Depends who you ask.
When a federal grand jury indicted Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas for a bribery scheme this past October, I felt troubled by the allegations but not particularly surprised. Several months prior, I’d attempted to contact his office regarding the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s illegal towing of clearly marked vehicle dwellings in his district, CD 10. About a year prior, when Ridley-Thomas was still an LA County supervisor, other Street Watch LA organizers and I attempted to contact his office about an Encampment to Home pilot project at Venice-David, a community where we had built ties through months of consistent mutual aid. In both instances, we were concerned about local unhoused residents, some of whom we knew well. There was no response from his office, though we briefly spoke about our concerns with the primary social service partner in the Encampment to Home project, The People Concern. Our good faith efforts at engagement (with the possibility of collaboration, even) were largely ignored, however, which left me wondering how the office of a self-described “progressive voice for change in Los Angeles” could act in such a similarly aloof manner as those other council offices whose regressive responses to homelessness they were ostensibly trying to reform.
The federal indictment reminded me of these questions and served as a catalyst to reach out to other grassroots groups working with unhoused people. Further, dominant media coverage claiming that Ridley-Thomas was the “preeminent champion of the homeless population” seemed one-sided to me, likely the result of journalists’ overreliance on homelessness industry contacts who benefitted from his control over county and city funds. What were the experiences of grassroots advocates engaged with his office around homelessness? Through interviews with 10 activists from eight organizations and a review of relevant correspondences, I found that Ridley-Thomas’ team, while more engaged than most other council offices, habitually acted in a distrustful manner toward these grassroots groups. The Council District 10 office did not return Knock LA’s request for comment.
I spoke to advocates from both the West Adams Neighborhood Council and Ktown for All for Knock LA about their interaction with Ridley-Thomas’ office, which echoed my sentiments about his federal indictment: troubling, disheartening, but not entirely surprising. Ridley-Thomas’ political ambitions overrode a clearly recognized moral imperative to ensure a right to housing for all. In other words, rather than acting as “champion of the homeless population,” he acted as champion of homeless policy. There is a great difference between these two prerogatives, with real consequences for unhoused people.
As an elected member of the West Adams Neighborhood Council, John Ma* was used to interaction with Ridley-Thomas’ staff: “They come to our meetings; we talk to them about neighborhood events.” Many city council offices seek to maintain some presence (albeit rather thin) at neighborhood council meetings, so this practice is typical. What was different about CD 10 was the possibility for more than that: with discussion of encampment sweeps resuming after a hiatus brought about by the pandemic, Ma was able to secure an open line of communication with CD 10’s Homeless Liaison Specialist Roger Estrada. Estrada was “super responsive” to Ma’s calls, texts, and emails about the CARE+ sweeps. Even beyond that, he was reassuring. For example, when Ma urgently wrote to Estrada on September 7, 2021, about LA Sanitation (LASAN) workers telling an encampment’s residents they would remove “everything [the residents] can’t carry,” Estrada replied that this was “misinformation,” and that Sanitation would “not be taking down any tents/structures that are inhabited.” Further, Estrada shared Ma’s viewpoint about the futility of displacement, which would “only undo the hard work of the outreach teams.”
On September 20, however, Sanitation posted signs at the same location along Hauser Boulevard which said something quite different. Rather than allowing tents and structures to stay up, the city would “remove [all] personal property located in the depicted cleaning areas after 6:00 a.m.” on September 22. The next day, Ma emailed Estrada about the signs, asking if he or other “service-oriented” staffers would be on-site during the sweep to “make sure folks’ shelters are left standing and habitable with minimal disruption.” Estrada once again assured Ma that “LASAN is not out to destroy shelters, but will remove structures that are preventing ADA [American Disabilities Act] requirements, [and] this may mean the removal of part of the structures.” While many LA sidewalks would not pass ADA standards, the 36-inches-to-pass rule has become a legal tool used by the city to remove sections of homeless encampments.
The residents of the encampment knew this, however, and had meticulously measured the sidewalk width next to their structures, ensuring a pedestrian right of way in line with the ADA requirement. Further, they’d kept the areas around their structures tidy by regularly sweeping, removing trash, and scrubbing the sidewalk with the biodegradable cleaner Simple Green. Perhaps the residents and Ma were naïve to think these valiant efforts would prevent LASAN from trashing their belongings given the signs posted, but the assurances of the CD 10 homeless liaison specialist gave them some confidence in the process. As Ma noted to me, “We all felt pretty happy that we had a connection with the [council] office, who was speaking our language.”
