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SGV Connect 110 : Life as a Reclaimer

We are Reclaimers because we have to, because of desperation. - Benito, one of the Reclaimers living in El Sereno.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to interview four of the El Sereno Caltrans Home Reclaimers: Benito, Marta, Ruby and Sandra. They were joined by two supporters, Roberto Flores and Fanny Guzman. I thought the interview would be a standard SGV Connect, updating listeners to the status of the reclaimer movement and their own lives since our last update over a year ago. What happened instead was an hour and ten minute emotional discussion of their lives both as Reclaimers and previously as people experiencing homelessness, why they chose to occupy unoccupied Caltrans-owned properties, their current legal status, and what will happen if courts uphold an eviction notice they received last month.

So we’re doing things a little differently this time. We’re skipping our regular introduction, and going right into the interview in the podcast. Below the embed, is a story and summary of the interview which might be a little easier for folks to follow than the transcript (which you can read here if you choose).

On the night of March 14, 2020, the world was in crisis. The COVID-19 shutdowns were just starting to roll across California, and the long- and short-term future was looking cloudy. That evening a group of people experiencing homelessness, with the support of a team of activists and community members broke into unoccupied Caltrans-owned houses and (re)claimed them as a place to live for themselves and their families. Caltrans owns houses along the 710-corridor as part of their now-abandoned efforts to extend the 710 Freeway north from its current terminus.

“I am from El Sereno. I saw these homes empty. And I always thought, ‘How come nobody does anything?’, recounted Sandra. “I never connected the way how these homes were hoarded and how other people are homeless in their tents. But when somebody mentioned that we're going to squat in them, it totally makes sense….why hasn’t somebody done this sooner?”

At the time, nobody was exactly sure what would happen. Would the state police, LAPD or the Sheriff department show up and forcibly remove them? Would the chaos of the moment allow them to slip by unnoticed for a period of time? The initial reclaiming of the houses was meant as a statement about how unjust it was for so many houses to be unsettled when the homeless crisis locally, regionally and nationally was so large; but what would happen to the Reclaimers who were in the houses themselves?

In the end, the Reclaimers were either allowed to stay or moved to different short-term housing while they awaited a chance to move into permanent housing.

“The state and the whole world was in chaos,” recounts Marta of the day she moved in to her reclaimed home. “So they didn't take us out. Governor Newsom told the CHP to stand down and not do anything when we reclaimed. But then with that process came also an offer to HACLA [Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles] and PATH [People Assisting the Homeless] agency here in Los Angeles, to give us temporary housing.”

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

For over three years, the Reclaimers signed leases with Caltrans, and saw their leases expire without permanent housing offers.

They created the El Sereno Community Land Trust to purchase as many of the homes as possible - to offer to Reclaimers and others experiencing homelessness; but they found the Trust excluded from local planning by disgraced racist Councilmember Kevin de León and by state legislation from Senator María Elena Durazo.

They have put in roots in the community, or deepened roots for those with a previous connection, but still received eviction notices for their temporary housing last month. Instead of a move into permanent housing, they find themselves fighting in court for the right to stay where they are.

While working with, or trying to work with, the government has proven difficult and frustrating, the Reclaimers have been buoyed by the support of a progressive community in Los Angeles, and with some education found that their physical neighbors would come to appreciate and welcome them as well.

“It was a lot of misinformation,” recounts Marta of her first interactions with her new neighbors. “They were saying that the Reclaimers were not from El Sereno. The majority of the Reclaimers are actually from this community, from El Sereno… Another thing that they said [was that] there was a lot of other services, or other things, that the city provides… as Sandra said that she wasn't offered any.”

Over time, things began to change.

“In getting to know the neighbors and also talking to them about this misinformation; some of them did change their minds, not all of them. And my experience with my current neighbors is really good,” she continued. “Soon as I moved in, they offered material help. I am a single mother of two daughters, and so they also offered just to keep an eye out and keep me and my daughter safe, which I totally am grateful for.”

It hasn't been all smooth sailing in the interactions with the housed neighbors. Benito is older, and his English isn’t as smooth as the other Reclaimers in the interview. He contrasts his experiences with the community broadly with that of his physical neighbors.

“I have one very good neighbor. And I have two neighbors who actually don't talk to me. I think they're confused. Because they are confused about the idea of ‘law and order.’ …They are really good people. So they said they understand the homeless, but this is not a way to take the [housing] …to go in the house illegally.” Benito says. “Some neighbors are angry, but there are more neighbors on our side. Who opened the house for us? The neighbors. Who was bringing us food? The neighbors. Who was keeping guard in the street to keep us safe? The neighbors. The people.”

