Jose Fuentes’ small, makeshift shelter sits on a hillside above the corner of Paxton Street and Glenoaks Boulevard in Pacoima. It’s a rectangular-shaped structure, properly nailed, and covered on all sides to guard against the rain and the wind. It also leans against an outside wall of the 118 Freeway.
The elderly landscaper, who works odd jobs here and there, said he has lived at this location for four years. What helps make Fuentes’ dwelling unique is how he’s decorated the dusty hillside around it. It can be described as a street-art installation or “unhoused chic,” where things have been carefully arranged, and has a clearly marked path heading toward the entrance of the structure.
It’s his home.
It is easily visible to people driving by, walking on the sidewalk below, or making purchases at the nearby strip mall. It’s even becoming an attraction. In comparison to the other tents of homeless people nearby, Fuentes’ creation has been described as “a work of art.”
“I’m content,” Fuentes said. “I did this because I didn’t have a job and I needed a place to live.”
Problems With Alcohol
Fuentes, 65, who never married or had children, came to the US from Colima, Mexico, in 1988 and worked in gardening for the next 20 years. He lost his job some 10 years ago, admittedly for “drinking too much.”
“Sometimes I missed two or three days and they got tired. It was my fault,” he said.
At one time, Fuentes managed to rent a room for $150 a month in a house along Corcoran Street in Pacoima, but it didn’t last. He has also lived in a church and with his sister, who lives nearby.
Unfortunately, his drinking habits got in his way again.
“I had a problem with my brother-in-law. I was drunk and we fought,” Fuentes said.
When he first arrived at the encampment, someone else occupied the place where he now lives. So Fuentes settled a few yards away, alongside other homeless residents in the area.
When the man died, Fuentes took over the now empty space. He began to remodel it, first strengthening the structure then decorating the area around it with toys, bodyboards, teddy bears, and car parts he found on the streets. There’s even a children’s slide.
There’s also a path clearly marked with rocks on the sides. Fuentes carved out steps next to the chain-link fence he grabs onto to climb the steep hill; and placed pieces of a rug next to a railing that provides security against falling.
He said it took him about 10 months to create something to his liking. After cleaning up the area by removing trash and other elements, Fuentes carried rocks in a shopping cart he found and keeps, and began delineating the path.
“When I started, it was like a game,” Fuentes said. “It was really ugly.”
He eventually added the other stuff that now attracts the attention of those passing by.
“I like it that people like it,” Fuentes said.
He likes to keep his place as clean and orderly as possible. In the summer he washes with cold water. He used to heat the water for showers in the winter on a little stove he had, but that stove has since broken down.
He uses a bucket as a toilet and makes sure to throw the waste far away, he said.
“I’m different from the other homeless who keep their place dirty,” Fuentes said, proudly.
None of the other encampment residents have ever bothered him, Fuentes said, and he’s not scared of living by himself. The only problem he’s ever had happened approximately two years ago, when a drug addict hit him in the head with a bat.
“Someone called the ambulance because I was bleeding too much,” he said.
Friends and Gifts
Fuentes said he makes ends meet by working one or two days a week when he gets the chance. Last Saturday, June 19, he worked for a half day and was paid $50. He also collects cans to sell at recycling centers.
He’s known throughout the area because he helps keep the strip mall clean, and doesn’t cause problems. People give Fuentes money on occasion, or offer clothing, food and water and “that helps me keep going.”
On Sunday, a niece who sells food in the area gave him a couple of tacos for breakfast.
“Así la voy pasando (that’s how I get by),” Fuentes said.
He says no official from the city of Los Angeles or its homeless services has ever offered him a place to live. If they did, Fuentes said, he would take it as long as it’s not too far away from where he is now.
“So I can always have my friends nearby,” he said.
But someone did come by recently (he doesn’t know from which agency), threatening Fuentes and others in the nearby encampment with eviction.
If that happens, “I’ll just go someplace else,” he said.
Ongoing Homeless Encampment Cleanups
CalTrans has jurisdiction over the freeways and the areas around them. In a statement, the state agency said that “consistent with CDC [the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines to prevent community spread of COVID-19, CalTrans is proceeding with encampment cleanups if there is an immediate safety concern or threat to critical infrastructure.”
“We will continue to work with cities and other partners to move people into safer situations as available,” it further stated. “CalTrans also continues to work with local agencies to provide those living in the encampments with resources for safer living situations as available in an effort to keep the individuals and the freeways safe.”
Los Angeles City Councilmember Monica Rodriguez — whose 7th District includes Pacoima — has accused CalTrans of negligence in maintaining the area where the encampment lies.
“The 118 and Glenoaks site is one of many locations that CalTans has been negligent in maintaining,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “To address the lack of coordination and effort to clear the state right-of-ways in her district, the [Councilmember] has introduced legislation to quantify the maintenance responsibility and cost our City has endured when responding to emergencies in their right of way.
“In absence of their responsiveness, Council District staff has completed various maintenance services within the area around that location where we have jurisdiction. [Rodriguez] continues to seek CalTrans’ cooperation and support to maintain their right-of-ways and work with appropriate agencies to coordinate services for the unhoused who are living on state property.”
Whatever happens, Fuentes said he’ll just try to get by.
But he lives comfortably, Fuentes claims.
“I like it and I’m used to it,” he said, looking down at the strip mall as traffic goes by on the busy intersection.
“At night it looks very nice. It’s very illuminated. It’s pretty.”