[Disclosure: Author was present at the action to move boulders. Was not particularly strong, but encouraging to those who were.]
“Do you feel safe walking with your loved ones through Cattaraugus Tunnel?” asked screenwriter Peter Iliff and South Robertson residents Stephanie Ripps, Matias Baker Musucci and Meysam Foroughi in a GoFundMe on July 29.
For the organizers, it’s a rhetorical question — they don’t. The page, titled the “Cattaraugus Tunnel Safety & Beautification Project,” raised $3,650 from 29 donors by early September with a perfectly vague goal — to “beautify” the tunnel, where an encampment of unhoused Angelinos had been living for years. Their presence is what the group deemed unsafe, and their removal was the implied “beautification.”
The exact plan for the fund’s use was not communicated on the GoFundMe, but Iliff and his team had spoken of their intent for nearly two months before taking action in early September. The plan was boulders — $2,600 worth of boulders, to be placed in the Cattaraugus Tunnel after the belongings of the unhoused population were removed. There was no plan to get permission from the city, much less the unhoused residents. In other corners of the internet, Iliff was far more explicit about his goal.
“We need to device [sic] a ‘Homeless Prevention Environmental Design,’” he wrote on the Nextdoor page for his neighborhood, Reynier Park, on July 10. “That is the official term for bringing in boulders to place against the tunnel wall, leaving 3 feet of pedestrian clearance. Let’s rally and get this done for the safety of our neighborhood.”
“IN,” replied neighbor Lauren Burchett under his post. The funds were raised, the encampment was cleared, and the boulders were professionally installed on September 6, over Labor Day weekend.
What followed was Iliff’s worst-case scenario. On September 8, a group of about a dozen volunteers (myself included) arrived at Cattaraugus Tunnel with as much hauling equipment and upper-arm strength was available on short notice, and hauled around half the boulders to the side of the tunnel using dollies and moving straps. This action came shortly after a South Robertson Neighborhood Council Public Safety meeting was met with around 70 public comments opposing the boulders, including counter-arguments from Iliff himself, defending his actions.
“You’ve had a number of safety issues,” Iliff said over Zoom. “You’ve had attacks… no homeless were displaced.”
In spite of the claim that no one was displaced, there were unhoused people at the tunnel where an encampment had existed just days before when volunteers hauled the boulders. During the action to remove the boulders, a neighbor called the cops and several LAPD officers arrived as Iliff came to the scene, arms folded and clearly agitated. In the Zoom meeting shortly before, he had cited finding drug paraphernalia left behind at the encampment as justification for placing the boulders and preventing the return of any unhoused citizens. While he described what was left behind as a “bag of meth pipes” to ABC7, the images posted and shared appeared to only show prescription pill bottles.
“Of course, not all homeless are like this,” he’d said on the Zoom call, “there are people trying to get back. But we didn’t see people like that. We saw the worst of the bunch.”
As volunteers continued to haul, one woman arrived at the other side of the tunnel, just getting off the phone with police. When asked by a volunteer where her face mask was, she faltered.
“Oh, I forgot to bring my mask when I — oh thank God, the police!” she said upon realizing the LAPD had already arrived on the other side of the tunnel where Iliff was standing, and ran toward them. The volunteers shrugged, and we continued to haul boulders, undisturbed by the LAPD.
Iliff’s hope that the volunteers would be stopped by police didn’t play — after two months of planning, a number of officials and organizers who appeared to have quietly supported his idea abruptly turned on him in the face of public criticism. The next day, the reversal climaxed as Iliff was forced to pay to remove the boulders by Councilmember Herb Wesson, or face charges.
The surface of his predicament appears to be a little more than a public embarrassment of the guy who wrote Point Break and Varsity Blues, whose spearheading of the project has invited negative press internationally. A closer look at the discussions and events leading up to the implosion of the “Safety & Beautification Project” reveals entrenched anti-homeless attitudes on the city level as much as the citizen level.
