A Single Mother Who Served: A Homeless Vet is Resigned to Living in a Santa Monica Encampment

My company, Eco Bear, is a family-owned business we started after my military service. Our company provides different types of cleanup and biohazard remediation services throughout Southern California, including in the greater Los Angeles area. Because of our expertise, our company is called upon to assist in homeless encampment cleanup.

In the course of providing our services, we meet people from all walks of life. Not long ago, we were called upon to undertake a homeless encampment cleanup in an upscale suburban community. In order to protect the privacy and safety of people who live in this homeless encampment, I do not make the specific location of the camp public in sharing this experience.

While on the scene, I had the chance to get to know a vet who served in the same time period I was in the military. Anyone who has served knows that conversations and the swapping of stories nearly always occur when a connection is made with someone who served our country in the military at the same general time period.

As a result of work in eliminating health hazards, waste of all types, and rubbish from in and around homeless encampments, the team at my company pays close attention to the homelessness situation in Los Angeles and elsewhere in Southern California. Chronic homelessness in Los Angeles outpaces what is found anywhere else in the United States.

Not long ago, members of the team at Eco Bear had a long discussion with the Rev. Andy J. Bales, the Chief Executive Officer of the Union Rescue Mission to learn more about homelessness and homeless encampments in Los Angeles and Southern California. Located in downtown Los Angeles, an area that had been at the heart of the homeless problem in the city for decades, the Union Rescue Mission is considered one of the largest non-profit organizations of its kind anywhere in the country.

A major element of our discussion was the expansion of homeless encampments throughout the city and county. In basic terms, a homeless encampment is a congregation of unrelated homeless people who come together in what historically have been called “tent cities.” Historically, homeless encampments were found on Skid Row and elsewhere in downtown Los Angeles. That is no longer the case.

In today’s world, my company is called upon to assist in homeless encampment cleanup in locations across the county. This includes homeless encampments that have arisen in upscale neighborhoods in LA. In this particular instance, we were called upon to address the cleanup and biohazard remediation of an encampment that had sprung up some weeks earlier in an upscale suburban community. Up until the past couple of years, homeless people were not often seen in this part of the greater LA area – let alone a full-scale homeless encampment.

You need to keep in mind that in Los Angeles homeless encampment cleanup does not involve arriving at the scene and clearing out everything. Throughout Los Angeles, there are specific protocols that must be followed when it comes to homeless encampment cleanup. Ordinances throughout Los Angeles county do not permit the elimination of a homeless encampment; rather, they permit cleaning and the removal of hazardous materials.

In very basic terms, the cleanup and remediation process is undertaken in a manner that respects the rights and property of homeless people who make up an encampment. The need to protect the rights of homeless individuals and families is balanced against the necessity of eliminating health hazards, waste, and garbage. Not only does the community as a whole benefit from the elimination of health hazards, waste, and garbage, but people who live in a homeless encampment do so as well.

Generally speaking, when a homeless encampment cleanup is scheduled, people living in a particular camp are provided three days’ notice to stow their property during the period of time when the cleanup and remediation will occur.

My team and I arrived at the scene fairly early in the morning. We had visited the site previously and realized we had a tremendous amount of work to undertake and only a limited time to accomplish our objective.

As oftentimes happens, when we arrived to begin work, a number of people who reside in the encampment came up to me with questions about the process and to express concerns that they might have about the cleanup. One of these people was a woman and her teenage sons.

She explained to me that she hadn’t been living in the encampment for very long. In fact, she was an Iraqi war vet who lost her home in foreclosure several months earlier as the result of financial problems her family faced after the extended illness and death of her husband.

She also told me she didn’t have long to visit but wanted basic information about what to expect with the cleanup. She needed to walk to work and her sons were on their way to school. I know many people are stopped short when they hear of a homeless person getting ready to do to work and young people without shelter heading off to school. Many well-intentioned people do not understand that a large number of homeless people are working. Due to the state of the economy, they are not able to earn what oftentimes is called a living wage however – the minimum amount of money to pay for housing, food, clothing, healthcare, and so forth.

“You wonder why I’m not at a shelter, don’t you?” the woman asked me. I admitted that had crossed my mind.

She smiled at me, as if were colleagues discussing a work-related or some other issue of the day. The familiar smile reminded me that we were colleagues in so many ways: fellow Angelenos, fellow vets, parents, and two people interested in the ensuring that hazards that accumulate at a homeless encampment were eliminated for the safety of all people, including those living inside and outside of the camp.

“It’s a fair question. Not only did we lose our home, I lost my car after my husband passed away. I had a job – I have a job, the same one. I needed to stay at a location near my job so that I can walk to and from work. My sons … they also want to stay in the school they’ve been in. They’ve friends that they don’t want to be separated from. There is no shelter in this area. We’d have to go over 10 miles away to take advantage of a shelter. That is just way too far away for me to be able to walk to work … too far away for my boys to be able to get back and forth to and from school,” she explained.

The woman I visited with before we started work added something that surprised me, despite having been involved in this type of homeless encampment cleanup work for some time.

“You know, another thing you may not realize,” the woman said. “The people I work with, the kids my boys go to school with … they do not know we are homeless.”

She added that she and her sons wanted to avoid people in their lives from knowing of their current situation. She had been setting money aside to be able to pay a deposit and have rent money set aside for several months so that she and her sons can get into an affordable housing unit in the not too distant future. “I’m hoping we can get into a home before many people in our lives are any wiser.”

I asked if she didn’t think that her friends and others would be helpful to them if they knew of the situation.

“I’m sure many would be. But, I have my pride. My boys are in high school. They are young men and they have their pride. We’re getting on, we’re getting by. It’s not always easy, of course. But, we came together as a family and decided this is how we want to handle our situation, at least for now,” she said.

As my team and I went about cleaning and remediating the encampment site, I was very mindful of the fact that some of the people occupying the area had lives very much like that of my own family. The need to balance the needs and interests of the community at large with those of homeless individuals and families was in sharp focus.

Postscript

In 2018, a new voter-approved sales tax increase went into effect across Los Angeles County. The quarter-cent sales tax hike is designed to generate funding to eliminate chronic homelessness throughout the county during the coming decade. In addition, the tax is designed to prevent at-risk individuals and families from becoming homeless in the first instance. This is one of the most aggressive, comprehensive efforts to eliminate homelessness in a community found anywhere in the United States.