When LA Sanitation showed up around 9:30 AM on September 22 for the cleaning, they informed the residents that they’d throw out anything within the cleaning zone. Confused, the residents showed them the emails from CD 10, which Sanitation seemed to accept, saying there had been a miscommunication and that they’d come back another day. Soon after, however, CD 10 staff showed up on-site, but they weren’t there to stop the sweep; instead, they were there to enforce it. In one of several videos taken by Ma of the incident, you can hear a Sanitation worker speaking with CD 10 District Director Kimani Black: “We’re going to do it?” she says in surprise. “I thought you were coming over here to stop us.” Black then replies, “What time are you coming back?” The video is eerie in its juxtaposition of an impending displacement with what appears to be a jovial workplace conversation between Black and the Sanitation employee.
In a letter written to CD 10 by several residents of the encampment, they express their surprise at the about-face by Ridley-Thomas’ office regarding the sweep: “We were obviously unprepared for such a turn — Sanitation could see this and was ready to leave and give us at least a day to conform — so why did your office go out of its way to make the operation proceed?” It’s clear from the exchange with Sanitation that Ridley-Thomas’ office was keen to have the encampment swept, disregarding their own homeless liaison specialist’s claims of the contrary. The reasoning behind this about-face is less clear: Was Estrada out of line with his own office’s policies? Were they responding to complaints from particular neighborhood interests, such as local businesses and homeowners? This wasn’t the first time city services had been used against the Hauser encampment: When the encampment first appeared, one neighbor endangered the residents’ lives by falsely reporting a weapon to police, who then showed up with firearms drawn. Regardless of the exact mechanism, it’s clear that when push came to shove, Ridley-Thomas’ office sided against their unhoused constituents in a moment of great vulnerability.
While Sanitation took their one-hour lunch break, the encampment residents panicked: “It was a disaster — we had nowhere to move our things, and nowhere near enough packing or carrying capacity to do so.” In the ensuing chaos, they forgot to empty a small wooden shed which housed their “most important documents,” including medical paperwork, a legal copy of a birth certificate and social security card, and documentation of account numbers and passwords. As any caseworker can tell you, such records are essential to securing housing and services, and can be some of the most difficult items to replace. For example, during the Encampment to Home pilot conducted by Ridley-Thomas’ office with The People Concern, a resident was denied interim housing because of a missing ID, which they were assured would be replaced. Over a year later, they’re still unhoused without an ID.
Once Sanitation returned with LAPD and set up a yellow caution-tape perimeter, residents were given a 15-minute window to finish moving their items outside of it. As resident Phil recalled, Sanitation workers were counting down and yelling at them to finish up, “like we were on some psychotic gameshow.” When their time was up, LAPD shooed them outside the perimeter and a wheel loader tore through their remaining shelter and belongings, all of which were trashed. Ironically, Sanitation used a brand-new push broom that Phil had left behind in their sweep, which they kept despite his request for it back. They didn’t even clean the sidewalk as Phil and his neighbors had, instead leaving behind a trail of scattered debris from the destruction.
When I met the Hauser encampment residents and Ma on a sunny December afternoon, they had just finished setting up at a new location a half hour’s walk away from their prior one. Since that traumatizing September 22 sweep, they’d been swept several more times at the same location for being a “safety hazard,” as broadly defined by LA Municipal Code 56.11. It appeared as if they’d had enough of the city’s harassment and decided to move in totality, using a loaned truck to cart their bulkier items. All of their personal items from the September 22 sweep were trashed by Sanitation — not stored for 90 days as required by 56.11. However, they’d built back their shelters and appeared to be in decent spirits when I arrived, using a DIY solar-powered amp to play Bruce Springsteen. The camp was clean and organized, boasting a satirical sign congratulating Mark Ridley-Thomas on his recent 20-count federal indictment for allegations of bribery and fraud.
During my visit, we spoke about Ridley-Thomas’ Citywide Street Engagement Strategy, which advocates for comprehensive outreach prior to displacement. While the social service organization HOPICS (Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System) had visited the Hauser encampment about a dozen times in the months leading up to the September 22 sweep, they’d offered nothing more than sandwiches and spots in a congregate shelter, a less attractive option than street-living for many, including the Hauser encampment residents who depend upon one another for emotional and material support. While HOPICS outreach teams are not to blame for a lack of available housing and services, LA City Council and County offices control substantial portions of these budgets, as was clear with the Encampment to Home pilot I had witnessed a year prior. But that pilot only worked (to the extent it did) because of vocal NIMBY anger at the encampment’s existence, uncertainty over the Judge Carter order, and an upcoming election for City Council. Ridley-Thomas had been keen to advertise his capabilities, even without the consent of some of the unhoused (one former encampment resident, who is still homeless, had no idea they were featured in his office’s media). His office’s actions at Venice-David and Hauser once again raises the question: When it comes to homelessness, whose interests does Mark Ridley-Thomas champion?
