Pamela Ferguson has lived on a quiet cul-de-sac near the Staples Center downtown for about a year and a half. Along with her four dogs, she lives in a makeshift structure she’s made out of blankets and poles. But she’s ready to pack up and move. Faced with constant encampment sweeps – official city cleanups that end with her losing more and more of her belongings each time – Ferguson has had enough.
During the last sweep, Ferguson said city officials took some antique Hello Kitty cars she was restoring to sell, some jewelry, and bags and bags of her clothing, including all her underwear and her shoes. The officers told her the bags were mildewed, she said.
“I’m a Virgo. I double bag my stuff,” she said. “He threw it in the trash!”
Many of the 34,000 homeless residents of Los Angeles live in encampments like Ferguson. These clusters of tents and other makeshift homes fill in the negative spaces of Los Angeles near freeway off-ramps and underpasses, and along the cement bed of the Los Angeles river.
“Our public sidewalks have to be accessible by all citizens, including people in wheelchairs. And when someone has a tent that’s covering up the sidewalk or they have a lot of belongings, you have to think about school children,” said Alisa Orduña, the mayor’s homeless policy director.
“We get complaints from parents about kids having to walk into the street to walk around an encampment. That’s putting those children at risk.”
That’s why teams of police, sanitation workers, and social workers regularly conduct what the city of Los Angeles calls “cleanups,” Orduña said.
There are rules about what homeless people are allowed to have with them on the streets, and how much. For example, anything more than what would fit in a standard trash bin is supposed to be confiscated and then stored by the city during these cleanups.
There are also strict rules about what the city is allowed to do. For example, the city is not supposed to throw anything away, unless it’s evidence of a crime, a “bulky item,” like a couch, or “an immediate threat to the health and safety of the public”.
The sweeps are governed by nine pages of legislative jargon – ordinance 56.11. It’s a document that’s been shaped by a series of lawsuits from homeless advocates who have accused the city of unlawfully seizing homeless people’s property.
But across Los Angeles, people who live in encampments say the city keeps trashing their belongings during the sweeps, often without any clear explanation. Of over a dozen people interviewed at three different encampments, every person had a story of a sweep that had cost them their belongings, and many had a story – sometimes several – of losing everything.
People told of losing expensive medication and identification documents. They said that even when the city says it’s stored their belongings, they’ve gone to the storage center to find just one bag or nothing at all.
At an encampment just a couple blocks from Echo Park, Jacob, a resident who didn’t want to share his last name, said police had forced him to bargain over which of his belongings he could keep during an encampment sweep that morning.
They told him he had to give up half of his suitcases or his two bikes. He chose to keep both bikes, so they took three of his suitcases. He said they threw them into a garbage truck directly in front of him. None of it was contraband or a threat to public safety, he said. It was his stuff. Clothing and shoes.
“I can’t comment on that, because our officers shouldn’t be telling people what they can keep and what they can’t keep,” LAPD homeless coordinator, Commander Dominic Choi, said, when asked about Jacob’s case. “That’s sanitation’s role in determining that, not LAPD’s role.”
Orduña, from the mayor’s office, said sometimes city officials might need to dispose of peoples’ things, but they shouldn’t be throwing them away for no reason.
“If someone feels that their items were unnecessarily thrown away they can call me, they can call my colleague Brian, and we’ll investigate,” she said.
But calling the mayor’s office isn’t usually the next move for people living on the street.
Ferguson said that when the clean up crew last came, they threw a couple trash bags at her and the other encampment residents and told them to fill the bags with their belongings. They had 20 minutes. She didn’t even try to fill a bag.
“Fuck that bag,” she said. “How’re you going to put your whole year in a bag?”