Fenced out: Los Angeles businesses find new way to keep away homeless

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As homelessness rises in the city, business owners are blocking off sidewalks

The day the fence arrived, Gabe was sitting next to his tent, right at the heart of Los Angeles Skid Row. It was a chain link fence about six feet tall placed at the edge of the sidewalk, where it neatly enclosed Gabe, his neighbors, and the tented homes they have made for themselves on the streets of what is sometimes called the homeless capital of the country.

They put the whole sidewalk inside the fence, said Gabe, an older black man with kind eyes and a disarming demeanor who has lived on the streets of Skid Row for about five years. He was scaling a fish over a red plastic cooler as he talked. I felt like we were in prison on the sidewalk. It felt like we were in prison and could get out, but still in prison, you know what I mean?

Local activists and police officers were called. Eventually, the chain-link fence was moved to free Gabe and his neighbors. It wouldnt be the last of the fences.

As street homelessness continues to spiral upwards in Los Angeles, with just over 25,000 people living in cars, tents, and other makeshift shelters across the county, a new phenomenon is prompting frustration among the citys homeless population: business owners fencing in portions of the sidewalk, seemingly to keep homeless people off them.

Their actions are clearly questionable. After the Guardian contacted the city of Los Angeles about several blocked-off sidewalks, an official said the city would take action.

They push people to the back streets where theres no lights, Gabe said. Where its not safe.

[Business owners] dont own the sidewalk, said General Dogon, a longtime community organizer at the Skid Row-based Los Angeles Community Action Network. The sidewalk is designed as a public space. Its for everyone.

People who have been driven into the streets by the citys housing crisis are forced to live their lives in public space a resource that is famously lacking in a city where sidewalks will unexpectedly vanish into the road, and public parks are few and far between. This space is contested property owners and legislators have been accused of using anti-homeless measures like sprinklers, spikes on the ground and benches designed to be impossible to sleep on.

For a middle-aged Latino man named Jos Luis, the first sign of trouble was the planters, which arrived one day on the street he has made his home and were placedalongside the face of the building, occupying the space where he wouldve otherwise put his tent. Jos Luis lives on a quiet street in South Central, a mostly black and Latino neighborhood a couple of miles south of Skid Row. After the planters came the chain-link fence, cordoning off the long row of tropical plants and leaving just half the sidewalk accessible to the public.

Theyre trying to get us to leave, he said. But so far, all the fences have done is push him and his neighbors further out on to the sidewalk, leaving little space for pedestrians. The business adjacent to the planters and to Jos Luiss tent did not respond to a request for comment.

Business
Business owners are fencing off portions of LA sidewalks, pushing out homeless people like Jos Luis. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

Back in Skid Row, another new development has succeeded in forcing homeless residents out: a gardening project occupying about half the width of the sidewalk.

Its part of an attempt to rebrand the neighborhood as the North Sea district. According to a website for the North Sea, the development is part of a self-funded, beautification program involving thematic murals, sidewalk landscaping, a variety of sculptural interventions, and lots and lots of elbow grease. Our mission is to restore a sense of place and community pride.

Google Maps images show that the streets that were part of the new gardening beautification program used to be occupied by the tents of people who have now had to move elsewhere. Local homeless people said they welcomed care being lavished on the area. But not at the expense of the people who used to live there.

The city is now investigating the North Sea gardening project. Miguel Nelson, a business owner who was partially responsible for it and who has recently opened an event space nearby, declined to comment.

In response to inquiries from the Guardian about a dozen fences and other space-grabbing developments in Skid Row and South Central, a department of public works spokeswoman, Elena Stern, said: A number of the locations you brought to our attention did not have permits, and Notices of Violation are being prepared.

For some other locations, Stern said, building owners had deployed fences under a permit that allows them to block the public way temporarily to do work on their private property. The permits typically last a maximum of 90 days. If those permits have expired, one of our investigative enforcement teams will be in contact with the property owner to insure compliance.

On a busy street lined with industrial buildingsand homeless encampments,Wesley Willis lives in a small tent across the street from one of these new fences. Earlier this week he stood looking out at the row of tents pitched alongside the fence, which was making much of the sidewalk inaccessible. His concern was not for himself.

People have gotta walk in the street, with their kids, he said. Thats what I dont like.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/aug/24/where-the-sidewalk-ends-businesses-keep-out-homeless-with-fences

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