Benito Flores remembers the first day he moved into his new home in Los Angeles.
He says it was mid-March, and he hadn’t felt the security of a solid roof over his head in nearly 15 years.
Even so, he recalls, he was not comfortable.
“I felt like I was going to be arrested by the CHP [California Highway Patrol],” Flores, 65, says from his house in El Sereno, a neighborhood on LA’s eastside.
He felt that way because he did not have a lease.
Flores does not pay rent. He explicitly does not have permission to live there.
Instead, along with a group of other activists who call themselves the “Reclaimers,” Flores occupied a vacant property owned by Caltrans, the state agency charged with managing California’s highway system. Caltrans bought this home on Sheffield Avenue, along with hundreds of others, decades ago in anticipation of expanding the 710 freeway.
But that proposal has been mired in controversy, and in recent months, has officially been called off by the state legislature. The decision has prompted a collection of tenants and nonprofits to try and buy these homes.
Other unhoused and housing insecure people, like Flores, have decided to occupy some of these homes as the state grapples with the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.
“I want to spend the rest of my days in this house. I want to die here,” Flores says, after living in a van since 2005. He was evicted from his previous home for not being able to pay rent.
“This house has saved my life because of what is happening with the [corona]virus. If I was still on the streets, with nowhere to wash my hands, I would probably get sick or be dead.”
Caltrans declined an interview request from KCRW, despite speaking with the station about its vacant homes on different occasions.
Instead, a spokesperson for the agency cited a letter that Caltrans sent to the Reclaimers, calling on them to leave the properties and warning against turning on any utilities.
The letter also said the agency is willing to work with the City of LA, among others, to help those occupying these homes to find permanent housing.
The response, however, was not good enough for Martha Escudero. She and her two daughters are occupying a vacant, two-bedroom home owned by Caltrans. She was inspired by a group of mothers in the Bay Area who occupied a vacant home and eventually had the chance to buy it through help from a nonprofit. She sees this issue through the lens of California’s housing crisis.
“I was born and raised [in LA]. I have a bachelor's degree, and I am unable to even pay rent in the city,” Escudero says. “That's really ridiculous, and it just goes to show the disparities that we have.”