After gaining notoriety for using found and donated items to creatively landscape a freeway embankment and constructing a comfortable wooden shelter for himself at the top, many people worried that Jose Fuentes, a homeless senior citizen, had been forcibly removed from the eye-catching site he called “home.”
The terrace, the playful slide, the steps leading up to the gate surrounding his shelter were gone. It had all been pulled down and many speculated that the news media coverage had encouraged authorities to take action to remove it.
But Fuentes told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol he took it down himself and has just temporarily moved several yards away from the original location for better shade and to escape the heat. He plans to rebuild his “home” and make it as clean and ornate as before.
“Once the heat is gone, I’ll move it back,” he said
The elderly landscaper lived above the corner of Paxton Street for about four years largely unnoticed until his creative expression became too large to miss. So much so that some tongue in cheek, called it a “homeless mansion.” The local community enjoyed watching how he’d decorated the dusty hillside, dressing it up with toys, carefully arranged rock formations, small trees, and a clearly marked path that climbs up and down the hill’s freeway embankment.
He said the owners from the El Canelo restaurant — located in the small, strip mall next to the hill where the encampment is located — have advocated for him to be there. Fuentes helps to keep the parking lot clean and does other little things for the restaurant in exchange for food, and occasionally, for money.
But now, instead of the decorations, there’s a pile of wood, along with the toys and an assortment of other items next to the sidewalk.
“I wanted to clean it so this looks pretty,” said Fuentes, adding that he left the trees where he planted them.
A couple of weeks ago, Fuentes said, someone from an agency did pay him a visit to offer him housing in North Hollywood. He hasn’t seen the accommodations, but was not too keen on the offer.
When asked about moving there, Fuentes said, “I don’t think so. It’s better here. I have about 30 years living here in Pacoima. My sister lives nearby and I have my friends here. People come and help me. I don’t know (North Hollywood).”
Fuentes had previously indicated that he would accept housing if it was offered but for now, he prefers to stay put.
The state agency Caltrans has jurisdiction of the freeways and the maintenance of the areas around them. Marc Bischoff, public information officer, said the agency has not yet completed a cleanup at the site where Fuentes and others stay.
“Apparently the man who lives there brought (the shelter) down himself due to all of the media attention,” Bischoff said. “Caltrans is currently engaged with the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority to find this person housing.
“Caltrans is also working on the possibility of offering him a job as part of our Maintenance Service Assistant hiring event,” he said.
Fuentes said the people who came to see him and offer housing also told him, “They will conduct a cleanup of the encampment marked with several structures and lots of trash piles.” A row of tents against fencing is below the embankment where Fuentes has lived.
“They’re not going to remove me, but they will move the others,” Fuentes said, while claiming that they also told him he could rebuild on the same spot he was before.
Came to the US from Mexico
Fuentes, 65, has never married or had children. He 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.” He now works odd jobs here and there.
At one time, Fuentes rented a room for $150 a month in a house along Corcoran Street in Pacoima, but it didn’t last. He’s also lived for awhile in a church and with his sister, who lives nearby.
When he first came to the encampment, someone else occupied the space 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 space and began to remodel it, first strengthening the structure of the shelter then decorating the area around it with toys, bodyboards, teddy bears, and car parts he found on the streets. There was even a children’s slide.
Fuentes said he’s trying to make it easy for them to take away all the stuff he no longer needs.
But, when asked if he wouldn’t prefer to have more permanent housing, he said he wants to stay where he is.
“I’m fine here,” he said. “I live happy here, free like the wind.”