During the pandemic, around 20 people formed a small community of tents and RVs on Jasmine Avenue, a street on the border of the Palms neighborhood and Culver City. They lived there, amid the noisy buzz of an auto-mechanic shop and under the spire of a Catholic church.
Jackie and her boyfriend, Victor, set their tent up under a shaggy-looking pine tree, ten months ago. The pine’s woodsy scent was pleasant, and it warded off pests. They ran a business selling bikes for $5 — “cheapest in the city.”
“Women, gays, and elderly are safe here,” Jackie said of the street, which she chose over another location under a bridge.
They were drawn to Jasmine Ave. by “Kaz,” a neighbor in an RV who speaks with a slight Polish accent. He had a reputation for looking after people, making them “feel safe,” she said.
Many people at Jasmine were on wait-lists to get into housing, but in the meantime they had few places to go where they could feel safe. Yet, while they may have found that safety in community on Jasmine Ave., some of their neighbors viewed them merely as another encampment to get rid of.
But the relative calm of their make-shift community was disrupted in May, when Jackie and Victor’s LA city councilmember, Katy Yaroslavsky (Council District 5), signed-off on a sweep that led to that community getting dissolved, over the course of two sweeps — one on May 18 and the second on May 25. Prior to those sweeps, members of the Jasmine community had written an open letter to Yaroslavsky, urging her to call off her plans, but council officials insisted that for the sake of the surrounding neighbors and their own safety, the community needed to go.
While several unhoused residents came to live at Jasmine Ave. because the neighboring St. Augustine Catholic church provides assistance to some of them — it appears that the sweep came in no small part due to requests from parishioners of the church, as well as parents at the adjoining Catholic school, reaching out to the council member to complain about the encampment. Last summer, a note was circulated in the church’s Sunday bulletin calling on people to make calls to address the presence of RVs on the street. The school’s administrator submitted a letter to the council file to create an anti-camping zone, under LAMC 41.18, raising concerns about safety.
Finding safety, in ‘defiance of the law’
Rebecca Carner, one of the earliest residents of the Jasmine Ave. encampment, disagreed with city officials’ description of their situation on Jasmine Ave. as unsafe. She and Kaz were among the first two people to move to Jasmine Ave., about two and a half years ago. Both ended up there after getting squeezed out of other nearby streets, including Venice Boulevard.
“It’s much safer when you know your community,” she said. “Just like any other community, we know ours too.”
On Jasmine, where she knew most of the people on the block, Carner explained, “It’s not dangerous at all.”
Rather, it was when anti-camping laws began being enforced that life became less safe. “When they start shifting everybody — then it’s quite dangerous,” she said, referring to the city’s recent adoption of a law to make it difficult to set up encampments.
The new law, LAMC 41.18, created zones throughout the city that led to people losing their homes and needing to move from place to place. “People were coming from different parts of the city, they knew nobody, they had different agendas, even the larger men were having conflicts, major conflicts,” she said. “It was very scary.”
“So to stick together in defiance of the law is a lot safer,” she said.
Jasmine Ave. community make a bid to stay put
The initial plan proposed by Yaroslavsky’s office had been to direct the community to a different street a few blocks away. But some in the Jasmine Ave. community learned that location, on Keystone Avenue, abutted a building that was slated for demolition. They wrote an open letter to Yaroslavsky, urging her to rethink her plan.
In the open letter, sent May 10 to Yaroslavsky, they pleaded with her to first address the fallout of years of unfulfilled promises from other public officials, before trying to move them. Among their requests were that there be “written agreements,” adding, “We have been lied to and tricked and ignored for so long. If you say you’re going to do something, it has to show.”
“We are not service-resistant, we are service-experienced, and our collective experience is that these programs have not led to housing, let alone jobs, healthcare, or any other wraparound services that have been promised. We have been desperately trying to work with city organizations to gain access to permanent housing, but things keep getting postponed, and the housing is never ready. Many of us are forced to cycle through trauma as a result.
“On Saturday, May 6th, our friend Jesse lost his life waiting for this housing. These failed programs kill, and displacement will hurt us even more. We want house keys, not handcuffs.”
Several residents had expressed distrust of the council office’s assurances that the operation had their interests in mind, rather than those of the surrounding housed community.
Kaz, whose legal name is Michael Kazsubowski, said the Keystone location that was initially proposed was unsuitable because the building slated for demolition. He worried that the demo, as well as its proximity to residential neighborhoods, could be used as a pretense to once again displace them, or even get them arrested, he said.
“Are we going to do better there than over here?” he asked.
Brett Armstead, another Jasmine Avenue resident, expressed frustration at the way the city continues to communicate with them, saying he is often “blindsided” by what the city decides to do during efforts to sweep and move them.
“How the heck do they expect to move all of us, all at once, especially with the RVs, and where are they going to put us all?” he asked. “Our housing, that’s nowhere near ready. I feel like it’s all set up for failure.”
LA councilmember insists on Jasmine Ave. community’s displacement
The day before the first sweep, in an email sent to a mutual aid group working with members of the Jasmine Ave. community, Yaroslovsky’s deputy chief-of-staff, Fernando Morales, wrote that it was “not tenable for people to remain on Jasmine Avenue and we are working to resolve this situation in as humane a way as possible.”