Benito, like the other Reclaimers on the call, recounts the differences between life as an unhoused person on the street and life as a Reclaimer. In response to a question of, “Why?” His answer is simple. “​​We are reclaimer because we have to, because of desperation.”

Part of that desperation, as Marta mentions above, is that the services offered by the city and county aren’t sufficient to meet the needs of the mammoth unhoused population. Sandra and her family lived in a large encampment in a park near the Eastside Café where she, Marta, Fanny and Roberto met to take part in the interview. The encampment was well known in the neighborhood and was politically controversial. In her months living in the encampment, she said she could not remember a time when social services reached out to offer help.

“Not one time. Not one time did someone come to offer me services,” Sandra recounted of her time in the park. But once the Reclaimers were in the house and the Governor ordered CHP to stand down, things changed. “I remember people were getting placed in hotels. But before that, they didn't even want to do a homeless count.”

The relationship between the Reclaimers and government agencies has been difficult. From basic annoyances - Ruby recounting how she often would have to “tell her life story” to multiple people from the same department over the course of a week - to larger ones - the first leases Reclaimers signed were described as “carceral” by the people who signed them. Offers for more stable housing are often far away from where the Reclaimers currently live, which would take them away from support networks, medical care and jobs.

“The houses are there.” Is a refrain heard repeatedly throughout the interview as the Reclaimers wonder why agencies seem intent on moving them away from the neighborhood they live in, and in many cases grew up in, instead of finding ways for them to stay where they are.

The answer is simple. The city and county have designs for the “Caltrans homes” in El Sereno. Councilmember de León was a de facto spokesperson for the program but has shrunk to the background following the release of his racist diatribe in the “fed tapes” revealed his efforts to use redistricting to marginalize historically black communities. Streetsblog broke down the differences between de León’s plans and those offered by the community in an article last year. However, just because de León is in the background doesn’t mean the plans have changed.

“Kevin de León's plans didn't go by the wayside,” explains Flores. “What happened is that HACLA is substituting in for Kevin de León and trying to legitimize the proposal.”

The de León/HACLA proposal has greater power behind it because of S.B. 51, authored by Senator Maria Elena Durazo, and signed into law last year. Among other things, the legislation disallows the selling of Caltrans housing to a co-op in El Sereno. Curiously, this provision of the legislation does not apply to Pasadena and South Pasadena properties that are also owned by Caltrans and are part of the 710 Corridor.

“I'm really irritated with Maria Elena Durazo,” begins Ruby. “She's the image of, of what I once looked up to as an activist… somebody that was standing up for the marginalized, the unhoused, the immigrant, the hungry.” After S.B. 51, that image changed. “For what? For her to acquire this, this position in the state and all of a sudden to decide that that's not what El Sereno needs?.... By creating a bill that was going to leave Pasadena and Alhambra good - and allow them purchase the houses in their hood. But not El Sereno? Because we're Brown, we can't buy the houses?”

While the Reclaimers have lived stressful lives, the urgency moved back into desperation when eviction notices arrived last month giving them three days to vacate their properties. The Reclaimers immediately took legal action to block the evictions, but they face a dark short-term future should they fail in court. While there may not be a “Plan B” if they lose in court, going back to the streets is not an option.

“You're going to have to take me out in handcuffs,” says Ruby.

“But we're definitely not going to go back to the streets. I do not plan to go back to my car,” adds Sandra.

“There is only ‘Plan A.’ And that’s to fight, fight, fight, fight,” finishes Benito.

If there’s one message the Reclaimers would like to leave, it’s that this movement isn’t just about them. Their story, their struggle, will hopefully end with them permanently housed. But they also hope they are part of a larger struggle to improve conditions for unhoused people throughout the world by showing what is possible if governmental efforts are to truly help the unhoused become housed again.

“We're not here to just occupy space, we want to create justice for not only for El Sereno, but I think for housing in general,” says Ruby. “This is a global epidemic at this point.” And the solution is for the government to work with the unhoused, and work with the Reclaimers instead of working around or even against them.

“We want to see the government sitting down and negotiating with the Reclaimers,” concludes Fanny. “They should create a pathway in housing homeless people instead of criminalizing them. Because as we see, the homeless encampments are being gated [unhoused people being fenced out]. And that's a loud and clear response from the government saying, ‘We don't want you in the streets’… They need to sit down and negotiate with the Reclaimers and create a pathway with the Reclaimers to house homeless folks. Because who else better than the homeless people who reclaim these homes and make it into a house for themselves and their families and their kids?”

SGV Connect is sponsored by Foothill Transit. Foothill Transit was not consulted about the content of this podcast and the views expressed are those of the participants and interviewer and may or may not be representative of the views of Foothill Transit, its board, or its staff.

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