In a fenced-off parking lot just off the 101 freeway in Rampart Village, there are a few dozen people camped in identical purple tents, lined up in neat rows, inside LA’s first ever city-funded homeless encampment.
As an eight-month experiment with government-sanctioned outdoor camping winds down, homeless service providers are looking to expand the concept around Los Angeles. But did it work? That depends on who you ask.
“It’s home until we can do better, so I make the best of it,” says Carlos Lloyd, who has been at the site for four months. “If you’re living in the streets and you have showers, clean clothing, are able to use the restroom and things like that with some form of security, it’s good. It helps out tremendously. It’s hard to sleep when you’re worried about people doing things wrong to you.”
The so-called “Safe Sleep Village” opened in April as a pilot program and is set to close this month, when the vacant lot where it sits will become a construction site for a new affordable housing project. Remaining campers, including Lloyd, will be moved into a tiny home village nearby.
The goal of this government-run campground was to provide a safer living space and basic services to people who’d otherwise fend for themselves under the nearest freeway overpass or on the closest sidewalk. With city leaders under pressure to clear existing encampments and already experimenting with tiny houses and rented hotel rooms, government-run campgrounds like this one are set to become a bigger part of LA’s homelessness strategy.
Lloyd recently got out of prison after serving eight years. The 56-year-old from Watts has diabetes and nerve damage in his lower back. His only regular income is general relief payments from the county.
“So I’ve not been able to do a whole lot when it comes to actually working,” says Lloyd. “But things are opening up, and now that we’re going to be getting housing, I can take it from there and put some things together.”
Urban Alchemy, the nonprofit contracted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to run this campground as a pilot, says it’s served a total of 200 people here since April. Aside from security and storage, residents have access to porta-potties, handwashing stations, a mobile shower on weekdays, Wi-Fi, laundry service on weekends, and three prepackaged meals every day.
“They fed us three meals a day and they let us be,” says a man named Mike who’s been camping in the area for years. “So like what else could you want? I thought it was great.”
This approach isn’t cheap. The city-funded homeless encampment cost about $2,600 per resident per month, which is more than the average rent on an apartment in Los Angeles.
Urban Alchemy says most of that money was spent on staffing. There are six to eight staff members on site at all times, doing wellness checks on tents or manning the camp’s security gate.
Many of the unhoused came to this industrial area during the pandemic to get help at PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), a major service provider directly across the street.
Some came for the fentanyl available for sale outside. Unlike many temporary housing programs, Tyler says this tent village doesn’t put many restrictions on alcohol and drugs. That lowers the barriers for residents who wouldn’t stay there otherwise. But for others, it’s part of the problem.
Cody Castro has a tent nearby but never stayed at the city-sanctioned campground. He’s been using fentanyl on the street for the past four years and wonders whether people like him could really get the help they needed there.
“We understand addiction, as addicts ourselves,” says Castro. “At the same time, because we are addicts we are maybe even more qualified to say that that’s what’s holding a lot of us back. And if the staff is encouraging or just kind of sweeping it under the rug, how can I escape the environment that’s holding me back if I’m reentering it?”
Others, including a man named Josh who was also camped nearby, say they joined the campground for a shot at housing, but got frustrated and left when that didn’t happen quickly.
“That looked like it was never going to happen,” Josh says. “I’ve seen people in there for eight months sitting in a tent and other people sitting there for two months getting into a house. And it’s like, ‘Wait, what’s going on? I doubt I’m ever going to get anywhere.’”
Urban Alchemy says at least 45 campground residents were removed for various reasons, including threatening other residents or staff. Another 50 left voluntarily.
The parcel of land this campground sits on was provided rent-free to the city to be used as a Safe Sleep site only until the developer begins turning most of this block into a massive apartment complex called Enlightenment Plaza, with 450 units of permanent supportive housing. Construction will begin in the next few weeks.
As one city-sanctioned campground closes, another opens. Urban Alchemy has a contract to run a tent village with 95 tent spaces along Central Avenue in South LA, and says the new site will be ready for occupancy by Christmas.