“The alternative to our approach is to rely on the LAPD, which we would prefer not to do and which I am sure you would agree is worse,” he added in the email to Palms United Mutual Aid (PUMA).
Morales again emailed the mutual-aid group on the day before the subsequent May 25 sweep, saying they had been able to locate motel rooms for each resident on Jasmine Ave. He added that their office has been “diligently” finding housing for people on Jasmine Avenue.
“This particular encampment is adjacent to an elementary school and daycare, which are sensitive sites under the Los Angeles Municipal Code,” he wrote. “Additionally, there are very real safety concerns at this location – both for unhoused individuals and for the surrounding community. Our team has been working to find a solution that relocates individuals in a way that also increases their quality of life, and puts them on a path to permanent housing.”
Specter of anti-camping law loomed over Jasmine Ave.
Last June, Jasmine Ave. was designated an anti-camping zone under LAMC 41.18, through a resolution authored by Yaroslavsky’s predecessor, Paul Koretz, and passed by the City Council. The resolution had originally been placed on the consent calendar — a method for quickly passing a batch of legislation all at once, with little discussion. And that resolution, which would have consequential effect on the lives of several of Koretz’s constituents, would have gone unremarked had activists from mutual aid groups not requested that it be pulled from the consent calendar so they could give public comment.*
Such zones are defined under 41.18, which prohibits sitting, lying, sleeping and storing of property in areas that have been designated an anti-camping zone through a city resolution. Last fall, the council approved an amendment to the code that automatically bans encampments near schools and daycares, so that a specific resolution would no longer be needed.
For Yaroslavsky’s operations, however, the anti-camping law served as a backdrop, a vague threat, while a different law, LAMC 56.11 (which applies to property storage in public areas) was invoked instead.
On the day of the sweep, just before 9 a.m., an LAPD officer walked the length of Jasmine Ave. telling residents they had 10 minutes left to clear the area. Yellow caution tape was then strung on either end of the street, at Washington and Venice boulevards. People were told to leave the area so that the sanitation vehicles could operate.
The officer told reporters that Jasmine Ave. residents had been given 72-hours notice of the sweep.
While LAMC 56.11 applies to the storage of property in the public right-of-way, it has typically been used to address tents and the makeshift homes of poor people, rather than, for instance, the ubiquitous scooters strewn on sidewalks.
These laws, 41.18 and 56.11, are enforced through what are known as CARE+ (Comprehensive Cleaning and Rapid Engagement Plus) operations, which are actually carried out by the Los Angeles Sanitation Department. The law gives the city the ability to require people living on sidewalks to pack up their entire living space and move out of the area.
LAMC 56.11 does not necessarily apply to unhoused residents who live in RVs, such as Carner, unless they also store belongings on the sidewalk. But of course, various other city laws can be cited, and deployed, to restrict or make it more difficult for people to live in vehicles, or to be able to park them in certain areas.
The stated purpose of this type of sweep is to clear the sidewalk to allow for more comprehensive clearing to occur, such as by power-washing or for heavy equipment to remove tents and structures. But unhoused residents who welcome hygiene services say that in a sweep they are given a deadline to move out of the area. And while typically the move is theoretically temporary, it often becomes permanent, depending on whether further enforcement resources or tools are used to prevent people from coming back.
In a typical sweep one of the consequences of not meeting the 72 hour deadline is that what cannot be moved out of the area is usually trashed. LA San will allow unhoused people the option to designate some items to be transported to a storage facility — but those facilities are often distant or unfeasible for people with few resources to get to.
Amid the short timeline for and heavy load of moving one’s living space, the process of adhering to CARE+ (Comprehensive Cleaning and Rapid Engagement Plus) sweeps that are executed under LAMC 56.11 can prove hectic for people to deal with alone or with limited resources.
Advocates, who typically provide food and other assistance during such sweeps, will put out a call for help when a sweep is scheduled. This happened when Yaroslavsky’s office conducted the two sweeps on Jasmine Ave.
Jeffrey Tropp, who is unhoused, answered that call. They came “as a neighbor” to help people at Jasmine Ave. deal with the move, Tropp said, at the May 18 sweep, as they pushed a shopping cart loaded with bicycle parts across the street to a temporary loading area in front of St. Augustine Church.
“People have been asking for housing and services,” Tropp said. “I don’t get it. Sweeps are deadly. The crazy thing is apparently the whole reason for the sweep is the church. How can they call themselves Christian, and instead of helping people, say they want to displace them further?”
Carner, who lived in an RV before being forced out of Jasmine Ave., said that though to outsiders and city leaders what unhoused people are being asked to do during these sweeps may seem reasonable, it actually borders on being “inhumane.”
Sweeps typically impose unreasonable requirements on people, she said.
“Picking up your entire camp and everything you live with, running it back and forth, within a few minutes — it sounds great if you’re an athlete, but some of us just aren’t, and we’re older,” she said.