A Fixation on the Unhoused
When asked for an interview for this piece, Iliff responded with a statement, one he read word for word on a South Robertson Neighborhood Council meeting on September 14, and which is repeated again in part on his Facebook page. The following is a brief excerpt:
“Those who oppose the boulders dox, defame, threaten, and try to destroy our careers. Despite this, we have learned a great deal by listening to your views. But have you listened to us? What we need is to come together and get the city to find real solutions for residents and our unhoused brothers. Because those who came to protest the boulders, and those who defend them, are ALL on the same team — the team of people who CARE. INDIFFERENCE is the enemy.”
Peter Iliff’s Facebook page will look familiar to millennials with liberal dads — there are photos of his family in N95 masks, support of Black Lives Matter and the Biden-Harris campaign, a video of him singing a song called “Baby Girl” in a fedora.
What stands out is what appears to be a fixation on unhoused people — both as it pertains to his own neighborhood, and as a creative writer.
“The government is set up for guys like me,” says Frank, the unhoused protagonist of Iliff’s 2017 film Trump’s America. “I live off the kindness of strangers who pay their taxes, so Uncle Sam can give to visionaries like myself.”
For the remainder of the film, Frank is abused by the police and the media in what appears to be a condemnation of his treatment, while also trafficking in some of the most pervasive stereotypes surrounding the unhoused — Frank joyfully identifies as a “junkie” who does not want to get a job. Absent are any references to the leading causes of homelessness in the US: lack of affordable housing, unemployment, mental illness, lack of services and lack of services for addiction.
“Well, at least I’m livin’ the American dream,” Frank says in the closing lines of the film. “It’s like Tommy Jefferson said, ‘life, liquor-ty and the pursuit of happiness.’”
“MAKE AMERICA THINK AGAIN,” the film says in a closing slide.
Another project of Iliff’s with unhoused protagonists is in the early stages of production, and the writer posted selfies of himself and a man identified as LA County Case worker Michael Morris in Skid Row doing research to his Facebook. Describing the area, Iliff says “pass out on the sidewalk, a rat may eat your eyeballs.”
When asked by a Facebook friend what the film will be about, Iliff said the following: “It’s about a homeless Marine Officer, drinking to forget, who after an infuriating incident with LAPD is ‘awakened.’ He organizes fellow homeless vets, cleans them up, gives them a purpose, and then gives them a mission, one designed to challenge the hearts and minds of a city and a nation.”
While his creative endeavors of the past several years have been centered on monetizing the perceived experiences of unhoused people living in Los Angeles, Iliff’s actions in his own neighborhood have become notorious for attempting to displace that same community. This fixation on stereotypes surrounding the unhoused appears to have spilled over into Iliff’s comments to the South Robertson Neighborhood Council, where he first suggested in a subcommittee meeting that boulders should be placed where unhoused people were still living on August 12.
“Elves Did It”: A Plan to Displace the Unhoused
Further investigation has revealed an extensive digital trail Iliff and his associates left in their planning process between July and September. Beginning in July, the inspiration for the Cattaraugus Tunnel boulders was an existing hostile architecture boulder setup in the Motor Avenue tunnel.
“Boulders might do the trick,” Iliff wrote on Nextdoor on July 10. “It works on Motor Ave.”
Since the public backlash began, Iliff has told multiple media outlets in the fallout of the Cattaraugus boulders that the boulders were placed in the tunnel as a last-ditch effort.
“We offered an apartment — not talking shelter — an apartment. They still refused,” Iliff told ABC7 in Los Angeles following widespread backlash on social media.
When KNOCK.LA followed up with Iliff for details on what this offer entailed, he said the following: “A member of SORO had the apartment hookup for Motay, who declined.” Even assuming “Motay” is referencing an unhoused resident living beneath Cattaraugus Tunnel named Matteo, there are no records or further details on the offer. As of publish time, KNOCK.LA has been unable to contact Matteo, or any former residents of Cattaraugus Tunnel, for comment.
While there are few records of Iliff’s described interactions with unhoused neighbors, there is a publicly available trail of Iliff’s efforts to install the boulders in cooperation with other South Robertson neighborhood residents. Recently discovered video recordings of SORO NC Public Safety meetings indicate that Iliff was attempting to get the “Homeless Prevention Environmental Design” approved by the Neighborhood Council in a meeting on August 12, several weeks before Iliff and associates cleared out the belongings of those living in the Cattaraugus Tunnel on September 2.
