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An LA City Councilmember helped shelter an unhoused veteran. Months later his office organized their displacement.

An LA City Councilmember helped shelter an unhoused veteran. Months later his office organized their displacement.

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An unhoused resident of Los Angeles tries to protect his belongings amid a clean-up effort by city workers in February, 2021.
An unhoused resident of Los Angeles tries to protect his belongings amid a clean-up effort by city workers in February, 2021.
(Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Months after being run over by a car just before the city shut down due to the pandemic, 68-year-old Lionel Morales found himself living outside of a vacated restaurant in Filipinotown. Morales knew his days would be numbered there but it was a safe place in a neighborhood that he was familiar with, where he could heal from his injuries.

Then a family-owned Hawaiian restaurant, Aloha Catering, moved into the space and began making renovations. One day, just before Aloha opened their doors for business, a crew of sanitation workers and police descended on the encampment where Morales was living, forcing him and a tight-knit group to move elsewhere.

Morales described the experience to me as “terrifying” and “devastating,” weeks later. “It was really uncertain what was going to happen next,” Morales told me. “Everybody went their own way.”

The Vietnam War veteran said that as a result of the clearing he lost warm clothing, just as temperatures that week dropped into the 40’s at night, as well as a cane. After injuring his leg during a hit and run, this was the latest in a series of roadblocks that Morales encountered while trying to get back on his feet.

In addition to losing belongings, the displacement also pushed Morales further away from resources. In the weeks following, outreach workers from Street Watch LA–a community run homeless advocacy group–scrambled to locate Morales. “I remember Lionel lost his cane and needed warm clothes and blankets,” Katy Hammer, an outreach volunteer with Street Watch LA at the time, told me that winter. “I got all of these things for him but I had the hardest time locating him. I was basically driving all around Filipinotown trying to find him.”

According to the city’s leading agency on homelessness, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), displacement exacerbates homelessness, making it less likely that people will get off the streets. 

Just before the pandemic, the city shifted its approach to addressing sanitation concerns at encampments. In the summer of 2019, Mayor Eric Garcetti launched a new program that he claimed moved away from a “complaint-driven model for cleanups.” The goal was to be more services-driven, while cutting down on illegal dumping.

In many instances though, complaints still translate to increased cleanups.

In the case of Mr. Morales, emails that I obtained through a records request between the local city council office and Aloha Catering, show that the “cleaning” was initiated after a complaint from Aloha.

We need huge assistance to helping (sic) to get the homeless away from our front door access to our restaurant and off our property so we’re able to open our doors [on November 1],” someone associated with Aloha Catering wrote in an October email. 

That evening, Juan Fregoso, a field representative for Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell at the time responded by offering to schedule a call for the following week. “The City is limited in what we can do to remove anyone from the public right of way, but we will try to assist where we can.” Fregoso noted that it would be “very difficult” to accommodate the restaurant's opening date. “Unfortunately this is not a quick process,” he wrote.

Five days after reaching out to O’Farrell’s office, Aloha Catering received an email from Sean Starkey, another one of Mitch O’Farrell’s field deputies at the time. Starkey thanked the business for reaching out and informed them that “City Services” was out at the location to address their concerns. Starkey added that they would “return as needed.”

That day, I witnessed sanitation workers clearing the encampment while police officers blocked off the nearest corner, and employees from nearby businesses observed from a distance.

When I reached out to Eugene Hong from Aloha Catering, he told me that while they were doing repairs to the building, neighbors reportedly complained to them about crime, drugs and rodents, associated with the encampment. “I felt their frustrations,” he told me.

Hong’s neighbors had a suggestion. “Our neighbors said to call 311 and make complaints, and we did.” Hong added that after repeated visits, officers with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) also suggested that they complain to the local council office and call 311.

