It’s 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, and Antonio Alvarez is helping his friend move everything she owns across the street. First he moves some blankets; a rug; some dog food. And finally, the largest item: her tent.
Alvarez and his friend both live on the street in Koreatown, and they’re moving because they know a sweep is coming. The sanitation department conducts dozens of these sweeps every day across Los Angeles, and they’re an important part of the city’s plan to handle the growing population of people living on the streets – up by 16% or about 5,000 people this year, according to numbers released Tuesday. The sweeps are supposed to make the streets cleaner, for both the homeless and the housed.
But the sweeps are controversial: they’ve been the subject of a number of successful lawsuits, including a recent one alleging the city was violating homeless people’s constitutional right to property by throwing away their belongings during the sweeps. And according to many people who actually live on the streets, they’d like to keep the streets as clean as they can. But oftentimes, the sweeps are getting in the way of that.
“We have to re-establish where we’re gonna put what we have remaining,” says Shawn Pleasants, who lives on the streets of Koreatown. “If you have nothing, then you have to figure out where you’re gonna sleep that night, what you’re gonna do, what you’re gonna wear – everything.”
Pleasants says sometimes the city leaves the encampment messier than they found it.
“Everything you had that wasn’t large is gonna be spread about, strewn about in the streets,” he says. “Clothing. Broken knicknacks. Whatever you had. Your food. They throw away your food. My god. We’re homeless people.”
In response, the city says they can’t always do the same levels of cleaning, but that ultimately, cleaning is necessary.
Pleasants understands that – he wants the streets to be clean, too – but asks for a little more compassion.
“We’re human beings,” he says. “These are other human beings. These are someone’s mothers, sister, brothers, fathers, children. They’re not just things. They’re not something to pretend aren’t there. Acknowledge us. When did we stop being human? Or is it the other way around, when did they stop being human?”