Arroyo Seco homelessness: Crime concerns, lack of affordable housing highlighted at town hall

Ron, who said he's been living in the Arroyo Seco with his girlfriend, gave panelists an earful Tuesday.
Ron, who said he's been living in the Arroyo Seco with his girlfriend, gave panelists an earful Tuesday. "None of you guys understand what it's like to be homeless," he said. "I'm asking for help. And I'm not asking for me. There's a gentleman back there who needs help. There's three or four other people that need help and I'm asking for them."
Eric Zassenhaus/ KPCC

Dozens gathered in Sycamore Grove's Ramona Hall Cultural Center on Tuesday night to talk about the increasing number of encampments in neighborhoods along the Arroyo Seco and L.A. River valley. 

The public forum brought panelists from two divisions of the L.A. police department and two city council district reps, along with a half-dozen homeless service providers, a park ranger and several representatives from the city attorney's office. 

Concerns for public safety 

At the center of the discussion were the dozens of encampments that have taken root in and around the Arroyo Seco and its river in the past several years, and are now visible along the 110 Freeway. Several neighbors said they've also seen an increase in crime and drug use.

"I breaks my heart to drive through the Arroyo," resident Ed Carreon told the panel, saying that he feels for the homeless living along the riverbed and in the park. "But I can't drive there with my daughter cause they're shooting up heroin there."

Exacerbating the problems, residents said, is the fact that the corridor falls along two council districts — Councilman Jose Huizar to the east and Councilman Gil Cedillo to the west — and between the jurisdiction of two police divisions.

"I run in my neighborhood," said Arroyo Seco council member Lenora Bejarano. "I encountered a girl once at Debs Park who was trying to figure out what she does to report a homeless person that chased her and her friend through the park," Bejarano said. 

"She went to one police station and the sort of turned her away and said 'oh this is the wrong one. You've got to go somewhere else'."

Marcos Trinidad from the Debs Park Audubon Society said they'd had similar problems with hikers being not clear on which LAPD division to call to report crimes that are not necessarily emergencies.

LAPD's Austin Fernald, senior lead officer for the Hollenbeck division, said it was an issue the department was aware of. "You call 9-11 or communications, they are going to refer the call to the proper area," he said, "whether it be Northeast or Hollenbeck."

Resident Ed Carreon echoed the sentiment that what was needed was more enforcement and more clarity over who's responsible for the Arroyo. 

"I can't fix homelessness tonight," he said. "But you can enforce the law in the Arroyo tonight. It breaks my heart when I drive down there. I see them. It really does. But they're not all good players."

A lack of housing in Northeast LA

Past clean-ups have simply moved the homeless from one area of the park to another, residents and homeless advocates said. At the heart of the issue is the fact those living along the riverbed have little interest in moving from their camps, which provide a modicum of privacy and community, to crowded shelters in Skid Row. 

"We're not really dealing with the issue at large," organizer and Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council member Roy Payan said. "We're just basically shuffling people between one district and the next." He added that dismantling and removing homeless people's property doesn't change the fact that they are homeless. "It just makes them a homeless person without belongings," he said.

Most of the homeless living in the area, Recycled Resources homeless Coalition's Rebecca Prine said, have ties to northeast L.A. and wouldn't likely accept housing elsewhere — even if it were available. 

"The problem that we are facing is the lack of affordable housing and section eight vouchers in Northeast L.A." In Skid Row, where she works, Prine said, most of her clients would jump at the chance to take housing outside the area. "When you take a section 8 voucher to Northeast L.A. and you say 'hey, I got something in South L.A.', they're like, 'forget it, I'd rather live along the Arroyo' because they're so tied to Northeast L.A., so tied to the community."

She said she hopes the current concern about homelessness in the area will help establish the need to allot more housing vouchers for the area. Vouchers help low-income residents pay for rent by providing government subsidies for a portion of the cost. 

Among the solutions proposed Tuesday night: 

Payan, the organizer of Tuesday's events, said he'd like Huizar and Cedillo to explore the possibility of creating emergency housing in northeast L.A. for homeless with roots in the community. 

"The city has a lot of surplus lots, especially in the periphery of the communities," he said. "I know we have a lot of NIMBYs who are going to tell me 'well, we don't want a homeless structure in our community.' Well, fine but as a community we have to start thinking outside the box and getting those ideas to our electeds."

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Ramona Hall is located in Mt. Washington. It's located in Sycamore Grove. This story has been updated.