“Can I tell you of two successes we have had at Reynier Park and Cattaraugus Tunnel as of very recently?” he asked meeting leader and SORO NC board member Terrence Gomes. “I’ll start with Reynier Park, and this is a success story that — ”
“Totally,” resident Michele Grant cuts him off. “What you did, Peter, is amazing.”
“Well, that’s very sweet of you,” Iliff replied, “but it’s a good lesson for us all ’cause we kind of used the system and we used each other.”
What Iliff went on to describe were several unhoused residents who were living in his area — “five Hispanic guys with their bicycles and carts,” as Iliff recounted them — and repeated attempts of the neighborhood to contact the LAPD and have them removed from the area. In the speech, he referred to unhoused citizens in the encampment as “junkies,” explaining how Liz Carlin, a deputy for District 10 City Councilmember Herb Wesson, had been helpful in removing those struggling with addiction from the neighborhood. He spoke of the encampment at the nearby Garth Tunnel, and admitted to calling the police on a couple living there.
Iliff then pivoted to discussing the Cattaraugus Tunnel, and cited the experience of a housed neighbor named Sam being allegedly attacked by a “mentally ill guy released out of God knows where” while walking home with his children. He presented the boulders as a solution to this incident, with the Motor Ave tunnel cited as inspiration. Holding up finger quotes, Iliff described the “elves did it” approach to accomplishing this, explaining that organizers in CD 5 hadn’t had luck proposing the boulders through formal city channels and took action without approval.
“Better to ask forgiveness than ask permission,” he explained, going on to say his GoFundMe had raised enough money for 66 boulders, steam cleaning, and a mural to replace the encampment. “This is an example of us being elves.”
Gomes shut down the proposal in the meeting, citing concerns of blowback from the city — the Neighborhood Council never endorsed the plan.
“We’ve got CD 5 guiding us on how they did it,” Iliff argued. “CD 10 knows about it. I don’t want to name names — they asked me not to. Jose Bermudez and Chris Baker know all about it. They said ‘we’re going to help you best we can.’”
By the end of the meeting, everyone present understood and verbally or physically acknowledged that Iliff would be taking the “elves did it” approach to avoid having to ask the city directly or implicate the Neighborhood Council in the hostile installment.
“We have a lot of concerned people who are pro-homeless, you know, civil rights people,” Iliff concluded. “God bless ’em for their hearts… they will put up road blocks. If we want to get it done, it was GoFundMe and be elves, plain and simple.”
Bermudez and Baker, both LAPD officers, have distanced themselves from the operation. Baker has wholesale denied knowing anything of Iliff’s plan when reached out to last week by Spectrum News. LAPD Captain Jonathan Tom stated that Bermudez had spoken to Iliff on the topic but “was advised that the citizen was going to go through the council office to get a permit.”
In the August 12 meeting, Iliff was aware that the plan was unlikely to be approved by the City in under two years, and the group discussed as much on Nextdoor.
“This isn’t something we can wait for the city to do,” he wrote. “If we do, it’ll be a ton of red tape and a loooooong time. Or it may never get done.”
An Encampment “Vanishes”
A few weeks after sharing his plan with SORO NC, Iliff took $2,600 of the GoFundMe money to purchase boulders and pay for their installation, while co-organizer Matias Baker Masucci tweeted (now-deleted) photos of himself and a person who appears to be SORO local Laurie Levine throwing away an unhoused man’s possessions. These possessions belonged to an unhoused citizen named Matteo, an individual regularly assisted and in communication with the activist group Street Watch LA. He had been sheltering in the Cattaraugus Tunnel for months prior, but had “mysteriously disappeared” per Iliff’s comments during the September 8 SORO NC Public Safety meeting, and in comments to KNOCK.LA.
“When friends join forces, great things can happen,” Masucci tweeted beside photos of him and his colleagues throwing away the property of their unhoused neighbors.
