Must Reads: Across a diverse landscape, L.A’s hidden homeless live hard lives in fanciful ‘homes’
More than 20 years ago, Charles Ray Walker spotted green bamboo shoots growing along a drab warehouse by the Los Angeles River in Boyle Heights. A Texan, Walker turned a wedge of urban wasteland into a wildly colorful wonderland of vegetables and thousands of toys arrayed along carved, earthen terraces.
He built a shack under the shade of a tree and even a home entertainment room with a television set and sofa.
Largely hidden from the world, “Bamboo Charlie” nevertheless welcomed visitors, taking pride in the awe that his creation inspired. And yet, Walker was a homeless man whose life was weighed down under the hardship that came from living how he did. He suffered from terribly painful ulcers, had to defend his turf from other homeless people and in the end, at 61, died alone, gaunt and curled up in his fanciful home.
When people think of the homeless, their mind often takes them to standard images of who they are and where they supposedly live. Splayed out on the concrete of skid row; inside of tents lining major boulevards or underpasses; scrunched in a fetal position with a thin blanket in the doorway of a business late at night or early in the dewy morning. But such is the diversity of Southern California’s landscapes that there is a scarcely a corner of the region that homeless men and women have not adapted to. They take pride in their creations, however dystopian or unfortunate.
There’s the man who dug a bunker in the middle of the desert or the one who, far from the Pacific Ocean, lives under the hulls of two boats that have been flipped over. There’s the couple in a treehouse in the Sepulveda Basin; the clan of people who live on a sandbar in the center of the Los Angeles River.
No matter how ingenious these makeshift homes are, however, they are inhabited by people who bear the scars of an unsettled, hardscrabble life.
Here are some of their stories:
Andrew Weber made a rectangular, earthen bunker out of the desert dirt. Submerged like a giant, unfilled grave with a plywood and tarp roof, his homestead lies in an empty plot dotted with the huts of other homeless people.
The 30-year-old proudly calls himself a “Lane-cracker” and struggles to spit out sentences. He says that 13 years ago, a motor bike accident paralyzed him and placed him in a coma. The injury left him with symptoms that resemble a stroke.
His left hand is often frozen into a balled fist. His white T-shirt is stained, and his beard runs wild across his face. He says he used to work for his father’s plumbing business. Now he begs for money and does chores at a liquor store in exchange for a pack of smokes or a bottle of whiskey.
He built his bunker years ago for a friend and returned to it when he became homeless. A few cushions serve as his bed.
“I made it on my own. I did it with a shovel. I lowered the floor and raised the roof,” he says between puffs of cigarettes.
The inside of the bunker is strewn with trash, but he likes it, because more often than not, he’s left alone.
Three miles away, just off an empty road and far from downtown and the sea, Chris Strong, 51, dragged two abandoned boats into a desert lot and flipped them over. He lives inside their hull; the space is large enough to fit a queen-size mattress and a stove.
Unlike Weber, the Woodland Hills native yearns for a conventional home. For now, “Camp-Lic-Sac,” which is lewdly spray-painted on the boat, will do. It stands apart from a small cluster of structures and campers that are far from the closest paved road and in the shadow of a nearby airport.
“I’m not proud of this place, but it’s better than being on the sidewalk,” he says.
Strong is as tall as an NBA point guard, but in the confines of the upturned boat, he cuts a small figure, curled like a finger. He says an injury to his back makes it hard for him to stand for long anyway, or to work very much.
“When I’m sleeping too long, it hurts my back and neck; but sometimes I’m like, ‘Screw it, I’m not getting up!’” he says. “I want to accomplish something here instead of running from my problems.”
His goals aren’t complicated — obtaining tags that aren’t expired so he can drive his car, acquiring a job that doesn’t require him to commute to the San Fernando Valley and finding an affordable place to live.
As Strong stands outside his boat home, his friend since age 10 walks over. Steve Novak sports flowing long hair that makes him look like he could front a Black Sabbath cover band. He lives yards away in a camper next to a little clubhouse he calls “Camp Coolness.”
Both men moved out to the desert this year. Novak, who recently had a string of heart attacks, takes a decidedly more positive view of the situation. The interior includes a small couch, a neatly made bed and is adorned with Beanie Babies stuffed animals. Novak takes pride in building his shelter without any power tools.
“If you’re at a hobo camp, this is the coolest one you’ll ever see,” he says. “You’re only homeless if you’re on the curb. We take care of each other.”
The Sepulveda Basin
As vehicles scream down Burbank Boulevard, Eric Montoya of LA Family Housing pulls his car over and leads a group of outreach workers on a narrow path through thick bush. A clearing opens, revealing two treehouses along a creek. Nearby rows of tents line a creek, and trash piles high.
Even in this mess, one of the treehouses stands out as especially impressive: two stories constructed with plywood and tarp. Steps have been nailed to the tree trunk, and there’s a television that picks up local channels from an antenna.
“I saw these trees and built it at night, because I didn’t want people to see,” says Tony Looman, who has lived here off and on for four years. “At night, even with the lights on, you won’t see I’m here.”
Looman is a native Texan and loves to watch football. For many years, he says, he worked as a database administrator at Oracle but lost that job and others as he struggled with drug addiction. Now he works on and off as a cabinet maker.
Throughout the encampment, which runs alongside the Encino creek and neighbors Looman’s home, there are needles everywhere. It’s hard to shake drugs. Everyone is high on something, he reasons.
