A vigil for Joe Reyes shines a light on dying homeless

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When Joe Reyes died last month, he was one of hundreds of people who die homeless in Los Angeles every year. Almost 900 people died on the streets last year, many – like Reyes – of a preventable or treatable condition.

In Reyes’s case, that condition was a fatal heart attack on August 20th. Activists who knew Reyes held a vigil for him last week. Speaking at the vigil, city council president Herb Wesson said Reyes was a symbol of the city’s homelessness crisis, and announced that the council would be holding a moment of silence in honor of Reyes.

But some activists say that a heaping portion of the blame for Reyes’s death goes to the city and its sweeps of homeless encampments. They say when police sweeped the encampment where Reyes lived last summer, they took most of his belongings, including his heart medication. In another sweep just a week before he died, police reportedly took his heart medication a second time.

According to those who knew him, Reyes was a quiet and charismatic man who was motivated to get off the streets. He lived in a tent near Wilshire and Normandie with his cat, Jessabel.

Diana, who did not want to give her last name, knew Reyes and lives just a couple tents down from him at the Koreatown encampment where he died.

“He was someone I always used to talk to, ask for advice,” she said. “I have kids and he had kids – sometimes parent decisions are hard. … [He] usually just kept to himself. He liked ice cream. Liked eating eggs. He loved his cat.”

In a testimonial video shot not long before his death, Reyes looks directly in the camera and shakes his head dejectedly, answering a question about a July sweep of the encampment where he lived.

“[They took] everything – my heart medication, my contacts, my clothes, my new sleeping bag, my new tent, my cat’s stuff I can’t replace,” he said. “It was like $400-500. Everything I own is in a backpack now.”

And Diana said that throughout the six years she’d lived at the encampment, the sweeps were a frequent disruption of their lives. She, like Reyes, had been through sweeps where she’d lost everything she owned.

“They’re just rude. I’ve ended up with no clothes, no glasses. I haven’t been able to get my prescription glasses, since three years ago when they threw away a $400 pair of glasses that I had inside of my tent.”

The sweeps are routine: the LAPD, a team of workers from the city and county’s homeless agency, and the sanitation department perform them across the city. Under a city ordinance, almost anything that’s confiscated is supposed to be tagged and stored.

But people who live on the streets say they often lose important documents and medication. Advocates have sued the city, alleging that officials are unconstitutionally seizing people’s property.

In response to questions about Reyes’s death, LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said in an email statement that the LAPD has “initiated an internal investigation into the matter.” He also said that they’d received a number of complaints about the area where Reyes lived.

Koreatown has been at the epicenter of debates about homelessness in LA. It’s one of the neighborhoods where city officials are trying to find a location for an emergency homeless shelter under the mayor’s initiative called “A Bridge Home.”

Herb Wesson, who represents the area, has been a prominent advocate for a new shelter. When he spoke at the vigil for Reyes, he pointed to the Bridge Home shelter as one solution.

“I am proud to say that we will have a Bridge Home facility less than a half a mile from the very spot that we’re on now,” Wesson said. “The support for that project is unbelievable.”

However, city officials have promised that once shelter beds are available, they can ramp up enforcement. This means that if the city opens the Koreatown shelter, it will also increase sweeps of homeless encampments.

That hand in hand approach may be especially true after a ruling this week from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in which the court said it’s “cruel and unusual” to crack down on the homeless unless they can access shelters.

But people like Shayla Myers – a lawyer who knew Reyes and who also spoke at the vigil – have concerns that increased sanitation and enforcement sweeps are cruel, too.

“I am angry about what happened to Joe, I am angry that he died on the streets of Los Angeles, and I am angry that every day he was homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, this city considered him to be a criminal,” she said.

“I am happy that they will be standing in the council chambers to honor Joe, but it is the same council chambers that voted to make Joe a criminal.”