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Lost Souls Lose : Caltrans Prepares to Evict Squatters in Self-Styled City

January 17, 1991|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the City of Lost Souls, Hal Smith is the mayor, governing his people by common consent. But he doesn't have the power to stop the bulldozers that are about to destroy his town.

Gilbert Nelles, the town judge, plans to call about a restraining order. But his legal knowledge is limited. And his tent has no phone.

Sheriff Carlos Arevalo has a more lavish dwelling--a two-room wooden bungalow with a bed, bookshelves and candles for light.

But the gold star on Arevalo's chest doesn't carry much clout with the California Department of Transportation. In a few weeks, the agency plans to reclaim the Golden State Freeway embankment on which the City of Lost Souls was built five years ago.

This hidden haven for drifters and the homeless, located along the Los Feliz Boulevard off-ramp near Griffith Park, has already dodged one demolition date. Caltrans and Los Angeles city officials delayed an eviction scheduled for Saturday to discuss other living accommodations for the dozen or so residents of the encampment.

But the Lost Souls don't want to relocate.

Town treasurer Mary Waterman, 60, moved in more than a year ago after being mugged repeatedly in a rough section of Hollywood. "This is the safest place I've lived in during my life," she said. "I have people looking out for me. I don't know what I'd do if I had to leave here."

The City of Lost Souls has eight permanent residents. About a dozen others stay for shorter periods. Many in the encampment say that they were led there by word on the street.

Walt Cloetta, 41, moved into the village about five years ago when he ran low on money and had trouble finding work. "We're a happy community," he said. "We try to take care of each other the best we can. We'd hate to be split up. We are a family."

Homeless encampments on public property are not uncommon. But the City of Lost Souls, fittingly named by its founder, Mayor Smith, stands apart in several respects.

Using salvaged wood, some of its dwellers have built small, sturdy shelters, complete with doors and windows. Community members have set up their own government to maintain order. They share food, often cooked over a propane stove or barbecue grills, and decide whether newcomers can stay permanently.

"It's quite an elaborate situation," said Tom LaBonge, a field deputy for Los Angeles City Councilman John Ferraro, in whose district the settlement was built. "I don't think there's anything like it elsewhere in Los Angeles or maybe anywhere in California in an urbanized area. The way the buildings are developed, it's like a little village."

Yet it was LaBonge who recently told Caltrans about the City of Lost Souls, setting the stage for its apparent destruction.

He learned about the encampment from city firefighters, who stumbled upon it last October while extinguishing a small brush fire near the freeway. LaBonge said he was obligated to inform Caltrans.

"If I didn't bring it to their attention, I would think I was not doing my job," he said. "It wasn't easy for me to do it. I tossed and turned about it."

LaBonge said health and safety concerns were the deciding factor.

The encampment has no electricity or running water, and its "houses" hardly meet city codes. Residents said they use restrooms at nearby Griffith Park.

In the midst of heavy freeway landscaping, a wooden arch forms the entryway to the City of Lost Souls. The dirt clearing is neatly raked. Crude wooden houses stand on both sides of the central walkway. Several of the dwellings have signs in front, displaying the name and title of the person who lives there. Other community members have pitched tents, leaning knapsacks on trees and hanging clothes from branches.

The town walls are decorated with discarded posters and corroded street signs. Old shopping carts have been clustered off the main path.

In the center of the village is a communal dining area. Several residents were seated at the table on a recent afternoon, sipping beer, smoking cigarettes and munching pretzels. When a news photographer pointed a camera at the group, Sheriff Arevalo barked, "Put those beer cans down. We don't want to have those beer cans showing."

The Lost Souls say that they have gotten by just fine for five years before their discovery by state and city officials. They say that they keep their grounds tidy and discipline rule-breakers on their own.

By not bringing any attention to themselves, they hoped that city officials would not disturb the encampment.

"If there is any trouble, we hold a council meeting at the big, round table," Nelles said. "The final decision is mine because I'm the judge."

Nelles, 34, said he joined the community about three months ago after spending all of his money on a journey from the Yukon to Southern California. He has been trying to talk to top Disney executives about a marketing deal involving Canadian cartoon characters. But he complained, "The secretaries keep stalling me."

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