los Angeles mayor.
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, a candidate for mayor, unveiled a plan for combatting homelessness, which says the city cannot tolerate open air drug trafficking and violence “hidden behind tents.”
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

By early January, outreach workers had succeeded in moving 93 people into temporary housing or other locations, according to figures provided by De León’s office. Of that total, 57 went into L.A. Grand, one of the city’s Project Roomkey sites.

At that location, the city is spending an estimated $6,651 a month per room to provide housing and services, City Administrative Officer Matt Szabo said. The facility offers 483 rooms for homeless residents.

Camnitzer, the Street Watch organizer, described L.A. Grand as a “quasi-prison,” pointing out that residents have a nighttime curfew, are barred from having guests and regularly have their rooms searched.

Some of the unhoused people near El Pueblo have offered a similar assessment.

Scott Carter, a former warehouse worker now living at Broadway and the 101 Freeway, said outreach workers have brought up the idea of moving into L.A. Grand. However, he said he has no interest in living in a facility with a prohibition on smoking, a ban on guests and a 10 p.m. curfew.

“There’s no freedom,” he said. “That’s like going to prison.”

At L.A. Grand, residents are permitted to smoke outside the entrance to the lobby but not indoors. Guests are prohibited, city officials said, to limit the spread of COVID-19 and prevent drug sales and prostitution.

Still, not everyone who left the sidewalks of El Pueblo wound up at that hotel.

Twenty people moved into the Solis interim housing village on Vignes Street, where each room has a shower, a microwave and a mini-fridge. Ten took rooms at a Project Roomkey hotel in Westlake, and the remainder have moved out of state or are in other facilities, said Pete Brown, a De León spokesman.

Brown estimated that nearly 20 people remain on the sidewalks around El Pueblo.

City Councilman Joe Buscaino cut short news conference last summer amid protests.
Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino, far right, cut short a news conference last summer after one of his aides got into a scuffle with protesters.
(David Zahniser / Los Angeles Times)

De León, who joined the council in 2020, is one of several council members who have clashed with homeless advocates over the last year. In August, Buscaino abruptly ended a news conference after a scuffle broke out between one of his aides and a group of protesters.

A few months earlier, activists disrupted a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a 200-bed “tiny home” facility in North Hollywood. At that event, they protested the city’s decision to clear encampments in the area where the 103-unit village was built.

Near the end of the ceremony, Councilman Paul Krekorian lashed out at critics who have panned such villages as a series of “tiny sheds.” One tiny home, Krekorian said, offered privacy and a locked door to a homeless woman who had been raped while living in her tent.

“How dare people tell that woman what’s good for her and what’s not good for her?” he said. “I think she knows better than these people who are spending their time tweeting and Instagramming.”

De León delivered a similar speech last week, pointing out tiny-home villages offer heated rooms with access to showers and washer/dryers.

Still, those messages have been complicated by the surge of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

L.A. Grand has been under quarantine, according to a sign posted on the outside of the building last week. The Solis interim housing village is experiencing an outbreak, with four residents on a quarantine order, said Tonja Boykin, chief operating officer for the Weingart Center, the facility’s operator.

Gary De La Cruz said he would welcome an offer to move into L.A. Grand Hotel.
Gary De La Cruz said he would welcome an offer to move into L.A. Grand Hotel. Some activists have argued that the homeless facility has prison-like conditions.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Because the Solis facility has separate rooms and bathrooms for each resident, it is in fact a “great safe place” to recover from illness, Boykin said Friday.

“You’re quarantined in your own room,” she said. “The rooms have televisions. You have your food brought to you.”

As of Friday, the Solis village had no vacancies. Meanwhile, some on the sidewalks near El Pueblo are still waiting for help — and said they would gladly accept a room at L.A. Grand.

Gary De La Cruz, who has lived on a 101 Freeway overpass for about a year, said he has tried without success to get into the L.A. Grand and is still hoping for an offer. De La Cruz, 57, says he already knows the first thing he would do if he got a room.

“Take a good, long shower,” he said.