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“You’re Contaminating Us”

Los Angeles continues illegal eviction sweeps despite the COVID-19 crisis.

In January 2021, the coronavirus continues to rip through Los Angeles. As of this writing, 10 Angelenos test positive for COVID-19 every minute. The City has lifted its air quality cap on cremations to accommodate the soaring numbers of deaths. And four unhoused Angelenos die on the street every day — up from three a day before the pandemic, an already devastatingly high number.

And yet, Los Angeles continues to evict. As Frankie, an unhoused resident of the YWCA Special Enforcement & Cleaning Zone (SECZ), explains: “They come through and they just take what they wanna take. They don’t respect anything. If you say something and they don’t like it … [then] ‘this person’s a threat,’ and here comes LAPD.” Unhoused residents are often given only a few minutes to move before LA Sanitation pushes them out, and in many cases, destroys all of their belongings — while the threat of violence from LAPD looms large. Destroyed property often includes precious items like family keepsakes, identification documents, or medication: in 2018, homeless Koreatown tenant Joe Reyes died after his heart medicine was thrown out during a sweep.

In the SECZs like the YMCA zone in Hollywood, houseless residents are facing these sweeps regularly. SECZs are areas surrounding A Bridge Home shelters in which weekly eviction sweeps — called “comprehensive clean-ups” — are conducted in order to coerce unhoused tenants to find a bed in that nearby shelter.

But the LA city law enabling these violent evictions has provisions that the YWCA SECZ doesn’t meet. In order for the city to justify a sweep, shelter beds must be available — but as of December, there have been no beds in the entire CD-13 district, according to Ground Game LA organizer and homelessness advocate Ashley Bennett. CD-13 includes Hollywood, Echo Park, MacArthur Park, and Atwater. On top of that, the nearby YWCA shelter is for women only. As Ashley points out, this is an “attempt to get [houseless residents] out without solutions.”

Importantly, shelters like these are often overcrowded and offer no privacy. They also have strict rules about stays: typically, shelters are only open at night and require people to vacate with their belongings every single day. Shelters also come with policing and surveillance, and many houseless people compare shelters to jails. In LA, where homeless people are regularly harassed, criminalized, and incarcerated for being poor and living in public, many reject seeking a shelter bed when it is so similar to the experience of being imprisoned. Add to these problems the current COVID-19 crisis, which spreads rapidly in crowded, indoor environments like shelters. In this context, it makes sense that people do not want to give up their autonomy, privacy, and personal belongings for the temporary fix of a shelter bed.

Although the CDC recommends that people living unsheltered remain where they are during the pandemic, SECZs remain enforced. In response, volunteers with Street Watch LA, Ground Game LA, Ktown For All, DSA-LA, and other members of the Services Not Sweeps coalition have been showing up to fight these violent evictions. They argue that the sweeps need to stop now considering the ongoing public health emergency.

But as the name implies, Services Not Sweeps has been demanding an end to sweeps long before the pandemic began, showing up to defend communities from displacement. And the law is on their side. Martin v. Boise, a federal case affirmed by the Supreme Court in December 2019, declared laws that ban people from sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk unconstitutional on the basis that they violate the 8th amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” And in response to a lawsuit filed by Janet Garcia and other unhoused plaintiffs, a judge ruled that Los Angeles must stop enforcing a law (56.11) that allows the city to throw away unhoused people’s belongings without warning or due process of any kind.

Yet the City continues to sweep and displace houseless tenants. In August, the Legal Aid Foundation attorneys representing Garcia filed a motion with the city attorney’s office declaring Los Angeles in contempt of the judge’s order to stop enforcing 56.11. The brief specifically cited comprehensive clean-ups in SECZs like the YWCA zone as a clear violation of the order. The city attorney declined to respond.

Despite the work of community members to fight back, the city has made it clear it will do whatever it can to evict the homeless. That includes tactics like lying about the location of a sweep, which is what LA Sanitation did at YWCA. Anticipating a sweep in a particular area of the YWCA area, organizers did outreach to tenants living on a block of the zone to let them know about the possibility of the sweep and to learn what action residents wanted to take. When protestors arrived early on the sweep day to help the unhoused tenants defend their homes, they were assured by Sanitation that there would be no comprehensive clean-up. But LASAN had just moved a few blocks over, attempting to evict residents out of eyeshot — residents who had no idea a sweep was coming.

The LA Housing Services Authority, or LAHSA, is supposed to do outreach in advance of a comprehensive clean-up in order to help residents understand their options, find avenues for housing, and prepare for what’s coming. But no one from LAHSA had come to alert the community, and the signs describing the coming sweep were posted blocks away. As resident Brian points out, “When I was living on Skid Row, there were signs every pole. … So we knew. We expected it. … You guys ain’t even doing that.”

Brian begged LASAN to just let him stay the day, since he had planned to move tomorrow anyway. Instead, Sanitation gave the community 15 minutes to move their belongings before the city would start throwing everything away. Organizers pitched in and informed LAPD — hovering nearby to enforce the eviction — that the sweep was illegal. No one there working for the city — whether police, sanitation worker, or Mitch O’Farrell’s Hollywood Field Deputy Sean Starkey — seemed to care or mind.

As LASAN prepared to sweep his belongings, resident Brian declared: “You might as well shoot us where we stand. Because we’re dead already, bro. … Do you sleep well at night? No, right? You must not. … You are contaminating us.” Enforcing the CDC guidelines against displacing the homeless during COVID-19 is a matter of life and death — and these are guidelines that exist on top of a judge’s order against enforcing sweeps because of their likely unconstitutionality, regardless of the pandemic.

(PHOTO: Jeremy Lindenfeld)

The sweeps at YWCA and elsewhere are doubly illegal in the midst of coronavirus, but they are also immoral. Sweeps — and shelters — ensure the houseless cannot ever reliably predict whether they are safe from eviction, police violence, or the sudden destruction of their personal property. This creates an unending sense of impermanence, forcing people to live in a cycle of fear and instability as punishment for being poor. Sweeps seek to displace, make invisible, and eliminate unhoused people, often in response to homeowners concerned about their property values. None of this is a policy accident or a loophole that needs to be closed. Violent sweeps and the dislocation they cause are an intended and inevitable consequence of cities like Los Angeles enacting policies that value housing for the profit it can make — instead of valuing it as a fundamental part of human life and well-being.

Organizers at the zone point out that the solution is clear: the city must invest in housing and services for the homeless, rather than their current policy of sweeps, criminalization, and incarceration. Housekeys, not handcuffs. But whether Los Angeles will be willing to prioritize people over profit remains to be seen.

As a protestor yelled into the megaphone at a city official retreating from the scene of the sweep: “You have the power to do the right thing and you choose every fucking day not to.”