L.A. removes homeless camp from a vacant Watts lot

The man who lived in the shaft had disappeared.

After weeks of visits from field workers and a last-minute persuasion by the police, the row of cabins was abandoned.

At 8 a.m., a bulldozer and grader circled the 10-acre vacant lot in Watts, scraping up 3-foot-tall weeds and the debris they hid in piles. A smaller tractor sifted out clothing, television and computer parts, child car seats, and broken concrete. A fourth machine with a shovel lifted the concentrate into three huge dumpsters along with several loads of abandoned tires.

Thursday’s cleanup of the city’s stricken Lanzit property was a major boon to a downtrodden neighborhood, said community activist Germán Magaña, who serves as an unofficial spokesman for nearby business owners, local residents and even people who lived at the property.

A man walks past a fire hydrant

Germán Magaña, an unofficial neighborhood ombudsman, was in regular contact with camp residents.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

But it was just the beginning of a new phase that will require vigilance to keep the estate from falling into ruins again. It will take drive and creativity to overcome 28 years of failure that have shaped the city’s development plans.

“To date I am very happy,” said Magaña. “I know it will be a while before there is an actual resolution as to what to do with the property. It’s a process and we all understand that. But for now, the community and the homeless will be better off. Many have gotten into housing construction.”

The city bought the land south of 108th Street and a few blocks east of Avalon Boulevard in 1994 in hopes of revitalizing a community drained of its economic base and traumatized by the 1992 riots. The plan was to bring hundreds of high-tech jobs to Watts with the first industrial development in the area since the 1970s.

As reported in a Times article about Juan Luis Gonzalez-Castillo, the man in the manhole, at least five development proposals died in a decades-long saga of City Hall intrigue, bureaucratic delays, and even bad luck when a developer died shortly after its development plan was accepted.

A fireman in a camp

Firefighter Darren Burkhart retrieves an American flag at a homeless camp in Watts on Friday.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Magaña credited the article with hastening the city’s response on Thursday to the long-simmering condition at the property.

“Perhaps the will is often not there,” he said. Or, in a broad reference to the numerous city authorities that have allowed the problems to smolder: “Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on in our counties.

“It makes a big difference when members of the community, the fire department, the police and the city council office work together to make this happen,” Magaña said.

The interagency project began with earthmoving equipment brought in by the Los Angeles Fire Department.

They spent hours circling the property cutting the weeds.

Meanwhile, a welding team from the city’s Department of General Services made new repairs to the often breached fence at the cul-de-sac of 109th Square, the entry point for thieves disposing of disassembled car bodies.

A man stands at a property line strewn with rubble

Cardinal Glass Industries owner Mike Balderrama observes the cleanup at the Watts site.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Three outreach workers from the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System, or HOPICS, South Los Angeles’ premier homeless services agency, inspected each of the makeshift homes to make sure they had been abandoned. They said they found places for everyone they wanted.

Unfortunately, Gonzalez-Castillo was not there. They had found him a place to live, and he accepted but later changed his mind, they said. They didn’t know where he was.

LA City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson arrived early afternoon to watch the final stages of the cleanup under a canopy erected by his staff on the street in the middle of the property.

As the undergrowth turned to bare dirt, two dogs, either neighborhood strays or abandoned by the homeless, began pacing nervously around the property. Los Angeles Animal Services Officer S. Infante showed up to try to capture her. He approached a black Chihuahua and almost got hold of it as it sped away. Infante left empty-handed as the Chihuahua repeatedly eluded him and the larger dog disappeared.

Mike Balderrama, manager of Cardinal Glass Industries adjacent to the Lanzit property, watched through a metal fence. He occasionally glanced down at his feet, where he was pushing a pair of used syringes with his boot.

“This is where they would sell their drugs,” Balderrama said of the residents of the now-empty huts.

Balderrama said he welcomes the elimination of the imminent threat of a bushfire spreading to the roof of the Cardinal building. But he feared conditions outside the property would work their way back inside.

Compton Creek, a concrete canal bordering Cardinal’s properties to the north, was a wasteland of cardboard signs, dirty clothing, a used butane gas canister, and other garbage. A stolen van had been abandoned a few yards down the bank of the canal, and another shantytown remained, tapping into a power line to run an air conditioner.

A police officer holds a phone at a homeless camp

LAPD officer Armando Leyva photographs a homeless camp after telling two men they can no longer camp on the site.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

At one point, LAPD senior lead officer Armando Leyva, one of several police officers overseeing the cleanup, drove down the access road to the canal to call a tow truck to pick up the van. He then proceeded to the camp, where he informed two men there that they had to leave, although he gave them no time limit.

Harris-Dawson said he thinks community activities are the answer.

“Ensuring that a space is regularly used by people and families is the best and most sustainable security,” he said in a statement. “

He said he will work with county and city officials to determine what types of activities are desired and feasible.

Longer term, he said, he remains committed to “creating a job-rich usage, hopefully with the manufacturing it once was.”

Thursday’s cleanup continued into the afternoon, when LAFD Heavy Equipment Unit Capt. Richard Diede entered the last two remaining huts to make sure they were clear.

He passed a fan hanging from the ceiling and electrical cords on the floor connected to a nearby telephone pole. After getting out, he gave the all-clear and the bulldozer went to work on the first structure. Shortly thereafter, another machine joined and brought down the second structure.

The work wasn’t finished when the crews left for the day.

Firefighters returned Friday to erect several concrete highway barriers in strategic locations to try to stop anyone entering illegally.

A man riding a bicycle

Marvin Williams, 62, leaves the vacant lot where he lived for two years.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Magaña said he was proud to see three neighborhood homeless people working alongside city workers.

Magaña said he knows many of them as decent people whose lives could be changed by good jobs. But he added that there are others who are predators who controlled the camps out of fear and stole from nearby shops.

“What I hope for from political offices is that they can finally create a separation between the homeless and the criminal aspects,” he said. “It’s going to be a good thing for the community.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-08-14/in-a-vacant-lot-in-watts-a-homeless-camp-gets-swept-away-by-l-a-along-with-the-brush L.A. removes homeless camp from a vacant Watts lot

Alley Einstein

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