“Everybody’s a paycheck away from this. The people out here are refugees of the foster care system, of the mental health system. Do you know how many mothers and children are out here? I’m a senior citizen; why am I out here? It takes a strong person to go through this.”
— Tracey, 64
On Thursday, March 23, after a day’s delay due to rain, the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) and Long Beach Public Works (LBPW) began an encampment sweep along the LA River between Ocean Boulevard and Anaheim Street in anticipation of the Acura Grand Prix, a lucrative IndyCar race in downtown Long Beach that draws in significant sums of tourist revenue every year. There are currently over 200 people without housing or adequate shelter living in tents and makeshift arrangements on this stretch of the river, a number that has grown in recent months.
Nearly all of the unhoused families, individuals, and community members who were displaced by the sweep were provided no replacement shelter and many report that the City of Long Beach did not reach out to mitigate the harms it caused. We thereby urge city and county officials to immediately stop all current and future sweeps, which criminalize and punish unhoused people and do nothing to solve the housing crisis in California.
The riverbed is divided into multiple (city, county, and state) jurisdictions, which shapes how sweeps are conducted. LA County — with the assistance of the LBPD — controls and sweeps the side adjacent to the river, while Long Beach manages most areas to the east of a fence along De Forest Avenue.
The last sweep of this area was performed during election season, by LBPD and Ocean Blue Environmental Services, a third-party contractor that was hired to tear down encampment structures and haul away materials and debris. It took five days to complete, and those affected by it not only were offered nowhere to go, but some even encountered secondary sweeps in the places where they took refuge. Individuals had to cart or carry all of their possessions for days on end, including shelter, bedding, clothing, food, water, supplies, and anything else that they did not wish to see destroyed — though most of it was.
Prior to the recent sweep, LA County Public Works gave notice of a March 22 start date but omitted when it would end, leaving people to wonder how long they would be forced to stay on the move. Later LBPW notices covering Long Beach jurisdictional space gave a mere two days’ notice (which is below the legally required minimum of 72 hours), with end dates of March 24 and March 31, respectively. Meanwhile, a LBPW employee verbally confirmed that the sweep would continue until the Grand Prix — which occurred the weekend of April 16 — making it a multi-week span of nonstop harassment, dispossession, and displacement.
Less than 24 hours before the sweep began, LBPD drove along the encampment and warned from their windows that they would be checking warrants. Not only were people being kicked out, they faced risk of arrest if they stuck around.
The notices posted by LA County Public Works listed an address where confiscated belongings could be reclaimed, but a quick search on Google Maps leads you to the middle of the freeway. Subsequent notices left out the address altogether. Darlene, 65, told Knock LA, “You don’t get your stuff back. I’ve lost everything. They don’t tag it so you have to dig through everything to find your stuff. It’s not worth it.”
LBPW even brought along a trash compactor and bulldozer and were seen discarding anything in their path, including tents. Kermit, 64, said, “This morning during the rain period, the city took my property and threw it in a trash truck and compacted it without my knowledge. When I proceeded to acknowledge that it was my property, they were negative in their response. They didn’t want me to touch anything in the truck, and a camera was recording me. They threatened to call the police on me. This has happened a number of times over the years. And it just shouldn’t happen.”
Tracey, 64, said, “They’re stealing my stuff. They told me to move across the street, and I did. And then this morning they told me to move again because they’re sweeping here, too. This is elder abuse. I get SSI. I worked while I was addicted. I worked when I had my babies in my stomach. This is my money.”
According to a 2022 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, the loss of material possessions as a result of sweeps — which can include medications, work uniforms, birth certificates, and other belongings essential to survival — may lead to multiple negative impacts on personal health and the healthcare system.
Cheri, 42, said, “I need a live-in caretaker. I wear diapers. I can’t walk, take a shower, stand up. Sometimes it’s hard to change my own diaper because I’m so weak. Not this last rainfall, but the one before, I would’ve been dead if my friend hadn’t saved me and took me to the hospital. … I keep applying for housing, but I keep getting denied. I turned in my medical records. They said I didn’t have recent-enough records.”
The instability caused by sweeps has also been shown to negatively impact health. Encampments, such as the one that exists on the LA River, are communities. People build them to stick together: to cook for one another, to protect each other from harm, to feel human connection. Sweeps tear these fragile relationships apart and separate people from their social networks and sources of survival, forcing them to start over again and again.
While employees of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) were present on the first day of the sweep ostensibly to offer services, local community organizers report that their actions were paltry at best. Rather than proactively going into the encampment to speak with people living there, the HHS representatives told organizers that anyone needing help could approach them to access it. Bobby, 38, told Knock LA, “The Department of Health and Human Services sat in their car and talked to the cops for hours. A few of us walked past them a couple times, and they never said anything to us.”
Others, such as those with disabilities, were not able to walk over to meet with HHS. Unsurprisingly, every person the organizers have asked — approximately 70 people — reported that they were not offered services during the sweep.
There is no sign that the sweeps will end, especially in the absence of mass pressure. On Tuesday, March 28, Long Beach unveiled a breakdown of its budget for “addressing homelessness,” which includes a $200,000 allotment for “encampment cleanups.” We urge the city to immediately stop all sweeps and to start taking real steps to solving the housing crisis in Southern California.
According to LongBeach.gov, “The City of Long Beach is seeking community members’ knowledge and perceptions of homelessness in Long Beach to garner feedback to further inform City resources, services and response efforts.” You can take the survey here.