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Camp of 75 Homeless Closed as Health Hazard

June 17, 1988|FREDERICK M. MUIR | Times Staff Writer

State officials shut down an encampment of about 75 homeless people in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday, declaring it a health and safety danger and an unacceptable use of a public park.

After six months of camping at the former State Building site on 1st Street between Broadway and Spring Street, residents of the makeshift shelters were prepared for the action after being warned earlier in the week by state police that they would have to pack up and be gone by 6 a.m. Thursday.

By the time state officials finally arrived at 10:30 a.m., most of the remaining men and women had already packed away their gear and dismantled all but the most stout of their "cardboard condos."

The ouster was met mostly with the quiet, expressionless resignation developed through many similar closings of camps and tent cities in the last several years--including some at the same state-owned site.

"I've been kicked out before," said Steve, an unemployed steelworker who has been living at the site for several months. "And I'll probably be back."

Mel Gilliard, regional building manager for the state's General Services Department, said the site would be steam-cleaned and sanitized. He said the stench was one reason the encampment came to the attention of state officials and was a factor in its closure.

The group had been camping at the site for about six months, erecting shelters of wood, cardboard, blankets and whatever other items they could find in downtown dumpsters that could be of some help in warding off the cold and rain.

Residents say they prefer to gather in such groups for safety.

"On the streets it's dog-eat-dog" said Don, who said he stayed at the camp from time to time.

And despite the health conditions cited by the state, most of those living in the camp said it had fewer rats and roaches than the typical Skid Row hotel and more privacy and safety than the missions.

For a time on Thursday there appeared a chance that the state might grant an extension: Camp activists and an aide to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) had made calls to Gov. George Deukmejian seeking a reprieve, but it was denied.

As the crowd waited for word, aides to Brown and Sen. David L. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) reached into their own pockets and sprang for Egg McMuffins for everybody.

City officials stood by with a van, offering rides to the various government and private agencies that offer help to the indigent.

But after Gilliard and the state police arrived with the official word, many of the homeless simply picked up their bags, hitched their bedrolls over their shoulders or bumped their shopping carts down the park steps and onto the streets.

Homeless activist Ted Hayes persuaded about two dozen of the group to march out together and take up residence on the park steps and adjacent lawn in a show of solidarity and a statement of protest. But others stayed away from Hayes, holding him at least partially responsible for their eviction.

Late Thursday, Hayes said his group would spend the night on the steps before moving across Spring Street to the City Hall steps.

A State Police spokesman there were no plans to arrest the remaining people.

Hayes had written a letter to state officials in recent weeks demanding portable toilets at the site. That act, government officials said privately, forced the state to formally acknowledge the camp's existence and guaranteed that it would be shut down. Officials had been intentionally overlooking the camp's presence.

Hayes denied that his letter had anything to do with the closing, saying, "They were going to kick us out anyway."

For some there was another reason for avoiding the latest protest march.

"We've marched around town before," said Mike Neely, a homeless activist credited by government officials with keeping the camp going as long as it did.

"I've walked all the way to Malibu and what did I get? It's time to move ahead."

Neely and three others sought and received vouchers through a county program entitling them to three weeks in a Skid Row hotel.

"It's time to take advantage of some of the services available. It's the only way to show (the government) that it's not enough," Neely said.

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