M.Terry / SFVS

Jackie Canez (left) confronts a representative from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority during a cleanup in the Sepulveda Basin on Wednesday, Jan. 8.

LOS ANGELES (CNS) — LA City officials began another phase of the cleanup of homeless encampments in the Sepulveda Basin on Wednesday, Jan. 8, despite continued protests by those living within the basin area, and advocacy groups.

While the action is being called a “cleanup,” advocates claimed the action is a removal of people desperately in need of housing. There are 150 thousand people statewide who are homeless.

“We’ve done a lot of different things to try and help the homeless — anything from feeding them to trying to keep them warm, and provide sanitation,” said Victoria Mella, chairwoman of the Chatsworth-based group About Our Father’s Business. “What we’re finding is every time we go out there they have more needs, because [LA County] Sanitation will come and take everything away.

“They don’t tell them where they’re going to take them. That’s kidnapping, to pick up people, take them and drop them someplace else because you want to. So many of them live in fear, and we’re constantly replacing tents and sleeping bags, and basic things like water,” Mella said 

The basin is now being monitored by the city frequently since fires erupted last summer throughout the wildland area, which is leased by the city from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation and environment officials began the cleanup at 8 a.m.

Homeless people have been removed from Sepulveda Basin in three other areas.  The basin is designated as parkland that closes at dusk and reopens at dawn.

Jackie Canez said she and her boyfriend had been living in the basin for the past six years.“Depression and anxiety led us to the streets and we ended up staying here because we were being harassed for living on the sidewalk,” she said. Although she spoke in a calm voice, Canez was quite worried about how her boyfriend would react to being forced out of their encampment.

“It’s going to send him into a very depressed, emotional state if they [take away] his tools. And I can’t find my cats…They said they were coming in, and I get that they have to move stuff. But they’re going to move us all out all at once? All of us? We’re gonna end up on the sidewalks, somehow. We’ve got no place to go and we’re gonna end up with nothing.”

LASAN officials have broken the basin’s cleanup into separate phases. The first phase was to clean out areas near the Sepulveda Basin Sports Complex, the second was around Haskell Creek and the third phase was near Bull Creek.

But this last phase is in a place where the public is never supposed to enter, according to city officials, because it is in a flood plane near Encino Creek, and that can be dangerous for human habitation in the event of heavy rains.

“Our main focus here today is within the Encino Creek area and Sepulveda Basin flood channel,” said Howard Wong, an associate chief with the city of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation. “It’s protecting public health and safety, and the environment. We’re focused on illegal dumping and homeless encampments — specifically trash debris, bulky items, hazardous waste and materials within the creek area.

“It is a difficult job. We do have compassion for the unsheltered. We do have outreach workers here to provide services and shelter information.”

Hundreds of homeless people have been identified as living in the Sepulveda Basin by local advocacy organizations, and there could be as many as 100 still inhabiting the area.

Sepulveda Basin was subject to fires last summer that charred dozens of acres. The most recent fire occurred Oct. 24, burning about 60 acres. Another fire burned 10 acres in July, days before the first scheduled cleanup, with some propane tanks spotted in the burn area, increasing the danger for fire crews.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and the nonprofit organization LA Family Housing have been referring homeless people who have been removed from the basin to housing services. The number of people who have been referred to services from the basin since last summer was not immediately available, but LAHSA staff told City News Service they would release that data when it is available.

In addition to LASAN’s cleanup and outreach CARE and CARE-Plus teams, Los Angeles Police Department and park rangers have been assisting with enforcement during cleanups.

Although Los Angeles challenged a US Court of Appeals ruling in a case known as Martin v. the city of Boise, the city cannot remove homeless people from public areas unless they have shelter or housing for them, and the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case in December. But the city does have safety measures in place that do not allow people to reside in high-risk fire zones and floodplanes.