In emails to O’Farrell’s office, Hong claimed that the encampment blocked their ADA compliant entrance. He made the same claims when I reached out for comment. However, photos that were sent to O’Farrell’s office make it clear that the encampment had moved further down the sidewalk, away from the entrance. In one of the photos emailed to O’Farrell’s office, the photographer is standing on the ramp.

Gabriel Miranda, from the city's sanitation department confirmed with me that the complaint was initially filed as an “ingress/egress” violation but when the sanitation department arrived to address it, they found that there was no violation.

Miranda said ultimately the encampment was cleared on the basis that there were “line of sight health hazards” (such as needles, urine and feces) and because there wasn’t 36 inches of passable space on the sidewalk.

Morales admits that residents of the encampment struggled with drug addiction. But he says the sense of community kept everyone safe. Ultimately, being close and sticking together led to Morales saving someone’s life after they overdosed. He happened to have a dose of Narcan, a life saving medicine that treats opioid overdose. “It was my duty to make sure that he can see this next morning,” Morales told me.

Morales always knew his days in front of the restaurant were numbered, and he doesn’t place blame on the business owners, but he says the sweep was abrupt and traumatizing. The 68 year old didn’t recall receiving any written notice about the cleaning.

When reached for comment, Tony Arranaga, Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s communication director at the time, told me: “We submitted the request for service at the location, and as you are aware, the department follows protocols and guidelines when addressing these sites.”

While most comprehensive cleanups in the city were suspended during the pandemic, “spot cleanings” were permitted, which allowed the city to remove “line of sight hazards” such as needles, feces or other hazardous materials.

Ironically, several months earlier, O’Farrell’s office was instrumental in getting Morales into a hotel room through Project RoomKey–a program that converted vacant hotel rooms into space for the unhoused to quarantine during the pandemic. But the situation didn’t work out for Morales. The hotel that he was assigned to was located on the Westside, far away from the community that he was familiar with, and within weeks, he was back on the streets.

A few months after helping Morales get into shelter, O’Farrell’s office organized the sweep that separated him from valuable resources and pushed him deeper into homelessness. Eventually Aloha catering opened and Morales moved across the street, where he continued to be impacted by sweeps.

This is a specific example of how sanitation cleanings are used as a pretext to displace people living on the streets and the impacts that they can have on folks. But it’s not the only example. 

Each year the city spends millions of dollars on these “cleanings.” Sometimes they’re less harmful but there are countless stories like the story of Lionel Morales, in which unhoused residents have lost vital resources during these efforts.

In particular, Morales’ experience highlights some of the health implications that people face as a result of displacement. Fortunately Morales survived the cold nights that followed after he lost warm clothing but not all unhoused residents do. A data analysis from L.A.TACO found that more homeless people die from hypothermia in Los Angeles than in New York City and San Francisco combined.

Using data skills that I recently acquired during the 2020 Data Fellowship with the Center for Health Journalism, as well as conventional on-the-ground reporting, I plan on looking at the correlations between negative health outcomes and sanitation cleanings. The project is supported by a 2022 California Impact Fund grant.

Unfortunately, stories like Lionel Morales’ are not rare. We know this from years of on-the-ground reporting highlighting individual stories. These are people whose lives are already deeply precarious without the added trauma of being forcibly relocated. Morales continued to be impacted by sweeps and his community became more and more fragmented. He described himself as “the last man standing.” I can’t remember a time when I saw him that he didn’t bring up either the hit-and-run or the sweep in front of Aloha Catering.

The last time I saw Morales, he was excited because after years of waiting, he’d finally secured a roof over his head. But he couldn't walk across the street on his own safely, he didn't have a phone or a way of getting around, and he couldn't afford to buy himself food. He was frail but optimistic. 

I assumed that he was doing better but after not hearing from him or seeing him for weeks, I grew worried. That's when I decided to check the coroner's database of recent deaths. Shockingly, I found Morales’ name. He died on February 16 in a hospital, at 69 years of age.

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randomly came across this story and as a fellow resident to this area of 42years, I was truly touched and saddened to hear that Lionel has passed.

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