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A scenic win-win in the hills above Studio City

Neighbors pitch in to pay a homeless man to clear away the trash along Coldwater Canyon roads.

November 13, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Jackie Hunsicker leaves a large message for the person who dumped a mattress in her No Litter Zone. She collects donations for Raul Flores, who clears trash from busy Coldwater Canyon Avenue and a portion of twisting Mulholland Drive.
Jackie Hunsicker leaves a large message for the person who dumped a mattress… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Raul Flores refused to rest until he had dragged the old mattress away from the scenic overlook along Mulholland Drive.

"Tourists come up here. They shouldn't have to look at trash," the homeless man said.

For 15 months, hillside residents above Studio City have chipped in to pay Flores to remove litter from the side of busy Coldwater Canyon Avenue and from a portion of twisting Mulholland Drive.

The unusual cleanup campaign was launched after Jackie Hunsicker's next-door neighbor saw Flores scouring Coldwater Canyon for aluminum cans to recycle.

"Hey, Jackie, you've got some competition out there," said the neighbor, who was used to seeing Hunsicker picking up roadside trash herself when it piled up near her home of 26 years.

Hunsicker jumped in her car and drove down the mountainside to find Flores. As they chatted, the idea of a community-supported litter removal program took root.

Hunsicker is the executive director of a nonprofit humanitarian group called the Reading Glass Project, which provides free eyeglasses to Third World artisans and workers who need them in order to ply their trades. She uses the project's website to help drum up supporters and donations.

She decided to use the same tactic to draw attention to the roadside trash problem in her upscale neighborhood and solicit donations to pay Flores a modest fee to pick up litter.

Flores, 54, a former mortgage banker and homeowner who ended up on the street after a series of personal misfortunes, was quick to sign on to Hunsicker's campaign.

He first tackled Coldwater Canyon with a rake and a supply of plastic trash bags in August 2010.

"The canyon was a mess. There was stuff everywhere. Contractors were dumping broken concrete and other construction debris off the side of the road. Landscapers were leaving limbs from pruned trees," he said. "It was embarrassing."

Cleaning it all up that first time "was murder," he said. "I filled 52 bags with things like hubcaps, fiberglass, fast-food wrappers, car crash debris and old bottles that I hadn't seen in years."

As Flores began picking up trash, Hunsicker's campaign slowly picked up steam.

She designated the stretch of Coldwater Canyon Avenue between Ventura Boulevard and Mulholland Drive the "No Litter Zone" and printed bumper stickers and signs asking motorists to "respect the canyon."

Through the http://www.nolitterzone.com website, she explained what Flores was doing and appealed for donations to support his cleanup work.

"Raul doesn't work for the city. He's not doing community service for the court. He's working for all of us," Hunsicker said.

Hunsicker's website lists 75 "canyon stewards" who have contributed so far to the cleanup effort. About $6,000 has been raised and her goal is to entice 100 homeowners to contribute $10 a month, she said.

That would allow Flores to add other cross-mountain roadways to his cleanup route. He spends about 25 hours a week on Coldwater Canyon Avenue and on Mulholland Drive between Coldwater Canyon and Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

Since Flores does not have a car, resident Tom O'Rourke and his son Jonathan have been carting the collected litter to a landfill, although the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority has recently agreed to assist, according to Hunsicker.

As the mattress Flores had retrieved awaited removal, Hunsicker painted "Who did this?" and "No Litter Zone" on it. George Good, who has lived nearby for 41 years, was jogging when he stopped to thank Flores and Hunsicker for their work. He shook his head at the mattress.

"Dumping stuff up here is obscene," he said.

Flores said he appreciates the perspective on life that Hunsicker's campaign has given him. He said residents stop to thank him for his work and hand him cash.

"I see all the people up here hurrying off to their jobs, and I remember being caught up in the same thing," said Flores, whose commute to his job servicing home loans in Woodland Hills took him across the Valley.

Since becoming homeless several years ago, Flores has spent his nights beneath a San Fernando Valley strip mall's stairwell. He said he hopes to eventually return to society's mainstream, perhaps working in a public service job.

"But no matter what I do, I'll continue to clean up Jackie's canyon forever," he said.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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