Following the removal of Matteo and others’ possessions, by September 5 photos reveal the group had installed temporary “No Parking” signs that were not approved by the city. The road was blocked, and Southwest Boulder and Stone were brought into the tunnel with industrial equipment to install the heavy boulders where tents had stood days before.
These actions are illegal under California Penal Code and Los Angeles Municipal Code for dumping on public property and prohibiting the blocking of traffic, respectively. Furthermore, Iliff’s original misleading GoFundMe page potentially qualifies as fraud by not explicitly stating what the money being raised was for — there was no mention of boulders on the now-removed page, instead relying on the vague “beautification” explainer.
When asked about what unhoused residents had done to warrant such treatment, Iliff repeated the example of the resident and his children walking through the tunnel, adding that another incident had taken place on the Saturday following the boulders’ removal where “a new ‘neighbor’ living in the tunnel assaulted a female resident who was walking through.”
“The list of incidents is crazy long, bro,” he writes me in an email. “All the woman [sic] who use that tunnel talk about carrying mace in their purses. This is no joke.” He did not get more specific when pressed further.
While Iliff discussed his desire to implement hostile architecture in SORO NC meetings, the council never approved the actions. By commenting about avoiding “red tape,” he and the other organizers made it clear that they knew they were violating the law. This left the organizers in a bad position — regardless of how many public officials it appears had known of the plan in the abstract, their paper trail and willful breaking the law was too significant to protect them.
“This project was never brought before SORO NC’s board, and SORO NC did not approve this project. If SORO NC board members were involved in the installation of these boulders, they acted independently and as private citizens,” the SORO NC’s Twitter account clarified on September 8.
“I knew nothing about this prior to it happening,” SORO NC Public Safety Committee Chair Michael Lynn told Spectrum News amidst the public fallout.
On September 8th, CD 10 Councilmember Herb Wesson responded publicly.
“I am with you,” Wesson said in a tweet, quoting Street Watch LA’s original post about the boulders. “This is wrong on so many levels. My team and I are working on getting these removed ASAP.” (This was prior to the discovery of the August 12 SORO NC Public Safety meeting, in which it is suggested by Iliff that Wesson’s deputy Liz Carlin may have been aware of the proposal to install hostile architecture prior to his skirting city rules to do so).
That Wednesday, Wesson’s office informed Iliff that he had 24 hours to remove the boulders from the tunnel or face charges. Iliff and his neighbors did so, but remained angry that the city did not do more to prevent the encampment from reappearing. Iliff was critical of both the city and Street Watch LA in his response to Spectrum News.
“You know, why have these ‘safe streets’ cats [have] taken a good cause and made it ugly? If you want to do good, let’s keep it good, let’s sit down and simply discuss a proper solution because we want to put these unfortunate homeless in housing,” Iliff said to Spectrum News. “It seems sometimes that Safe Streets L.A. wants to keep them on the street. Why is that?”
This is a common refrain in meetings and public response from those on the Cattaraugus boulder project — they purport to care about unhoused people, but speak of them in broad strokes and seem to need the unhoused out of their neighborhood entirely. Iliff speaks of the people at the encampment as a monolith, people who refused his help when it was offered, and as drug addicts who posed a safety risk to his neighborhood.
What Happens Now?
The South Robertson Neighborhood Council worked to draft a press statement at a meeting on September 14, condemning the implementing of hostile architecture in the neighborhood. Hostile architecture is a term that has become increasingly common to describe public design that restricts the movements of the unhoused — spikes on flat public spaces to discourage sleeping, armrests in the center of public benches, and the placement of rocks where tents could be set up are popular examples.
Not everyone commenting at the meeting was aware of this.
“I’m wondering where this phrase ‘hostile architecture’ is coming from,” said caller Laurie Levine, “that sounds super negative. I would say it was frustrated.” Levine had previously been pictured clearing the encampment in Matias Masucci’s tweet on September 2. “There was nothing hostile about this. We are all looking for a solution, just like all of you.”
