bruary 7, 2018 at 1:19 pm | UPDATED: February 8, 2018 at 11:48 amIn the wake of December’s Skirball fire, which was believed to have been started in a homeless encampment, the Los Angeles Fire Department has assembled a list of 76 brush-heavy hillside areas where there may be encampments that pose a high fire risk.
A task force of city and county officials was formed in January to work on removing such encampments, with priority being given to regions with the highest fire danger.
Since then, the Los Angeles Fire Department has completed a survey of encampments in the city’s high fire risk zones, finding a total of 191 possible encampments on both private and public land.
The list includes sites in the hilly areas in Porter Ranch and Granada Hills in the north San Fernando Valley, as well as several spots in the Sunland-Tujunga and Sun Valley areas, near where the Creek fire burned late last year.
Other parts of the city with numerous encampments identified include Eagle Rock, Elysian Park near the Dodger Stadium and the hills around the Hollywood Bowl.
A few other sites were also counted in Woodland Hills, near where the Skirball fire happened in Bel-Air, and in Wilmington.
The recent blazes put the spotlight on the presence of homeless encampments in brush areas and the fire risks they pose, something many nearby residents have long been aware of and have complained about to city leaders.
The city respondsWith the Skirball fire now possibly tied to a homeless encampment, city leaders finally responded. Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas last January described their approach to similar encampments as “clear-cut.”
“This is about public safety,” he said. “This is about trespassing.”
A wooden stick with a pink ribbon marks a burned up camping stove near the 405 Freeway at a homeless encampment believed to be where the Skirball fire originated. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)Anna Bahr, a spokeswoman for the Mayor Eric Garcetti, this week hammered home the urgency of removing the encampments, saying they are “extremely dangerous in terms of potential blazes.”
City officials will go out to the sites and provide outreach, and will also post “no trespassing” signs, she said.
“If folks don’t move, starting in the summer months … the LAPD will begin enforcement,” which includes arrests, she said.
Josh Rubenstein, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman, said the city will be taking the existing, legally required approach of removing encampments, which involves a “HOPE team” made up of law enforcement and city sanitation crews. Outreach workers also accompany the team.
“We’ll do it with the HOPE model, and hopefully not arrest, but it could end in it,” he said.
Housing solutionsAs the concerted effort to remove these types of encampments launches, outreach workers say they are placing more attention on helping those being displaced from the hillside encampments find better living situations.
Many of the people who live in hillside encampments are often seeking stability in their living conditions, according to Elyssa Rosen, an outreach coordinator for LA Family Housing.
“When they are in more visible areas, they get asked to move,” Rosen said. “In some ways it’s a place that’s a little more predictable and they’ll be able to stay and sleep and not have to pick up their belongings every few days or every fews weeks to somewhere else.”
Rosen said organizations like LA Family Housing that coordinates services for the homeless are doing everything they can to refer people to housing, so that they do not resort to trying to stay in areas where there is high fire risk.
“And we can work towards bridge housing as well,” she said, referring to a temporary form of shelter where people can stay while waiting for housing to become available.
Rosen added that outreach workers are also discouraging people from creating fires and educating them on “the dangers of starting fires in these areas.”
Colleen Murphy, who coordinates countywide homeless outreach efforts for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said the effort to address homeless encampments in high fire risk areas “definitely highlights the need for more housing, more emergency shelters, because we need those alternatives.”
“In the interim, as we wait, we are seeing access to shelter beds increase more and more everyday, including during the fires themselves, and we are able to get quite a few of those people indoors,” she said.
Murphy also said with funds coming in from Measure H to pay for more homeless services, people displaced from their encampments in the hillsides may have more options or support than before.
“Six months before we didn’t even have a fraction of the teams we do now,” Murphy said, referring to the increase in outreach teams. This allows outreach workers to be “more thorough” and to be able to go out to “more areas” and to “see more people.”
Away from a society that ‘shuns them’Michael “Meeko” Mason, who said he lives in a motor home at one of the addresses in the survey, thinks the fire department may have gotten it wrong. The 37-year-old said he lives 200 feet down the block from his mother, who he does not get along with. They live on a five-acre private property — near the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility — that his mother owns, he said, even though he describes himself as “homeless.”
Next1 of 3Michael “Meeko” Mason lives in a motor home on his family’s property in the 12100 block of N. Longacre Avenue in Granada Hills. (Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Mason said that he understands why neighbors in the area wouldn’t want homeless encampments near them, because he does not want them there himself.
But he also said that those who are homeless prefer the hillsides because “it’s private … they’re away from the rest of society that looks down upon them, that shuns them and frowns upon them living outside, living the way they do.”
Meanwhile “the shelters are ridiculous because of their hours,” he said. “And they have real strict rules. That’s why homeless people don’t like to stay there.”
He also said that unless “you have an ailment, you have something wrong with you,” getting placed in housing can take “years and years.”
Mason said he doubts anyone living in the hillside encampments will leave until they are forced to.
But according to fire department officials who did the survey, some may already have relocated.
Between the time fire officials first noted the sites during an initial drive-through of the city, and when inspectors returned to take more notes, many of the encampments had already been vacated, according to LAFD spokesman Peter Sanders.
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Elizabeth ChouElizabeth Chou has reported on Los Angeles City Hall government and politics since 2013, first with City News Service, and now the Los Angeles Daily News since the end of 2016. She grew up in the Los Angeles area, and formerly a San Gabriel Valley girl. She now resides in the "other Valley" and is enjoying exploring her new San Fernando environs. She previously worked at Eastern Group Publications, covering Montebello, Monterey Park, City of Commerce, and Vernon.