“If you’re down and out, you feel like a loser,” Looman says drearily. “So why not?”
Montoya listens to Looman’s story. After telling Looman, 60, about a program to help him with his decaying teeth, Montoya moves on to another treehouse, where John King and Jackie Canez live.
The couple are from the San Fernando Valley and have been homeless for five years. Their treehouse has expanded with time — with the rains inspiring many of these remodelings. When the rain comes down hard, flooding fills the basin and washes over a baseball field across the creek. Sometimes firefighters in boats fish out people who stayed behind.
“It’s nice to sleep at night and know we won’t get swept away,” King says.
He used to work as a contractor, but he says anxiety, depression and other ills from a hard childhood keep him from working. The Jim Beam he consumes doesn’t help, but it numbs the pain, he said.
King is proud of his treehouse. He shows off the pool pump he submerges in the creek. It allows the couple to take showers whenever they want.
Eventually, King and Canez tell Montoya they want to move on. But the treehouse, and the pride he feels in it, somehow keeps him from going deeper into despair, King said.
“People say: ‘They’re homeless. They do nothing. We’re just on our ass,’” he says before pointing up to his creation. “Look at this.”
The two tents sit precariously on the slope of a steep hill. Below, a moving audience roars incessantly on the 101 freeway.
Pam Viscard, 32, wears a turquoise tank-top as she shuffles around her tent, removing trash and looking after her dog Papa. Viscard has been on the streets of Hollywood since she was 15. She shares her tent with her wife, who is asleep and often afflicted with seizures.
In the tent next door, Viscard’s self-proclaimed street kids — two women who are not blood family but rely on her for support — live as well. One is pregnant, and Viscard says they are both worried after having to recently fight off a man who was trying to get into their tent. They use a generator to charge their electronic devices.
The group is squeezed between shrubs on the wrong side of a fence behind a Denny’s and near Netflix’s headquarters off Sunset Boulevard. Viscard came here after being kicked out by police from a nearby underpass. Here, she thought, authorities would be less likely to bother her.
“They want me to be out of sight and out of mind. But then they come and throw away our stuff,” Viscard says.
Nearby, Michael Dodson built his tent on an even steeper embankment that leads down to the highway’s offramp. He has managed to find a flattened patch of dirt to build a home for him and his tent mate, Anthony Caplos, 43.
Dodson said that despite carving steps into the dirt, he has taken his share of falls down the slope, though he has escaped serious injury. Dodson uses disinfectant to clean his tent and clothes and asks Caplos to pass him something.
“He has no clue what I’m saying,” Dodson says, smiling as the unceasing roar of traffic fills his ears.
Dodson has been homeless for 10 years and lived in this spot for two weeks. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was young. Recently he kicked heroin, but now he uses meth, acid and marijuana to quell his mood.
“I don’t trust anyone, not even myself,” he says. “It’s not a life I would’ve wanted to have lived, but it’s time to deal with it.”
A few days later, police show up to kick Viscard out. A sanitation crew clears their former homestead. Dodson manages to avoid detection because his tent, while in a more precarious spot, is also better hidden.
As he tosses bags into the back of his truck, a sanitation worker laments his daily routine. It’s a sort of Whac-a-Mole with the homeless, he said. You clean up one encampment, and there’s always another one.
“We got homeless on the freeway, homeless on the streets. We have homeless people everywhere,” he says before driving off.
The Los Angeles River
As the Los Angeles River bends toward downtown, lush islands appear in the middle of the occasionally rushing waters. This area of the river, the Glendale Narrows, is teeming with wildlife.
Mallards lounge on rocks and ducks lazily float along. In the river’s earthen center, thick reeds and palm trees make clearings on the islands hard to see from a nearby bike path. But for years, these sandbars have been a habitat for homeless men and women.
Melissa Millner descended 12 years ago on this tent encampment that floods out when it rains. She shares her spacious area with Tyrone Hart. In a nearby clearing Robin Boatner — who goes by “Country” — also makes his home.
They’re a tightly knit group, sharing everything: food, gas, drugs. Whatever anyone needs.
“I’m not homeless, I’m an outdoorsman,” Hart says in early September as he carries a pool float toward the onrushing water.
His tent sits right on the bank, and a cool breeze wafts through it. Hart said he has lived by the river 13 years and has been homeless for 20. He finds the location relaxing, he says, as he prepares to jump into the lime green raft and floats down the river.
Millner compares the L.A. River encampment to being on Gilligan’s Island, without the desire to be rescued by outsiders. She said it’s “kind of perfect at night time when people aren’t acting like asshats.”
The homeless here say that as long as they stay away from the bike paths, police tend to leave them alone.
Rain, on the other hand, is a problem. When it comes — and in Southern California that can be very infrequently — the community of homeless people has probably no more than half an hour to grab their most valuable belongings and escape.
Often helicopters are dispatched to rescue people who are stranded in the trees as the water rushes by.
Later in the fall, after reading a report about coming rain and getting a visit from police, the group decides to move their camp to higher ground.
There, a small camp stove allows them to make pancakes, and the smell of syrup and butter briefly overcomes the smell of trash. Boatner has a solar panel to charge his phone and Millner’s laptop. At 60, he feels set in his ways. He’s tried to get clean at the Weingart Center on skid row a couple of times, but the ritual never sticks.
“It bothers me a bit on the inside that I know I could be more,” Millner says. “When you get to my age, you don’t change that much. So I’m gonna stay here until I die. My remains will float down the river.”
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