The unhoused Angelenos living beneath the Cattaraugus tunnel have not been heard from, per Iliff’s timeline, since late August. When mentioning Matteo, one of the tunnel’s former residents, Iliff only commented that he seems to have “vanished,” along with the others who lived there.
KNOCK.LA asked Iliff what led to the encampment being emptied in the first place. “The tunnel finally became empty when both unhoused on the east side were arrested for various criminal offenses,” he replied. “One assault, one stolen bikes. Motay [sic] was the last guy. We knew we have no authority to move anybody. But then Motay vanished. Three days later we did the cleanup. Five days after that came the boulders. We have not seen Motay since.”
While Iliff said on September 8 that he and the other organizers waited until the encampment had been empty for three full days before beginning to clear out the tunnel on September 2, there are no records of CARE sweeps done by the city in that area on their August 31 sweeps schedule. While many of the city’s underpasses are under the jurisdiction of Caltrans, further investigation did not yield any recorded sweeps or stops at the Cattaraugus Tunnel in late August.
On September 14, the neighborhood conversation continued. Many housed neighbors called in to express fear of unhoused residents and a desire to have them removed from the area, preferably via the city providing housing. Suggestions for sanitation services for the unhoused including public sinks and Port-a-potties were suggested by some, while others said that the sanitation service employees should not have to deal with the unhoused at all.
Iliff was present in the meeting, too, advocating to have the nearest public bathrooms locked permanently, citing unhoused neighbors who were “not in control of their bowels.”
“The few are destroying and soiling the bathrooms of the many,” he said during public comment.
Iliff currently stands as a figurehead of promoting hostile architecture, but represents a problem that is extremely common in major American cities populated by the liberal and rich — a claim that they care for the unhoused, but a refusal and often active hostility toward real-life interactions and being a part of the solution. The conversation around Iliff in the press, while damning, still assumes his word in interviews and in meetings at face value, an assumption challenged by the September 14 meeting.
During public comment, Iliff identified himself as a member of both “the homelessness committee” and the “Reynier Village Council,” neither of which appear to exist — there is a Reynier Village Neighborhood Association, but Iliff does not hold a title there according to their website. A fellow neighbor in the South Robertson meeting pointed out as much, and was confirmed by other members of the community. While Iliff is in no way alone in his promoting continued hostile actions against the unhoused in his community, there remains a general willingness by the press to take him at his word. A piece in The Hollywood Reporter published on September 16 claims “he is said to have had a meaningful conversation with Street Watch members and other activists,” while his actions days prior to the article’s publication detail his interest in denying unhoused people in his neighborhood access to restrooms.
Those who stood by Iliff and his collaborators’ actions in the meeting demonstrated similar outlooks.
“You wanna talk about rocks in a tunnel? We did a GoFundMe, we’re at our wit’s end… we need help before our neighborhood burns down,” said one caller.
“When did it become legal to dump your feces on the sidewalk?” another asked. “When did dumping people on the sidewalk become legal?”
Other members of the South Robertson community, like Street Watch member Olga Lexell, remind the neighborhood that unhoused people are residents, not impediments.
“In all of these discussions, the unhoused person has been framed as some kind of intrusion or public safety hazard — he is a resident of this neighborhood, and has as much of a stake in it as anyone who owns a home here,” Lexell told The Hollywood Reporter this week.
There is no question that the city of Los Angeles has neglected its unhoused population, but a great many South Robertson community members calling into meetings begin by acknowledging that there is a systemic issue, only to turn and demand that the unhoused be removed. Others in the neighborhood are pushing for action that does not displace the unhoused living in South Robertson — conversation of pushing for the city to purchase the nearby Venice Hotel to be converted into public housing was brought up with some support, and provide sanitation to encampments in the meantime.
The “elves” may have lost this round, but they don’t seem too discouraged. The neighborhood’s Nextdoor board is already full of whispers of follow ups to the boulders once attention shifts away from the neighborhood.
“I have lots of ideas of things that be done [sic] with our neighbors to clean up the mess under the freeways at Cattaraugus and Garth,” user Jeanne Shamji wrote this week. “Homeless were already setting up at 11:15 AM. Would anyone be willing to get together for Zoom town meeting?”