The following letter was submitted by Mount Washington resident Rob Schraff. The views within are not necessarily those of Highland Park-Mount Washington Patch? Want to sound off about something? E-mail editor David Fonseca at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Above is a picture of the traffic island at Figueroa and York, and what follows is the story of the fence that now surrounds this public space. It is a story of the struggle over who gets to use this public space, who controls this public space, and even what kind of public space this is. Is it a park? A memorial? A sidewalk and a few benches on a traffic island?
This is also a story about the conflict over not only this very small, very local public space, but also something like 400 more public spaces, big and small, all over Los Angeles. Including the park around City Hall used by Occupy L.A. protesters as well as hundreds of other city parks used by the most powerless and vilified among the poor--the homeless--to sleep.
The traffic island at York and Figueroa has for some decades been a place where homeless and other transient or precariously employed people congregate. There are also a number of fast-food options, a liquor store and a bar nearby. The traffic island is also reputed to be a drug market, and cases of using a nearby city parking lot as a toilet have been reported. The traffic island also provides a convenient L.A. location for nearby city police agencies, most notably South Pasadena, to dump or push their most problematic homeless. Perhaps by definition, these are the most chronically homeless, the most addicted, the most intractably mentally ill.
As a result of both Iraq Wars and the war in Afghanistan, and the all-volunteer U.S. military that relies heavily on working class enlistment, Highland Park has lost perhaps more than its fair share of sons and daughters to military service over the last few decades. A local veteran’s group, , has successfully lobbied politicians and sought other funding to add a flag pole and memorial plaques to the already publicly-provided benches and planters in the traffic island.
And so, even prior to Memorial Day 2012, the use of the traffic island had become contested, particularly around the figure of , himself a veteran. Sheffield had a local reputation as someone who kept some measure of order on the traffic island. However, Sheffield, a Los Angeles native with family who lives in Highland Park, refused the offer of relocation to a center for homeless veterans in Inglewood.
He also had the choice of Sylmar, the nearest county facility offering walk-in homeless services, or Skid Row, which many Highland Park homeless fear because they often cannot secure beds and the environs are more dangerous than where they have lived. This seemed, according to , to place Sheffield beyond all help.
According to David Bloom, Commander of American Legion Post 206, in the comments section of a related
“I and the members of American Legion Post 206 care for all in need, veteran or not, but we will not allow the drug deals and overnight camping to continue. If the homeless situation there continues we will return also to keep the Veterans Memorial Square sacred.”
Thus it became so: the traffic square was claimed by veterans as a sacred space, the “Veteran’s Square Memorial” with clear limits of acceptable public behavior set by the American Legion and targeting, among others, veteran Gary Sheffield. Despite claims of wanting to work for a solution, this group also advocated the restriction of public restroom use and prevented local homeless advocates from setting up a regularly-serviced pit toilet nearby, arguing that basic sanitation would somehow “enable” the homeless.
On Memorial Day, 2012 the the fence went up. The fence was originally erected, according to council offices, to allow for the cleanup of the traffic island/memorial a few days before a public Memorial Day celebration sponsored by local officials and the American Legion.
However, at the Memorial Day celebration, Councilmember Ed Reyes announced that he and Councilmem José Jose Huizar, in whose district the traffic island would soon be located thanks to redistricting, were asking to transfer the “Memorial Square” from the authority of the . This would allow enforcement of the new anti-homeless, anti-Occupy, written by Huizar. It was also announced the fence will remain up until this bureaucratic transfer to a new authority with more police powers was complete.
Not by coincidence, this deception and ensuing backroom paper shuffle allows new anti-occupy, anti-sleeping-in-park regulations, and harsher enforcement of existing rules, sought by Huizar to limit Occupy’s presence around City Hall.
“We just need to band together and support the efforts to keep the Square clean because there will be a conflict once that temporary fence is taken down. I will be there.”
After the fence went up, further disposed homeless people appealed to the only person they trusted in the community – Rebecca Prine. Prine is a licensed psychiatric social worker who founded, on her own time, Recycled Resources. Recycled Resources provides local homeless people food, blankets, clothing, personal hygiene items and bus tokens to locations where drop-in services are provided. Relationships have also been built helping two people in the last year to get psychiatric disability benefits and Section 8 housing. (Full disclosure – I have made very small contributions of money and time to Recycled Resources.)
One homeless woman, a resident of Highland Park since 1977, was particularly distressed and Ms. Prine recounted her story in her Patch blog The commentary became not only vitriolic, but threatening. American Legion Post Commander David Bloom made several comments critical of not only the homeless, but the efforts of Recycled Resources:
‘…bringing a bunch of socks and underwear and food once a month under the title of "outreach" is not improving anything. It is just prolonging peoples' stay in a place they should not be staying...I have seen Gary expose himself in public… I am not going to sit by for one extra minute as our Memorial falls deeper and deeper into the worst corner in Highland Park.”
“When the fence comes down and the partyers return, the veterans in HP will be there to move them out. Please know that also.”
One commenter, with the moniker Nimby Pimp, advocated action to be taken against Ms. Prine and Recycled Resources’ attempts to provide the homeless sanitary supplies, a few necessities, and information about basic services:
“This self-appointed savior has clearly decided that she, not neighbors, not the community at large, not elected officials and not other organizations who have offered aid, knows what is best. It would be in the community's interest to communicate our concerns about Ms. Prine to any and all sponsors of Recycled Resources and to our elected officials.”
Councilmember Huizar has made the people’s use of parks increasingly criminal and, through bureaucratic sleight-of-hand, has turned a traffic island into a park. As a result, both Occupy and the homeless in parks across Los Angeles will be subject to increased police harassment and violence--and threats against the homeless in Highland Park can be freely made by Commander Bloom.
So what happens when the fence comes down? Will the homeless re-occupy the traffic square-memorial-park? Will Commander Bloom follow through on his threats? Most importantly, will the City of Los Angeles and Councilman Huizar make any effort to address the real problems of addiction, mental illness and housing, or continue pursuing policies designed to demean, dehumanize and criminalize Highland Park’s homeless?