Cleaning Up a Place Unsheltered People Call “Home”

One area in which my family’s business provides services is homeless encampment cleanup. At this juncture in time, homeless encampments can be found throughout the city and county of Los Angeles. This includes not only Skid Row and locations downtown but in some of the high-end neighborhoods where a person might not immediately expect to find a homeless encampment.

Recently, we were contacted to cleanup a homeless encampment that had arisen on private property. In this instance, the homeless encampment developed on the grounds of a private school.

While many homeless encampments in the greater Los Angeles area are located on public property, there are numerous instances in which these settlements occur on privately owned land. Oftentimes, these encampments occur in or around vacant buildings or on vacant lots. On the other hand, there are instances in which homeless encampments spring up on private property that is fully in use, as was the case with the camp at this school.

In this case, a group of homeless people had cut through a chain link fence that encompassed part of the property. The penetrated area was at the edge of the premises and was well-hidden by bushes and trees. The people occupying the homeless encampment went undetected for what could have been a decent period of time. They went unnoticed until the landscaper for the school discovered the encampment on the property.

The police were called to shutdown the encampment and to remove the homeless people from the premises. In Los Angeles county, including in the different cities and the unincorporated areas, there are different ordinances that address homeless encampments. They do vary somewhat from one community to another.

With that said, if a homeless encampment rises on public property, it will not be immediately taken down by the city. Indeed, it might not be taken down at all. The same is not the case when a homeless encampment develops on private property. When an encampment occurs on private property, the people living in the camp are trespassers and have no right to be on the premises. The property owner has the legal right to have the people living in a homeless encampment on their premises removed with all deliberate speed. This was the case at the private school.

There is something of a balancing act involved with eliminating a homeless encampment of this nature. Certainly, the property owner has every right to have the encampment and its occupants removed from the premises. With that said, the plight of so many homeless people doesn’t escape the hearts and minds of people confronted with the task of dealing with a homeless encampment.

For example, an effort will be made to give people living in an encampment on private property an opportunity to retrieve their belongings. This was precisely the situation in regard to the encampment at the private school.

Another element of removing this type of camp from private property is homeless encampment cleanup. That is where my business comes in. We provide homeless encampment cleanup, as we did in regard to the private school.

One of the other members of my professional team came with me to the school to address the cleanup of the encampment. When we arrived, the police were on hand escorting the encampment’s occupants off of the premises. The people being removed from the school grounds were provided the chance to pack up their belongings.

Although we are always respectful to all people we encounter when called upon for a homeless encampment, including everyone from the residents of the camp to people in the surrounding neighborhood to law enforcement, we do understand that tensions can mount. In this case, in a proactive measure, the police offered to my team member and I security at no charge while we cleaned up the encampment. 

This encampment was fairly small in size, perhaps providing a makeshift home to about a dozen people. The cleanup process involving both my team member and I took a total of about three hours or six “person hours” to complete.

We never know for certain what type of cleanup situation we might face when we are called to address a homeless encampment. This homeless encampment proved to be fairly typical of what we oftentimes encounter for this type of job.

The items we found at the homeless encampment when we began the cleanup were fairly standard and included:

  • Tents
  • Sleeping bag
  • Carpeting
  • Wooden shipping pallets
  • Large patio umbrella
  • Household trash
  • Razor blades
  • Child’s bike

Although this was not the case with this particular encampment, we were not left to cleanup human feces and urine. Evidently the occupants of this particular encampment were able to find facilities somewhere.

We did find one used needle. In many cases, we’ll find more used needles at the site of an encampment. These tossed needles likely had been used by occupants of encampments to inject illicit drugs like heroin or meth. We did find a few empty containers that appeared to have contained marijuana.

The people who live in a particular homeless encampment can come from different walks of life. There can be families in a homeless encampment. There can be working people in an encampment as well as children attending school. There can also be occupants that are involved in what fairly can be called nefarious activities.

A homeless encampment can provide shelter to people involved in the drug trade.

In the case of this homeless encampment on the grounds of a private school, we came upon numerous Amazon packages with labels that obviously had been summarily ripped off. This led me to conclude that someone (or more than one person) who had been at the homeless encampment may have been involved in stealing Amazon delivers from neighborhood homes or even businesses.

We also found the bolt cutters that likely were used to cut through the chain link fence. I certainly realized the importance for bold cutters for a person who is part of a homeless encampment. Bolt cutters permit access to spaces like the grounds of the school but also to vacant buildings that may have gates or doors that have been padlocked shut. While we were working, a resident of the encampment returned with a police officer in two to retrieve his bolt cutters.

As we went about cleaning up the encampment, a few more people came by to collect their belongings. When we were about done, a father showed up with his son, who I guessed to be a couple of years older than my own boy. They were at the site to retrieve the boy’s bike. I could see great relief in the father’s eyes that the bike was still around. And the young boy … he was joyful.

While I always leave a homeless encampment cleanup with mixed emotions. The existence of encampments is challenging for the people who need to live in such camps as well as for the neighbors who live around them.