When Mark Ridley-Thomas assumed the office of city councilman in late 2020, the Lafayette Park A Bridge Home (ABH) had been more or less stalled since its announcement in May 2018. Outgoing Councilman Herb Wesson’s office had been AWOL for months, according to Mike Dickerson, co-founder of Ktown for All and a member of the Lafayette Park ABH Council. So when Ridley-Thomas’ team took on the permitting and other logistical issues upholding the interim shelter’s opening (which finally happened in March 2021), Dickerson was impressed. When the Lafayette Park ABH Council hosted a community forum regarding the shelter, someone from their office was there. In response to the ABH Council’s concerns regarding criminalization, which is a central feature of the Special Enforcement Cleaning Zones (SECZs) set up around shelters in order to satisfy irrational NIMBY fears of unhoused people, Ridley-Thomas’ office clearly indicated they weren’t interested in expanding criminalization.
Beginning during his campaign for City Council, Ridley-Thomas’ team had courted an alliance with Ktown for All, a grassroots homeless advocacy group originally founded to counter opposition to the Lafayette Park ABH in Koreatown. They had been critical of Ridley-Thomas during his time at the County, particularly his decision to write an amicus brief in support of the city of Boise’s anti-homeless camping laws, which had been successfully challenged in Martin v. City of Boise due to an insufficient number of shelter beds. In comparison, as of 2021 the Greater Los Angeles Continuum of Care only has 24,516 shelter beds for an unhoused population of 63,706 (2020 estimate). Ridley-Thomas’ support for the amicus brief at the time signaled a desire to criminalize homeless people living in public spaces, even in the absence of sufficient shelter options.
For Ridley-Thomas’ office to then reach out proactively felt like a small victory. Given the disproportionate size of City Council offices in LA, merely getting attention can feel like an accomplishment. Advocacy can feel like competing for the attention of a city’s mayor rather than a councilperson, which makes sense: Each LA council district represents over 260,000 residents, the approximate population of the entire city of Irvine. As Robin Petering of Ktown for All for all said, it felt “so different than before,” particularly the disengagement they felt from Wesson’s office and City Council President Nury Martinez.
So when Ridley-Thomas introduced legislation for LA Municipal Code 41.18 on June 30, 2021, which bans “sitting, lying, or sleeping or storing, using, maintaining, or placing personal property in the public right-of-way” around transportation structures (everything from driveways to freeway underpasses) and zones introduced and voted upon by City Council, it “really caught a lot of us off guard,” according to Dickerson. The zones are meant to apply to “sensitive use” sites, which includes everything from public libraries and parks to schools, making the policy akin to a broad extension of the Special Enforcement Cleaning Zones. So far, the measure has been used to effectively ban homeless people from taking up space at over 140 sites across the city, with $2 million allotted by the council for the signage alone. Of the 15 councilmembers (14 of them Democrats)**, only Councilpersons Mike Bonin (CD 11) and Nithya Raman (CD 4) have voted against 41.18-related measures.
Ridley-Thomas’ office retroactively explained their behind-closed-doors decision to the Lafayette Park ABH as an attempt to dampen the potential harm of Councilman Joe Buscaino’s (CD 15) proposed citywide criminalization measure that was supposed to be voted on on the same day. Further, they claimed that such measures were politically necessary in order to ensure the passage of their citywide street engagement framework, thereby using a similar rationale as Mayor Eric Garcetti’s signature A Bridge Home program, which even goes so far as to advertise the Special Enforcement Cleaning Zones as a service “keeping our neighborhoods clean.” But it wasn’t clear that Buscaino’s measure would have passed in the first place. According to Petering, the Services Not Sweeps coalition had received word from several council offices that they wouldn’t be voting for the measure, perhaps because it was impalatable to a council that wanted to clear homelessness while appearing compassionate. What back-door discussions had led to the introduction of 41.18 are less clear, though Ridley-Thomas — along with a majority of councilmembers — had personally met with billionaire Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was pushing criminalization in return for a fat check to the city for homeless services. “The public had no input and they did it through this very obscure process,” remarked Petering.
