VAN NUYS — An encampment sweep planned near the Van Nuys Metro G Line station was averted Tuesday, after community members turned out to defend the unhoused community.
The “sweep” on Aetna Street was the first official planned removal of tents and property the community has seen in more than a year. LA residents and more than a dozen medical students, many from UCLA – put out a call to people around the city to come to their defense against an effort that many residents view as an enforcement action targeting them for being homeless. While the sweep was effectively canceled, residents wasted time preparing to move.
Prior to the scheduled sweep, which was originally planned to be 10-hours-long, there was little information available to residents about what would happen that day. Because of the lack of information about how the sweep was to be carried out, residents spent hours preparing to move their homes and belongings with the vague threat of losing their property hanging over them.
Aetna street, next to the Van Nuys Metro G Line, is in Councilmember Imelda Padilla’s district – which encompasses much of the central and east San Fernando Valley. Some activists who had talked to staff in Councilmember Imelda Padilla’s office said there would be enforcement of Los Angeles Municipal Code 56.11, which regulates the storage of property in public areas and has a provision that tents must be down during the day. The posted notice said that anything left along Aetna Street, between Van Nuys and Tyrone, would be removed by the city.
Residents of the Aetna street community said Padila’s office did not provide information on whether housing or services would be offered, or if it was even available.
Padilla’s office also did not respond to LA Public Press’s questions about the sweep, and instead provided a statement saying that addressing homelessness was a “top priority” for them, and that her office “remains committed to keeping safety and health as a priority for all, and we’re here to make sure unhoused people are in safe and clean areas.”
Wayne Robinson, a resident of Aetna street, dismissed the idea that the sweeps are being conducted to help them, saying that “of course” they are enforcement actions.
He said he understands that a sweep is often described as a cleaning operation, but he’s also seen friends’ belongings and his own belongings get lost in prior sweeps.
“It’s difficult for the people who live out here, it’s difficult for everybody really,” he said.
Aetna Street residents a ‘beacon of hope’
Residents of Aetna Street have a history of organizing against the city-led sweeps, and have a set of demands that they recently presented to Mayor Karen Bass. Activists said the mayor declined to meet those demands.
There has not been a major sweep on the street in more than a year, so “the sweep today is really significant, because it does kind of signal that that period of stability is over, it’s under threat,’ said Matt Hing, a medical student at UCLA who helped organize a group of his fellow students to support Aetna residents.
“And I think that as a provider, all you want is for your patients to be kind of stable and to kind of be situated, and this sweep … we all kind of see as a direct affront to that,” Hing said.
Speaking prior to the sweep being downgraded, Hing said he was “scared and nervous to see what’s going to happen by the end of the day and where people are going to be at.”
He said many of the medical students who came today had first gotten to know the community through a street festival, Aetnapalooze, which residents and activists hosted. It featured music, art, dance, food and public education. The medical students had a table where they demonstrated CPR, wound care, and harm reduction techniques.
“I think this community has really been a beacon … of hope … for a lot of different unhoused encampments across the city,” Hing said, because of community events like that and other activism they’ve become known for.
A search for the one ‘in charge’
Starting at around 6 a.m., several unhoused residents up and down Aetna Street were working to pack up their homes in response to a notice posted Sunday afternoon telling them their belongings could be taken away by the city if they remained in the area after the planned sweep.
But a sanitation worker who was pulling onto the street was stopped, after activists and several medical students dressed in white jackets stood in the way of his truck. One of the activists present, Carla Orendorff, questioned the worker about who was the environmental compliance officer — the person that usually calls the shots at an encampment sweep.
“Who’s in charge?” she asked the worker several times before he backed up his truck and drove away. She also specifically asked where they could find the environmental compliance officer.
Orendorff said she couldn’t really get anyone to tell them who the environmental compliance officer was that day. At one point they were pointed in the direction of a sanitation vehicle, but its occupants refused to roll down their windows to talk.
Soon after the sanitation driver left, a senior environmental compliance officer, Ruben Hernandez, drove onto the street and during a conversation with Orendorff hinted that “things could change.” The sweep was later downgraded to a “spot-cleaning,” which meant that residents would no longer have to move their homes, and trash would only be thrown out voluntarily.
However, by the time city officials had changed the nature of the event, residents had already spent a significant amount of time preparing to move their belongings. To adhere to the enforcement action, one resident of Aetna street, Bobby, who was limping due to a leg injury, had already worked for several hours to load up his belongings into a truck he had borrowed from a neighbor.
“My leg’s been messed up. I was in a motorcycle accident and it hasn’t healed yet,” he said, in an interview before the sweep was called off. “It’s going to take a couple more hours, especially with one leg and no one helping me.”
Bobby said that he stays in the Salvation Army-run shelter that is also on Aetna Street. In recent months, the shelter has been trying to prevent residents who live there from maintaining tents on the street, including issuing them a letter saying they would be kicked out if they kept tents or stayed in the Metro parking lot next to the shelter. Bobby said he is unable to sleep in the shelter, due to “all the commotion” there. He has been able to still stay at the shelter but said staff there have been giving him a “hard time.”
Another resident, who gave her name as Sage, said her shoulder was hurting and it was difficult for her to move her belongings that day.
“Right now, it’s really inflamed, and it’s hard for me,” she said of her shoulder. “But I’m gonna still try (to move), and we’ll see what happens.”
Several other Aetna Street residents said Tuesday they would welcome any help aimed at actually keeping the area clean, but said the sweeps don’t usually include services or housing, and there was always too little notice given.
Tenant organizers from Chinatown also came to support Aetna residents. Annie Shaw, a organizer with the Hillside Villa Tenants Association and the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), recorded the city sanitation operation, and questioned homeless services providers about whether they had any housing available for Aetna residents that day.
“Our movements are interconnected, and it’s important that we support each other,” Shaw said.
Shaw called Padilla’s office as she stood on Aetna Street this morning, asking them to send a representative and ensure the residents of the street are “taken care of with respect” and that Padilla’s office is providing support services like housing, “instead of bulldozing their things.”
Shaw was among those who asked the homeless services providers, from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, on Tuesday whether they were offering any housing. The workers ignored activists’ questions, at one point staying in their vehicles, and at another, as they went from tent to tent, briefly talking to residents and handing them water.