Jose lives off Alameda Street in a large gray RV. On a recent Sunday afternoon he listened to rancheras as he sanded down a nightstand for his RV’s bedroom. He’d converted the sidewalk into a workshop, complete with an air compressor, circular saw, and pieces of lumber scattered on the ground. His three dogs surrounded him as he worked, guarding his tools.
For about 10 years Jose paid rent for a small house in Huntington Park, until about a year ago when he was evicted. So, unable to afford rent in the area, Jose bought an RV and moved in. His is one of about 20 RVs parked on this busy stretch of Alameda Street — cars and semi-trucks wiz by, fast enough to shake them, but people have made this place their home. This section of Alameda Street is in unincorporated Florence-Firestone, near South LA, where there is no city in charge and the area is controlled directly by the county.
More than 75,000 people experience homelessness in Los Angeles County every night, around 6,800 in RVs, according to the latest Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. But, while for people like Jose RVs are a way to sleep under a roof, many property owners see them as a nuisance — and politicians are listening. In recent weeks the issue has been taken up by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, with the officials insisting that a large component of the problem results from so-called vanlords — people who rent out RVs to unhoused people. However, the county has not provided any data to back up this assertion. Advocates have demurred, pointing out that the scale of the vanlording problem is limited, and that in conditions of housing scarcity persisting in LA, sometimes even bad housing is preferable to a tent.
Supervisor Holly Mitchell (2nd District), says her office receives dozens of calls and letters everyday from business owners and constituents, complaining about RVs. In response, on Oct. 14, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors requested a “report back” from staff, on possible ordinances to restrict vanlording. That motion claims vanlords “capitalize” on the unhoused and provide unsafe living conditions.
But as Peggy Lee Kennedy, an organizer with Venice Justice Committee (a group providing support to unhoused people), points out, it’s not ideal to “criminalize [vanlords] when we’re not providing solutions.” Over on Alameda Street, of 10 people interviewed, the majority said they would gladly accept access to housing and other much needed services, but none has been offered to them.
“The best solution is to not just tow them away somewhere or displace them … It’s to find out what they really need and get them the assistance.” Kennedy added, “We are not providing adequate low income housing to people. And that’s what causes the problem in the first place.”
However, the supervisors see the situation with RVs differently. “We need to send a strong message that the county will not stand for the exploitation of people who need quality affordable homes,” said Mitchell, who sponsored the motion.
But while few will actively defend the practice of vanlording, advocates like Kennedy, point to the supes actions as emblematic of an approach to homelessness in Los Angeles that keeps failing: namely addressing the effects of homelessness, without ever solving the basic problem of housing. And in the case of vanlords, statistics on the prevalence of the practice are actually sparse. It’s unclear who the county will go after and if people operating so deeply in the underground economy are even likely to follow county regulations.
One such person, living in that informal economy is “Vicky” (whose real name has been omitted for safety reasons), another resident of the stretch of Alameda. Speaking outside of her RV, Vicky said there are many people in Alameda who have to pay a $30/month protection fee to a local gang.
But Vicky doesn’t mind paying the $30 fee the gangs demand, she feels it gives her protection and helps resolving disputes. For most of the past year and a half, Vicky and her four dogs lived on Santa Fe Avenue, not far from this stretch of Alameda. However, after feeling unsafe and threatened by some neighbors, she drove her RV over to Alameda. While experiencing homelessness 57.9% of women in LA County had something stolen from them and 43.1% were repeatedly harassed or threatened, according to the LA County women’s needs assessment conducted by the Downtown Women’s Center, an organization focused on serving unhoused women.
Protection rackets, in which gangs extract a fee from people in businesses for the promise of not harming them, while ostensibly offering protection from other dangers, are widespread. Especially in areas like Florence-Firestone with a long history of gangs.
According to Jose, another person living on Alameda recently refused to pay protection money to the gang. Not long after their RV was forcefully towed. However, Jose himself also refuses to pay, saying “it’s politics.”
The Board of Supes take action
On Oct. 14, the supervisors voted to explore changes to the municipal county codes that might prohibit the sale, lease, and rental of recreational vehicles, or “oversized vehicles,” in the public right-of-way. The ordinance is the first step towards “hold[ing] vanlords accountable,” according to the motion.
According to Supervisor Kathryn Barger (5th District), who co-sponsored the motion, “many RVs” in Los Angeles County are “rentals.” However, the county has not provided data on the prevalence of vanlording.
Isela Gracian, homelessness and housing senior deputy for Supervisor Mitchell, said that county workers learned about vanlords as they outreached to unhoused people through LA County’s Homeless Initiative’s Pathway Home program. The program focuses on reducing the number of people who are unhoused in unincorporated LA County, by connecting people to permanent housing and supportive services.
“We don’t know the severity or the scale of it but we know it’s a challenge,” said Gracian.
In LA County, people are becoming unhoused faster than housing can be provided. The unhoused population has risen by 9% in LA County since last year, with high housing costs and low income being the main reasons more people are becoming homeless, according to a report by the University of California, San Francisco. Nearly all people surveyed for the report (89%) noted housing costs as a barrier to re-entering permanent housing.
About 73% of the unhoused population is unsheltered, meaning they live in a vehicle, tent, or makeshift shelter, people who can be seen staying in public streets, according to the Greater LA Homeless Count report. The remaining roughly 27% of the unhoused population is considered sheltered who find temporary housing in hotels or shelters. On average, it takes about three months to move someone from the street to interim housing.
Vicky and Jose used to live on Sante Fe Avenue in unincorporated Walnut Park, where a similar RV community has grown, about 700 feet east of Alameda Street. Vicky left fearing for her safety, whereas Jose was forced to relocate by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies. Jose says deputies would consistently show up and tell him to move, but only him. Deputies instructed him to move to “this side” of Alameda Street.
On this side of Alameda, RVs are lodged between various workshops, factories, and other industries. Nearby passed the Alameda Corridor, a sunken railway route, where freight trains carry cargo from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports to rail yards near Downtown LA. People living in RVs can feel as the freight trains make the ground rumble as they pass by.
The people living on Alameda Street said they would be likely to accept support to become housed and other services, but that support hasn’t been offered to them yet. At the time they were interviewed they said that in the past 30 days, no government agency had checked-in nor offered services of any kind. The only kind of support some people received was food from a local Catholic Church.
When Kennedy and the Venice Justice Committee get word that LA city plans on clearing an RV encampment, or conducting a sweep, they drive down to encampments and survey the people living there. They have found time and time again that LA city and county often offer alternatives that don’t meet the needs of unhoused people.
Many times, LA city and county programs such as “Project Roomkey” and “Inside Safe” offered interim housing in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. People living in a motel in Culver City through the Inside Safe program and on vouchers reported cockroaches, mold, faulty plumbing, broken locks, and long power outages, as covered by KCRW reporter Zoie Matthew in March.
LA Public Press’s Elizabeth Chou found that people who were living in encampments and placed in the “Inside Safe” initiative were waiting a long time to be placed into the permanent housing they were promised. Only 12% of people in the Inside Safe program have been permanently housed in its first nine months of operating, according to a report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the primary entity that provides housing and services to unhoused people in the county.