While Ktown for All was rightfully upset about not receiving any warning regarding 41.18, they continued to maintain an open line of communication with Ridley-Thomas’ staff, particularly Dhakshike Wickrema, senior deputy for homelessness and housing. This allowed them to connect unhoused people to programs such as Project Room Key, but the partnership didn’t last. Soon after the passage of 41.18, “these [SECZ] signs popped up that none of us were expecting.” The signs only targeted a particular two-block stretch near the Lafayette Park ABH (usually Special Enforcement Cleaning Zones are much larger), and applied to an encampment with which Ktown for All organized mutual aid stations. Both Ktown for All and the ABH Council were upset by the sudden appearance of the signs, which flew in the face of past statements attesting to Ridley-Thomas’ office’s service-oriented approach, ostensibly a turn away from criminalization.
The displaced residents outside the Lafayette Park ABH ultimately ended up settling on both sides of the enforcement zone, which had merely shuffled people rather than serving as a conduit to housing or services. When confronted with the about-face, CD 10 staff claimed the encampment felt unsafe to them, which didn’t make sense to Sherin Varghese, co-founder of Ktown for All and a frequent visitor to the encampment. “I never was [unsafe],” she told me, adding that neighbors and city staff “justified their harassment [of the encampment] because they felt unsafe… and those feelings were prioritized over the actual harm done daily to folks living there.” After this incident with CD 10 staff, which was the second about-face within several months, communications fell off between Ktown for All and Ridley-Thomas’ office. He’d gotten what he needed for the City Council election victory, and then used that platform to push for legislation bearing his own name. The political calculation was clear: Ridley-Thomas was the champion of homeless policy, the ethics of which were second to his legacy.
In seeking to defend 41.18, Mark Ridley-Thomas sought to spin the narrative into one of increased services. In response to LA Times’ characterization of 41.18 as the “anti-camping law,” Ridley-Thomas tweeted that “the real story here is that the City Council received the initial installment of the first-ever Citywide Street Engagement Strategy.” However, for his own constituents such as those at the Venice-David, Hauser, and the Lafayette Park ABH encampments, it appears the real story is much messier. While some Venice-David residents were lucky beneficiaries of a publicized housing effort, those at Hauser and the ABH weren’t so fortunate — most (if not all) of them are still living on the streets. For them, the real story is one of resilience in the face of cyclical displacement and banishment.
Ridley-Thomas’ efforts to spin 41.18’s criminalization component as a necessary evil in order to secure his citywide street engagement strategy fails on two levels: First, as detailed above, the street engagement strategy is inadequate, in large part because what is available are widely disliked shelter beds, of which there are barely enough (estimated at 14,854 in 2021) to shelter one-third of the city’s fast-growing unhoused population (estimated at 41,290 in 2020). Second, it wasn’t clear that a citywide street engagement strategy needed a criminalization component at all. Why didn’t Ridley-Thomas try to pass such a street engagement sans criminalization measure rather than 41.18? Perhaps he didn’t want to fail, blocked by more conservative councilmembers and interests antagonistic to unhoused people. But judging by his office’s own actions, it appears that Ridley-Thomas included criminalization in 41.18 precisely because he believes in it — how else does one explain his amicus brief in support of the city of Boise and his office’s actions at Hauser and the Lafayette Park ABH?
It is worth asking whether Ridley-Thomas actually undercut Buscaino’s worse criminalization measure, or whether he made such a measure more palatable by incorporating his publicized street engagement framework. Buscaino did vote for it in the end, after all, though it has not quenched his thirst for criminalization. Had Ridley-Thomas’ office honestly engaged homeless people and grassroots advocates, they’d perhaps have realized that a punitive desire to criminalize isn’t easily satiated. As such, what 41.18 does is enable more criminalization and banishment under the guise of housing and services, both of which remain insufficient. Rather than using his office’s substantial political know-how to advocate for fixing the latter, he has doubled-down on the most broken parts of the system, particularly the criminalization measures documented above. As for Ridley-Thomas’ political choices, one cannot simultaneously be the power broker in a broken system and the “champion” of those who so desperately need the system fixed. After all, as Ridley-Thomas’ bribery and fraud scandal teaches us, the system might be broken in part because the same people have held power for so long.
*Editor’s note: Ma is a member of Ground Game, Knock LA’s parent organization. Ma’s contributions to this article do not aim to represent the views of the West Adams Neighborhood Council at large.
**Correction 12/29/21: This piece originally claimed that Los Angeles City Council had 15 Democrat members. John Lee (CD 12) is an Independent, not a Democrat.