HomeNews‘Trying to disappear the poor’: California clears homeless camp near Super Bowl
‘Trying to disappear the poor’: California clears homeless camp near Super Bowl
January 27, 2022
Officials in Los Angeles have cleared a homeless encampment near SoFi stadium, where the Super Bowl will take place in three weeks, drawing backlash from human rights groups and the unhoused residents who have been displaced.
On Monday and Tuesday, the state transit agency Caltrans shut down the tent community, which visitors would probably have passed on their way to the big game, calling it a “safety issue”.
But some have accused authorities of forcing people out of sight without providing housing or services.
“They are just trying to survive,” said Sofi Villalpando, who works with some of the displaced residents. “It feels like [authorities] are removing people so they won’t be seen.”
Dawn Toftee, 57, who was living at the encampment that was cleared, told the Guardian on Wednesday that she lost the couch she had been sleeping on during the sweep and was now sleeping on a blanket on a nearby street where she felt less safe. “Now I’m at this site where I didn’t want to be. There’s been killings and shootings around here … They should let us have our home back.”
Toftee said another unhoused resident, who uses a wheelchair, had also lost the mattress he had been sleeping on during the cleanup. She blamed the Super Bowl: “It’s terrible and it’s bullshit.”
The controversial sweep comes as elected officials in LA have increasingly launched high-profile encampment shutdowns in response to a worsening humanitarian crisis. There were an estimated 48,000 people living on the streets in LA county at the start of the pandemic, the latest count. The strategy of sweeps, critics say, has prioritized aesthetics and the complaints of neighbors, leading people in established tent communities to be scattered into more dangerous living conditions.
It also comes as the region is dealing with major Covid outbreaks in homeless shelters across the county, further limiting unhoused people’s options.
It is unclear how many people were affected by this week’s sweep and whether anyone received housing, shelter or other services. Michael Comeaux, a Caltrans spokesperson, directed the Guardian to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (Lahsa), the county service provider that partnered with Caltrans for “outreach and support”.
A Lahsa spokesperson said that the agency had talked to eight encampment residents on Tuesday, but he did not confirm whether any were successfully placed into housing.
Comeaux said Caltrans had brought “personal belongings left behind” to a nearby maintenance yard where they would be stored for a few weeks, and that the agency had posted notices about the “cleanup” 72 hours in advance. Comeaux said that if a couch or mattress looked to be in “unusable condition”, the crew would dispose of it.
Madeline deVillers, another advocate working with the residents, said Caltrans had showed up hours earlier than some residents had expected and that she had witnessed people’s belongings being thrown out. She estimated that more than two dozen people had been displaced by the sweep and said she did not personally know of anyone who received any form of housing or shelter. Most people were camping around nearby streets, she said.
“There are community bonds out here – people help each other,” she said. “If I give out certain supplies, they get passed on through other people. So having this loss of community really takes a lot of resources from people … and is really hard and dangerous for these folks.”
While Caltrans has said a “fire safety” concern was driving the cleanup, advocates questioned why the whole camp had to be closed. And a worker on site told the local station KTLA that the Super Bowl was the impetus for the sweep.
“No one wants to take responsibility for what is happening,” said Annie Powers, an organizer with NOlympics LA, a coalition that has organized against the Olympics in 2028 in LA, partly out of concern that it will lead to these kinds of sweeps. “We see this time and time again – with sports capitalism, celebrations or other big events like the Super Bowl or Olympics, the city tries to make the city look better for investors coming from out of town. So they’re very encouraged to try to disappear the poor from the streets.”
The residents there had a wide range of experiences that led them to the streets, Villalpando said, including some whose partners had died, resulting in a loss of financial stability, and others out of work due to injuries. Some had previously been displaced from another area that went through an encampment sweep: “It’s such a broken system and I don’t feel like there is any accountability.”
Toftee, the displaced resident, said she did not mind officials cleaning up the area, but that she wished they could return to the site, where she said she had been camping for roughly two years.
“I am tired of being on the streets, and I don’t want to die here,” she said, noting that she had multiple unhoused friends who had died recently. A recent UCLA report estimated that 1,500 unhoused people died while living on the streets from March 2020 to July 2021. Toftee said she wished elected officials understood their experiences: “Why don’t they come and spend a day or two out here, and see what we’re going through?”
“I have nowhere to go,” added Dawn Wilson, 49, another displaced resident, who said she wasn’t offered housing and was now camping on a sidewalk with her dog. “They don’t care what happens to us.”
NFL spokespeople did not immediately respond to an inquiry on Wednesday afternoon.