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In the Sunland-Tujunga area, encampments of homeless raising concern

Residents want caretakers of a golf course in the Big Tujunga Wash to do a better job of keeping it cleaned out and free of transients.

May 26, 2010|By Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times

A side-by-side refrigerator and a Jacuzzi tub dumped in the Big Tujunga Wash in plain view of Tomi Lyn Bowling's home is what first spurred the Sunland resident to action in 2003. For several years afterward, she led successful efforts to clean up the junk.

Then came the homeless.

Some transients built shelters in the wash, using scraps and plastic sheeting. Others pitched tents. Residents complain that bushes have been turned into bathrooms. They also worry about the use of drugs, the destruction of wildlife and the potential devaluation of their nearby homes.

"In the last two years, it has become unbearable," said Bowling, who chairs the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council's land use committee. "They are taking away basic parkland that should be kept and preserved."

"The wash is just being destroyed," said Joe Barrett, president of the Sunland-Tujunga Alliance, a grassroots group that seeks to educate the community about land use and planning issues.

Many efforts to permanently clear the 280-acre parcel that is part of the Angeles National Golf Club have failed. Some neighbors denounce the caretakers as "slumlords" for not fulfilling their responsibility and keeping the wash clean — a condition for building the course.

In a written response, Sharil Vargas, director of club development and sales for the world-class 18-hole course that opened in 2004, said the Tujunga Wash had "a long history of being used as an unofficial dumping ground for the surrounding areas."

Vargas said that the club's portion of the wash, a rugged channel that reaches deep into the San Gabriel Mountains, is cleaned "every other month and on an 'as-needed' basis." Another cleanup is scheduled for today.

"However, cleaning up the Tujunga Wash exposes a harsh reality: Once clean, it will not stay that way indefinitely," Vargas said. "The homeless and partygoers will eventually return, bringing with them more trash and refuse."

A deal is in the works to transfer the 280-acre parcel of wild land owned by the golf club, part of the 400 acres it owns in the wash, to a public agency.

Residents are hoping that the Mountains Recreations and Conservation Authority will do a better job of keeping the wash clean once the land is transferred to it. Vargas said negotiations for the transfer, which has been in the works for years, are now "very close to finalizing."

"It boils down to a single definable title issue," said Paul Edelman, chief of natural resources and planning for the conservation authority.

When his agency takes over, park rangers will regularly patrol the land, Edelman said.

During a cleanup conducted last month by various city agencies, including the police, several homeless people were removed, residents said. About half a ton of garbage also was hauled away from four encampments, according to the office of Councilman Paul Krekorian, whose District 2 covers Sunland and Tujunga.

Krekorian said he was working with various code enforcement and housing agencies "to develop a plan that would minimize the impacts of homelessness on the community, while working with the homeless to find housing, when possible, and offering services when we can."

By early May, many of the transients rousted in the last cleanup were back.

"If you don't follow up, it's a waste of time," Bowling said.

Although there are fewer camps now than the two dozen or so that have littered the area at peak times, that hasn't eased residents' concerns.

Some transients suffer from mental illness and require long-term care, Barrett said. Others have fallen on hard times and have nowhere else to go.

But in recent months, "a much rougher group" has moved in, he said.

"There are more liquor bottles … broken glass," Barrett said. "That's a safety issue. It's made it a revolting place, when it could be a really nice place."

The area is treasured for its alluvial fan deposits, unique fish species and endangered plants, such as the San Fernando Valley spineflower. "It might be the most ecologically unique piece of land in L.A. County," Edelman said.

On Tuesday, a woman lay sleeping on the ground in the wash, surrounded by heaps of dirty clothes and trashed-filled garbage bags. She fled after Barrett roused her.

"That's Margaret," he said. "We've tried to help her. She's mentally ill…been out here 18 years."

Several feet away, a man who gave only his first name, Tim, lay on a couple of old blankets, reading "The Killer Angels," Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. A Cheetos bag and an empty 211 Malt Liquor can lay nearby.

During last month's cleanup of the wash, Tim, who has made his home there for five years, said authorities razed his camp and confiscated his tent. Still, he preferred the outdoors to a shelter.

"There are a lot of bad elements in the shelters," the 56-year-old said, as he explained how the failure of a family construction business caused him to lose his Montrose home. "I figure that if I'm out on my own, I'm safer. No matter what kind of elements I'm living in."

Armando, 40, who also declined to give his last name, who has lived for two years in a tent in a neatly kept camp tucked under an awning of bushes, echoed Tim's concerns.

He said that living in the wash "saves me a lot of money." But he understood why many residents would object to the homeless camping there.

"The majority of people," he said, "they're going to leave a mess."

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