Brandi Wolfe says the scariest moment in her three years of homelessness came when she was sitting in a quiet North Hollywood park down the street from where she lives. A man walked up to her, asked if she was homeless, and then “lost his mind,” she says.
“He threatened to kill me. He threatened to kill my dog. He threatened to kill all the other homeless people in the area.” Wolfe says he told her: “‘Get out of my neighborhood, you’re making it not safe. Kids aren’t safe around you. You’re dirty.’”
Wolfe is not alone. Homeless people around the city say they’re experiencing a rise in hostility from people who own and rent homes in L.A.
Homeless camps are now in nearly every neighborhood, and many housed residents feel frustrated, sad or helpless. Some feel angry at having to navigate around tents, trash and filth. And, according to interviews with over a dozen homeless people and their advocates, housed Angelenos are increasingly directing that anger towards people on the streets.
The most high-profile of these incidents was in Eagle Rock, where two men set fire to a homeless encampment in August. No one was injured, although prosecutors are reportedly considering charges of attempted murder.
But much of the hostility doesn’t make headlines.
“Slashed tires, spray paint, dog poop,” says Emily Uyeda-Kantrim, associated director of the nonprofit Safe Parking LA, describing the complaints she’s heard from people living in cars in the San Fernando Valley. Safe Parking LA provides designated lots for people living in vehicles.
“I think this recent or gradual crossover into actual threats of violence [is] incredibly concerning,” Uyeda-Kantrim says.
Being unsheltered makes people more vulnerable to all kinds of attacks, including by others experiencing homelessness. In 2018, Los Angeles saw a more-than 50% increase in crimes with either a homeless victim or suspect, according to Police Department data. Last year, homeless people made up 1% of the city’s population, but 16% of its homicide victims.
But street harassment is difficult to quantify. The LAPD doesn’t specifically track crimes motivated by housing status. Plus, a lot of these confrontations are never reported to the police. Even in cases of violent assault, people experiencing homelessness can be reluctant to call law enforcement.
Chris lives in an encampment just up the street from where Wolfe stays in North Hollywood. He’s young, blonde, and relentlessly cheerful. But he says that, in the year and a half since he became homeless, he’s been verbally assaulted and had rotten eggs thrown at him. He asked to be identified only by his first name out of fear of being targeted.
In one incident a few months ago, Chris says, a group of people approached him and an older homeless woman while they were sleeping, yelled at them to “get the f– out of here, get the f– on,” and then threw a television at his head and a trash can at the woman. He came away with an injured ear and was shaken by the incident.
“It was horrible,” he said. “I do have night terrors now...Unfortunately I try not to sleep, and it sucks, because you can’t dream if you don’t sleep, and I’m a dreamer.”
As visible homelessness has increased in Los Angeles, some housed residents say they feel under siege.
Demetrios Mavromichalis lives in Mar Vista and belongs to an unofficial neighborhood patrol that throws away trash around homeless encampments. The group formed, he says, because the city has failed to combat illegal drug use and other criminal activity in the area. Sometimes, he says, his group targets people they believe to be engaged in illicit activities, and tries to drive them from the neighborhood.
“We’re gonna honk the horn, turn the sprinklers on,” he says. Without engaging in violence, “we’re gonna make their lives miserable,” he says. “I know this sounds mean, but these aren’t the poor people that need housing.”
In the past year, similar groups have formed in communities around California, including Long Beach, Santa Cruz and Redding.
Some housed residents take to social media to express their anger. In recent years, neighborhood-specific Facebook groups have formed where members complain about – and sometimes even violently threaten – homeless neighbors.
This recently came to a head in the San Fernando Valley, after activists and media outlets published screenshots of comments in one group referring to homeless people as “zombies” and suggesting spraying them with a fire hose or throwing excrement at them. The reporting further revealed that the group included several LAPD officers, leading to a heated community meeting last month in Topanga.
During the meeting, some members of the Facebook group said the violent comments were left by a few individuals who have since been banned. They also argued the police officers (who’d been ordered out of the groups by the LAPD) should be allowed back in.
“It is a place for people you might say to blow off some steam and also communicate and commiserate with each other,” said Steve Slutzah. “Psychologically, this site kept a lot of people probably from doing things because they knew the police were involved…Vigilantes become vigilantes because they feel there is no other way other than doing it themselves.”
Tensions are not only playing out on the streets. At City Hall, elected officials have struggled to respond to complaints about encampments while also complying with federal court decisions that restrict their ability to limit homeless people’s belongings.
Recently L.A.’s City Council shelved a proposed measure from City Attorney Mike Feuer that would have banned sidewalk sleeping in large swaths of the city. Before voting to send the proposal back to committee, several council members criticized it as a short-sighted and inhumane response to anger over street encampments.
“Anger does not result in good policy,” says westside Councilmember Mike Bonin. “What happens when we respond to the very understandable anger and frustration is the conversations get twisted.”
Back in North Hollywood, Wolfe says she wants her neighbors to understand she and other homeless people are not fundamentally different from people who are housed.
“I don't want to live in a tarp but I do,” she says. “They don't want to see me in a tarp but they do. It's the way California is.”
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