Ken Gabel said Los Angeles police threatened to arrest him last month if he didn't clear out his skid row camp. So he agreed to walk with an officer to a nearby warehouse where homeless people can store their belongings to sign up for a storage bin.
When they returned, some of the parts he uses to repair bikes for other homeless people had been tossed into a trash truck, Gabel said.
Also present, Gabel recalled, were two "officers" — employees of the local business improvement district — who pulled out a "voluntary property release" form.
Unsure if the black-shirted officers were police, Gabel said he felt intimidated and signed the form.
The LAPD ticketed him anyway, Gabel said.
Gabel's story reflects what community groups say is stepped-up enforcement in recent months against skid row homeless people and their encampments.
While city officials have been wrestling with new ordinances to make it easier to break up camps — first enacting them in July, then suspending enforcement while they consider modifications — police have been testing strategies for getting homeless people's property off the streets, the groups say.
"They have never done this," said Zelenne Cardenas of the United Coalition East Prevention Project, a skid row advocacy group.
LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith said there has been no increase in homeless sweeps, and arrests for violations that typically target homeless people are down.
In response to citizen complaints, police are targeting camps and trash that are "significantly interfering with pedestrian traffic," said Capt. Mike Oreb of the LAPD's Central Area division, and arresting people only "as last resorts after failure at securing all compliance."
But skid row people said in July that they noticed new signs ordering homeless people to store or remove their property.
"Warning notices" went up declaring that "all lodgings need to be moved off the sidewalk."
The notices, under the heading "Safer Cities Initiative," also say: "When: Every day of the week, Sunday to Saturday including holidays. Where: The sidewalks of the Skid Row Area."
Eric Ares of Los Angeles Community Action Network, who has monitored police activity on skid row for years, said he had never seen the property release form that Gabel said he signed. Smith referred questions about the document to Raquel K. Beard, executive director of the Central City East Assn., who declined to discuss it.
"People are dying in those tents," Beard said.
Oreb denied that his officers threatened people with arrest to get cooperation.
Gabel said he felt tricked by police and the improvement district officers, saying they took the bike parts he uses to make a living while his back was turned.
"It was nothing but trash to them," Gabel said.
During another July incident, a half-dozen officers gathered on Towne Street a block from Gabel's camp as workers began loading a dump truck with homeless people's trash and possessions. The officers told the people in lean-tos and tents that they were responding to complaints from shopkeepers and customers that their camps were blocking business entrances.
"What customers are you talking about? This is a warehouse," said Monte A., who declined to give his last name." There's no blue-light special going on over here."
LAPD Lt. Andy Mathes responded: "We've got 300 people, actual residents within the skid row community, asking for this."
"Where can I go?" Monte said, adding later that he has been on housing wait lists for years. "If you find me a better place to move me and my stuff, I'd gladly move myself. And I'd put a ribbon on it."
Sgt. Robert Bean then told Monte: "People pay a lot now to live here, they expect services from the city. You're kind of stuck in the middle, I know."
Mathes said police were trying to balance the needs of the homeless while ensuring the city is "habitable." Officers have found drug use and sale inside tents, he said. They don't take homeless peoples' tents when it rains, he added.
Bruce Watson returned from running an errand to find that his canopy and lean-to had vanished, he said.
"They took my house. It's gone," Watson said. "They're bullying us."
Another homeless man thanked the officers for helping him break his "hoarding" habit and agreed to sign up for a storage bin.
An officer cut the operation short. The trash truck was full.