Sweeps put them through a great amount of stress. She has seen tensions flare the night before a sweep. There is often fighting among residents, including between couples, she said.
“It sounds great, pick up your stuff and sanitize it. But it’s just not really that humane … if they really see what people go through, these different situations, they would understand that this almost has no compassion to it.”
Even as the CARE+ sweeps used LAMC 56.11, the specter of LAMC 41.18 was nonetheless present. Officers on May 18 had told reporters, as well as activists (who captured a video exchange with an officer), that they still planned on enforcing the city’s anti-camping law, LAMC 41.18, in a second sweep the following week, on May 25.
Yet in interviews and public statements Yaroslovsky’s office has maintained that the sweep was aimed at improving the quality of life of Jasmine Avenue’s unhoused residents, and claims that their plan was embraced by most people on Jasmine Ave.
Yaroslavsky aides insist the goal was to house people
Despite 56.11 being enforced, and the other law being threatened, a Yaroslvasky aide maintained during the second sweep that the operation was housing focused.
That statement reflected Yaroslavsky’s office’s earlier discomfort with their operations at Jasmine Ave. being described as sweeps, as expressed by Yaroslavsky’s deputy chief-of-staff. In an email to advocates, Morales quibbled with the characterization of the operation as a “sweep,” describing the action, instead, with language that seemed to leave the characterization of exactly what was happening to the members of the Jasmine Ave. community, in the eye of the beholder.
“We are also trying to understand the perceived ‘sweep,’” Morales wrote, in a May 15 email answering the Jasmine Ave. community’s open letter.
“Our team had a 90-minute conversation with two members of the organization in which we discussed that, like you, our office has also been increasingly concerned with unsafe conditions for our neighbors experiencing homelessness on site. Because of our concerns along with planned street work that needs to be conducted, health and safety concerns, and the proximity to the school zone (one of the reasons why tension has grown in the area), our office has been able to secure resources to increase the quality of life for our neighbors experiencing homelessness in a nearby location.”
In the letter, he identified those resources as “a porta potty, handwashing station, and storage,” and the “nearby location,” as the Keystone site which Kaz had said called unsuitable.
Several residents of the Jasmine Avenue community said they had been slated to get into Sunburst, a Project Homekey site that was supposed to open in November of 2022, but that the housing project had been delayed to July of this year. As of time of publication that situation remains uncertain. Others were also working on getting housed.
The May 18 date of the sweep was viewed as “burdensome,” by another unhoused resident, Manfred. He had been waiting to get into a Project Homekey building that had yet to complete construction.
“I would be more than happy to move if it’s legitimate and not fake,” he said. But he was not convinced by Yaroslavsky’s plan to move them to Keystone Avenue, which “seemed a little phony to me.”
After the Jasmine Ave. community’s open letter and media coverage drew wider attention to the planned displacement, Yaroslavsky’s office dropped their plan of directing residents to the Keystone location. They said they had secured some motel rooms for people to go into.
During the May 25 sweep, Jackie worked quickly to pack away what remained of her belongings into a cart. A few feet away, LAPD officers were posted next to yellow caution tape that had been strung up at either end of Jasmine Ave.
Referring to the bicycles, Jackie explained, “When they did the first clean-up we lost all of our business … The second clean-up, we’re not going to be here anymore.”
When asked if she felt she had a choice on whether to leave the area, Jackie said, “Absolutely not — no choice.”
Jasmine Ave.’s former unhoused resident feels abandoned
As of July, several former residents were staying at a motel in Inglewood, 12 miles away from their home on Jasmine Ave., while others remained nearby in their RVs, according to Armstead, who now says he feels “abandoned” by Yaroslavsky’s outreach staff.
He explained in an interview that he has not heard from the office since he left Jasmine Ave. Armstead had initially resisted leaving Jasmine Ave., but was eventually convinced to leave after council staff told him that the motel was near a rail station.
Armstead says he is also keeping tabs on the Sunburst, a Project Homekey building that he is on the list to go into, but he is not encouraged by what he is seeing. There seemed to be “no progress” on the hotel, when he went to look at it recently.
He says he both does and does not regret leaving the Palms and Culver City area, where his old Jasmine Ave. community used to be. He said he is keeping his hotel room, but will also go back to his tent.
He told a Los Angeles Public Press reporter that he puts a great deal of thought and uses his gut when choosing where he decides to live.
Armstead says he does the one hour commute, either using public transportation or by bike, from Inglewood to the neighborhood around Jasmine, because his medical resources are there, and the buses and trains there run longer.
He also gave a reason for going back to his old neighborhood that was more ineffable: “It’s home. I felt like home there. Everybody made me feel like I was at home. Even the homeless … they made me feel at home. The people in the houses, they made you feel like you’re at home.”
Armstead said the Culver Hotel’s plaza was an example of what he meant by this. It was a place where the security left him alone, and there were plenty of electrical outlets for charging his phone. He has fallen asleep at the plaza and woken up, to find all of his things still there and untouched.
There was also a sense of peace: “Another thing I miss over there is just the calmness,” he said.
*The resolution was approved 11 to 3, with Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Nithya Raman and Mike Bonin voting against it.