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Residents Worry About Nearby Homeless Camp

Safety: Encampment in Chatsworth canyon prompts area homeowners' concerns about fires.

November 06, 2001|KARIMA A. HAYNES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An overgrown canyon set between the Santa Susana Mountains and the Ronald Reagan Freeway in Chatsworth has been a settlement for a cluster of homeless people for nearly two years.

The tightly knit community contains four to eight men and women living side by side in huts fashioned from tree limbs, bamboo sticks, plastic sheeting, camouflage tarps, plywood and chicken wire.

With posted signs prohibiting campfires, smoking, trash dumping and overnight camping, the homeless residents know they are squatting on public land. Still, the illegal campers say they have no other place to go.

Nearby homeowners say they should go to shelters, where social service agencies could help them get on their feet and out of an area vulnerable to dangerous brush fires.

Though neighbors say they are concerned about the plight of the homeless, they are more worried about wind-driven blazes racing through the canyon, jumping the freeway and engulfing homes, many with horses on the property.

"I'm not against the homeless, but brush fires are my biggest concern," said equestrian activist Jerry England, 59, of Chatsworth, standing on one of several bridle trails crisscrossing the canyon's rugged terrain.

Anne Marie Cohen of Chatsworth said she has seen fires smoldering in the canyon and has encountered homeless residents several times.

"I've seen them drinking beer or using the lavatory under the tree," the 38-year-old homemaker said, sitting astride her horse. "They make you feel a bit uncomfortable as you go past."

England said he complained to Los Angeles city and county officials about the homeless residents' campfires, public nudity and unsanitary waste water.

He wrote a letter to the LAPD's senior lead officer in the Devonshire Division on April 28 complaining about fire danger from the homeless camp. England also said some of his neighbors complained as well.

A senior lead officer visited England at his home and told him it was the LAPD's understanding that a federal court order prevented police from breaking up the encampment.

The temporary restraining order issued by U.S. District Judge Lourdes G. Baird in December, however, was limited to Los Angeles' skid row, not citywide, according to the city attorney's office.

Under the order, officers are prevented from stopping homeless people at random, demanding their identification, threatening them with arrest, seizing their belongings and discarding their possessions.

The order is the result of a civil rights suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union last November on behalf of 26 homeless residents and social service workers who argued that a crime-fighting measure in the skid row area had turned into excessive harassment of homeless residents.

"The temporary restraining order was very unique to the people on skid row," said Deputy City Atty. Deborah L. Sanchez, who represented the police in the matter. "The lawsuit focused on the fact that there were specific services in the area for the homeless . . . and that there should be no additional burden placed on them to access those services."

In response to a query from The Times, Sanchez said the order does not constrain police and fire officials from enforcing laws to protect public safety.

Capt. Steve Ruda, a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman, said firefighters would promptly douse campfires in mountain fire districts and would work with police to resolve any threats to public safety.

Back in the canyon, a homeless resident who gave only her first name, Jarah, said she and her husband have lived on the site for nearly two years. The 40-year-old said she hauls her trash and waste water out of the canyon and does not light campfires.

"When the kids are partying and drinking, I go down there with my shovel and I tell them to put the fire out," she said, standing in front of her plastic and bamboo hut with a visitor named James. "I am afraid of fires because I do live here."

But England disagreed.

"How can you say you don't like fires when he's standing there smoking a cigarette?" England asked as James held a cigarette and blew smoke in the air. "You could just walk away from a fire because you are not responsible."

"I am not judgmental like you, sir, and I would not assume that someone would just walk away," she said.

England replied, "It's a pity that you have to live this way."

"I don't need your pity," Jarah said. "If you are not a resource, you are a threat."

"I will try to find resources for you--they are out there--and places where you can get help," England told her. "I want a safe place for you to live--and me."

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