Angelenos claim empty housing to shelter the storm during the pandemic

Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

In a city where more than 120,000 properties are vacant, Angelenos experiencing homelessness are taking over empty residences to protect themselves from COVID-19. Part of a collective dubbed Reclaiming Our Homes, 13 families experiencing homelessness consisting of seniors and single moms have moved into vacant properties in the California Department of Transportation’s (Caltrans) 710 Corridor in El Serenoto advocate for permanently affordable housing. 

On an NBC news segment, Ruby Gordillo, a 33-year old mother of three, hung a white sheet in her front window with the message, “Shelter in the Storm” written in large black letters. Prior to moving illegally into the Caltrans property, Gordillo had shared a one-bedroom apartment with her husband and children after six months on the street without shelter. She said she felt justified as a taxpayer. 

“The Reclaimers are not just a group of homeless people who decided that they were going to take over homes,” says Joseph Delgado, Los Angeles Director for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Institute (ACCE). “This is a group of house insecure and houseless individuals who were unable to find safe places to stay during and beyond the pandemic. They came together through their advocacy.”

According to coronavirus.la, there were 23,182 cases of coronavirus and over 1,000 deaths in Los Angeles (L.A.) County by the end of April. In L.A. proper, there were 10,863 cases. Recently, 43 people tested positive for the coronavirus at one shelter in Skid Row, an area with high concentrations of individuals experiencing homelessness and others who have insecure housing. Of the 100 cases of coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness overall, only 55 were sheltered. Authorities fear the numbers will quickly multiply because people experiencing homelessness are less able to social distance, shelter in place, and access basic hygiene.  

Compounding their susceptibility to infection is the fact that high concentrations of people experiencing homelessness in California are chronically ill. An estimated 42,000 of the 150,000 people experiencing homelessness in the state have a chronic illness. Shelters are either full or closed, and services, like libraries, gyms, and fast-food restaurants, are closed due to the quarantine. Out of food and workers, most soup kitchens are also shuttered. 

According to Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine and the Director of the University of California San Francisco’s Center for Vulnerable Populations, people experiencing homelessness are more susceptible to the coronavirus because they are unable to follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s directive to stay home.

Reclaiming Our Homes has been advocating for affordable housing in L.A. County for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic spurred the collective to act sooner rather than later. Members fought for and won a recent rent-control ordinance in L.A. County’s unincorporated neighborhoods but are still awaiting a decision on another ordinance to prevent landlords from evicting and harassing tenants. The collective advocates for a tax on vacant properties, of which there were 120,393 in the 2018 housing census. 

“Being homeless myself… seeing sick people dying every day in L.A., made me start realizing… we need to do something, and we should probably just start taking over these vacant homes,” Roberto Flores told Dissent Magazine. Flores’ group, United Caltrans Tenants, is a member of the collective.

The group was tired of waiting for the government to move “at the pace of the housing crisis demands” and unwilling to risk more deaths. Overall, there are 476 vacant Caltrans properties in the 710 Corridor, which runs through El Sereno.

The 13 occupying families sent Caltrans a proposal to pay rent based on 30 percent of their income and suggested families without income should live there for free. The Reclaimers’ goal is to be recognized as Caltrans tenants, so when the agency sells the homes, they will be qualified to purchase or rent the homes at reasonable prices. 

Caltrans plans to sell the vacant homes to existing low-income tenants at a below-market rate, but it has not accepted the Reclaimers’ offer nor does it recognize them as lawful owners or tenants, according to a letter delivered to the properties. Instead, Caltrans will first allow affordable housing development companies to purchase and convert the homes and multi-family properties into affordable housing. After that, remaining unsold properties will be sold at a public auction.

Still, Delgado is encouraged. On April 6, about two weeks after the Reclaimers moved into the El Sereno homes, eviction moratoriums were passed by the City of Los Angeles. Prior to that, Caltrans did not pursue evictions. Delgado believes their inaction opened the doors for other possibilities, like help from the City. He hopes the L.A. Housing Authority will purchase the properties and move them into a land trust that reserves housing for people experiencing homelessness and those facing housing insecurity. 

In a press conference at the end of April, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said, “Shame on all of us if we let people come into these rooms and then when the crisis is over, they go back out on the street.” L.A. has a two-tiered plan for housing the displaced and people experiencing homelessness temporarily during the pandemic, which includes the use of trailers, recreation centers, and hotel rooms as a part of a city-state partnership called Project Room Key. Garcetti said he hopes to use federal stimulus funds from the CARES Act to cover the cost of keeping people housed until June 2021. “That should hopefully give us enough time to work on solutions for all of them to get into apartments and permanent housing.”

In addition to individuals and families experiencing homelessness, the Reclaimers collective includes housing and social justice organizations like ACCE, the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action (LACCA), Los Angeles Democratic Socialists of America, the LA Tenants Union, and East Café. Their position is that no one should be experiencing homelessness, particularly not during the coronavirus pandemic. They see housing as a human right and call upon the City of L.A. and the State of California to ensure everyone has access to housing, no matter their income.

The movement to reclaim vacant public properties for the sake of affordable housing people experiencing homelessness and other people without secure housing has spread to other cities, like San Francisco, New York, and even London. 

Reclaiming Our Homes was inspired by the Moms4Housing movement in Oakland, California. Last November, two African-American single moms moved into a home, which was privately owned by developers, to protest the Bay Area housing crisis and to assume possession of the property until it was sold to their organization. With the help of the Oakland Community Land Trust, the moms will have the opportunity to buy the property but until negotiations are complete they will not be allowed to live there because they were evicted by the Alameda Sheriff’s Office last January.

 

The Response: Building Collective Resilience in the Wake of Disasters

Download our free ebook- The Response: Building Collective Resilience in the Wake of Disasters (2019)

##

This article is part of our reporting on The People’s COVID-19 Response. Here are a few articles from the series:

Tina Jenkins Bell

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tina Jenkins Bell

Tina Jenkins Bell is a freelance journalist who has written for numerous local and national organization publications about economic and community development in addition to the Chicago Tribune, Crain's Chicago