Over three months ago, the lives of Juan and Erica (who’ve requested their last names not be used) were completely upended, and they’ve been trying to find some semblance of stability ever since. The husband and wife, who emigrated from Nicaragua less than a year ago, were among dozens of tenants forced to vacate a makeshift RV park in Sylmar due to squalid and unsafe conditions that tenants and neighbors had suffered for years.
“Everything that was unleashed as a result of all of this has been horrible,” Erica told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol. “It brought us a mountain of problems and we’re still recovering.”
Erica and Juan and other former renters at the Hubbard Street property were forced to leave in late July, when a judge ordered property owner Cruz Florian Godoy to remove all tenants from the 23 RVs she rented on site. After hastily packing up their belongings, most moved to a temporary shelter in Lakeview Terrace.
After just 10 days, and visits from various social service agencies, the shelter was closed. Luckily, most residents received a check to help pay for relocation costs from the LA Housing Department. But, despite the financial boost, Erica and Juan experienced more tumultuous times.
They stayed at a motel for 10 days, hoping to get word of another shelter or low-cost housing option from one of the social service agencies, but they said they never heard back from anyone. They left the motel because they didn’t want to deplete their dwindling funds and stayed with a friend for a few nights, sneaking into her apartment after dark. Unfortunately, they had to leave because their friend feared the landlord would catch her sneaking them in and out and evict her.
“We ended up on the streets,” recalled Erica. They spent 15 days sleeping in their car at El Cariso Park in Sylmar, and looking for work by day. Then things went from bad to worse.
“My husband was hospitalized for weeks because of problems with his kidney and he had to have surgery,” she said. While he was hospitalized, Erica said they were given the option to split up and stay in separate shelters.
“My husband was sick – I wasn’t going to leave him all by himself,” she explained.
Before her husband was discharged from the hospital, Erica was able to find a room to rent in Sylmar. Paying the monthly rent will be challenging for them, she admitted, because Juan hasn’t been able to work since getting sick, and she has only been able to work occasional day jobs cleaning homes. But, for now, they are breathing a tentative sigh of relief to have a roof over their heads.
“Thank God, right now we are no longer homeless,” said Erica.
Jesus and Coral Took Refuge at First in Tiny Homes
Jesus Rodriguez and Coral Ramirez, separate tenants who became friends while living in the makeshift RV park, also stayed at the temporary shelter in Lakeview Terrace. Ramirez, a part-time musician and restaurant worker, and Rodriguez, a handyman, were among several displaced RV tenants offered placement in a tiny home village in Sun Valley.
Ramirez left after a month, partly because she didn’t feel like her caseworker was doing enough to help her find permanent housing, but also because she was asked to share a tiny home with someone. She said she simply didn’t feel comfortable or safe sleeping in a confined space with a stranger.
“I didn’t like closing my eyes at night knowing someone else who I didn’t know was there so close to me,” she explained.
Ramirez ended up making the difficult choice to rent a room in a private home in Sylmar using some of the funds she received from LAHD. Ramirez said she had hoped to make the money last as long as possible, because the challenges she has faced since leaving the RV property have made it hard to find and maintain a steady job.
Although Ramirez is finally in a safe living situation, she worries how she will manage to pay her $1,000 rent each month, which is about double what she used to pay for the RV she rented from Godoy.
Tenants had been paying between $400 and $600 per month to rent RVs of various sizes on Godoy’s property. Unfortunately, in exchange for the low rents, they had to contend with putrid living conditions – leaking roofs, backed up-plumbing and even human waste leaking from the property grounds onto surrounding streets. And the tightly packed RVs created a fire hazard.
“She took advantage of people who couldn’t afford to go anywhere else,” said Erica. “It was a dangerous and disgusting situation.”
While Ramirez found the living conditions she endured appalling, she said she actually feels that Godoy was open and upfront with incoming tenants about what they were getting into.
“Yeah, [Godoy] really should’ve kept things cleaner and safer, but she would show people what they would be getting, and then let them decide – at least it was affordable,” lamented Ramirez, noting that for people who are struggling to stay off the streets, their choices are limited.
Rodriguez is still living in the tiny home community in Sun Valley and still having a hard time finding regular work as a handyman. He said he hopes his caseworker will eventually help him find an affordable place.
“It’s OK being here; it’s decent,” said Rodriguez, adding that he appreciates having a safe place to sleep, but is ready to move on. “I’m just trying to be patient; I hope things will get better.”
Rodriguez said he spends most days either working, looking for a job or day gigs, or spending time with family members or friends, including Ramirez, who has become a good friend. They usually get together several days per week to catch up and play tennis at a nearby park.
“Aside from that, I basically just go home to sleep and bathe,” said Rodriguez regarding his typical routine. Overall, the most difficult aspects of living in the tiny home village are the small space and the multitude of rules. “I just put my faith in God that they will find me a place soon.”
During Godoy’s initial hearing on July 26, she was fined, charged with two misdemeanors, ordered to vacate all tenants and was given 45 days to remove all the RVs and clean up the property. Despite the lack of progress cited at the Sept. 7 follow-up hearing – when it was reported that 18 RVs remained on site – Godoy received 90 additional days to complete the clean-up. She is scheduled to return to the Van Nuys courthouse for another hearing Dec. 7.
Maria Macias, who lives behind the property, doesn’t believe Godoy will ever comply. She said that numerous RVs remain on site, with people in and out all day. Further, she believes Godoy is still renting some of the RVs because she often sees lights and activity and hears noises at night – including the hum of a generator. Although the nauseating stench of human waste that once permeated the neighborhood has dissipated, Macias said they can still smell it sometimes.
“I don’t know what else we can do,” Macias told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol. “She goes to court, but they keep letting her get away with everything. There are no repercussions for her.”
Erica said she believes Godoy should face legal consequences for the “terrible living conditions” she contributed to on her property and for taking advantage of so many vulnerable people.
“I lost my job after we left the [RV property] because everything was complete chaos, and I couldn’t go to work every day so they fired me,” she said. Because of the domino effect of issues that ensued, Erica and Juan have been unable to accomplish what they were hoping to achieve here in the U.S.: to work hard as a team to send money home to their children in Nicaragua.
“There are no jobs there; that’s why we came here – to help our children,” said Erica. For now, their oldest daughter, who is 18, is caring for her siblings, who are 14, 10 and 4 years old.
“The pain of being separated from our children is indescribable,” she said. “I hope we can finally start moving forward – to start working again, so we can be together again soon as a family.”