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CHP Removes Activists From Empty El Sereno Homes Owned By Caltrans

CHP officers, activists and residents gather as officers face off with protesters on Sheffield Ave. and Poplar Blvd. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)
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Additional reporting by Brian Feinzimer and Lita Martinez.

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An activist decries the actions of CHP officers and Caltrans on Sheffield Ave. and Popular Blvd. in El Sereno. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

California Highway Patrol officers detained several people during a tense Thanksgiving eve standoff after activists occupied a number of empty El Sereno homes owned by Caltrans.

The transit agency previously bought the homes with taxpayer money (and, in some cases, eminent domain) as part of its plans to connect the 710 freeway in Alhambra to the 210 freeway in Pasadena. After six decades of debate and lawsuits, that project was officially killed in 2018.

Activists use their bodies to block CHP vehicles from leaving with detained "reclaimers" on Sheffield Ave. and Poplar Blvd. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

Activists from Reclaim and Rebuild our Community think Caltrans should allow people who are experiencing homelessness to live in the empty houses.

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In a press release issued before the action, the organization said:

"We, a group of houseless activists and families, are taking this situation into our own hands... The system has failed all of us -- especially communities of color by creating this housing crisis which has worsened with COVID and the economic crisis... In the midst of this multiple layered crisis, the governments are holding on to thousands of buildings... that should be used for affordable housing."

CHP officers attempt to gain control of a crowd of activists and protesters on Sheffield Ave. and Poplar Blvd. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)
LAist has reached out to the California Highway Patrol to confirm details of yesterday's action but has not yet heard back from the agency.

Photojournalist Brian Feinzimer, who documented the protest, says when he arrived in the early afternoon, he saw a handful of CHP officers stationed outside a few houses. When he returned at around 9 p.m., he estimates he saw approximately 30 activists and 40 to 50 CHP officers, some in tactical or riot control gear, facing off in front of a house near the intersection of Concord Ave. and Midvale Place.

An activist who supports the "reclaimers" burns smoke in a ceremonial fashion between a scrimmage line of CHP officers and protesters. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)
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According to Feinzimer, one of the CHP officers declared an unlawful assembly, but protestors ignored the announcement and continued demonstrating.

"CHP officers were moving between multiple homes to clear out activists," Feinzimer says. "It was a cat and mouse game, sort of. The activists were using themselves as a physical shield to try to prevent officers from getting into the homes."

An activist who supports the "reclaimers" speaks with a resident of Sheffield Ave. who opposes the actions of activists. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

Lydia Ramos, a resident of Keats Street in El Sereno, told Feinzimer she does not support the activists and most of her neighbors feel the same way.

"I am all for advocacy for homelessness," Ramos said. "There's all kinds of resources out there, especially right now... but if they choose to come and just illegally, blatantly think that, 'I can take over,' I'm not okay with that.'"

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Activists undertook a similar action in March of this year, "reclaiming" an empty home at 3135 Sheffield Avenue in El Sereno.

Earlier this month, members of Reclaim and Rebuild our Community announced they would be moving into some of those properties legally. It's part of an unprecedented partnership between Caltrans and the city of L.A.

The houses, which had previously been vacant, will be leased to the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles for up to three years. During that time, people such as "reclaimer" Marta Escudero, who spent more than a year and a half couch-surfing before occupying one of the El Sereno properties with her two daughters, will be allowed to live in the homes while they look for a more permanent living situation.

Ramos said the past occupation had been a magnet for drugs and crime.

CHP officers remove an activist from a vacant home on Sheffield Ave. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

Feinzimer says that the CHP briefly retreated, then showed up en masse with more officers. At that point, according to Feinzimer, approximately two dozen officers formed a perimeter around the home while a small tactical entry team made its way inside.

"As they are entering the home, the activists outside are shouting, 'Shame on you? What are you doing? Why are you using these weapons?," Feinzimer says.

A CHP tactical team removes an activist from a vacant El Sereno home owned by Caltrans. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

CHP officers carried a few people out of the home and detained a couple more who were standing outside it. As officers attempted to move the detainees into patrol cars, protestors tried to block them, creating a standoff at Sheffield Ave. and Poplar Blvd.

"It basically turned into a scrimmage line and protest between 10 p.m. and midnight," Feinzimer says. "The CHP tried to disperse the group but the group didn't disperse. At one point, they fired some sort of audible munition into the air, kind of like a flash bang."

A Caltrans employee observes the standoff between demonstrators and CHP officers while they clear out a vacant Caltrans home in El Sereno on Wednesday, November 25, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

Sometime between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, the CHP broke down its scrimmage line and left, according to Feinzimer. He says when he returned at approximately 2 a.m. and drove around, he says it looked as though the CHP had reassembled its teams

"I couldn't get any closer because several streets had been blocked off," Feinzimer says.

A demonstrator pleads with a CHP officer standing guard over a home in El Sereno while a tactical team removes activists who had occupied the residence. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

The CHP has not responded to LAist's request for comment. A spokesperson from Caltrans issued a statement that says:

"Vacant homes along the State Route 710 that were broken into are unsafe and uninhabitable for occupants. As such, Caltrans requested the CHP remove trespassers so that the properties can be re-secured and boarded up.

Caltrans has been working with local governments to lease several of its available properties for use as temporary emergency shelters. Recently, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles signed a lease with Caltrans to use 22 vacant Caltrans-owned properties in the 710 corridor for the city's transitional housing program.

As Caltrans continues to sell the remaining homes on the corridor, it is committed to working with local entities and other stakeholders to ensure the properties are used for affordable housing."

A teenage girl detained during the protest screams in the back of a CHP vehicle. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)
Caltrans owns 163 homes in the 710 corridor.

In 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that allows city entities and nonprofit tenants residing at Caltrans properties along the 710 corridor to purchase the homes at fair market value. But many of these homes still remain unsold and unoccupied.

A CHP tactical team, armed with assault rifles, enters a vacant Caltrans owned home occupied by activists. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

A scuffle breaks between activists and CHP officers as they attempt to remove detained "reclaimers." (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

Neighbors watch as protesters and CHP officers face off on Sheffield Ave. on Wednesday, November 25, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

An activist stands with a CHP officer's baton pointed at his stomach as officers attempt to gain control of a protest on Sheffield Ave. on Wednesday, November 25, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

A scuffle breaks out between activists and CHP officers who are attempting to remove detained "reclaimers." (Brian Feinzimer for LAist)