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LA's Trash Trucks Could Start Making Regular Stops At Homeless Encampments

(Gabriel Cortes/LAist)
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As L.A.'s homeless population grows, so do piles of trash near encampments. The city spends millions of dollars on periodic sweeps to clear away tents and debris, but residents soon return and the accumulation begins anew.

Some homeless people and their advocates are now demanding the city provide something simpler - garbage cans and regular trash pickups.

And that's what's in a new plan Mayor Eric Garcetti asked the Los Angeles city Bureau of Sanitation to create.

It aims at improving the health and cleanliness of the most concentrated homeless sites around the city. That means garbage containers and scheduled collections, toilets and sinks for handwashing, and possibly hiring homeless people to staff the hygiene stations.

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Costing as much as $8.6 million, it would add 47 new staffers to the 212 who already deal with homeless encampments.

What do homeless people do with their trash now?

A good example is the tent city on both sides of Alvarado Blvd. under the 101 Freeway. It's been there for years. Dozens of tents and pop-up shelters with blue tarp walls for privacy are protected from the sun and rain here. And when you walk down the row of shelters, you don't see much trash on the sidewalk.

Until -- you get to this one big pile of trash on a slope just beyond the overpass.

(Gabriel Cortés/KPCC)

This is one of their regular trash dumping places. When I was there on June 6, the heap had takeout containers, and some open plates of food. An empty package of Oreos, miscellaneous blankets and pads, and a shopping cart full of junk. It was an unhygienic rat magnet.

RELATED: The Story of The Mysterious (Pet) Rat Infestation At An Orange County Homeless Encampment

It looks a mess, but piling trash here is how the 40-some residents of this underpass keep their own tent spaces cleaner.

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"I throw it on the side right there like everybody else," says Michelle Figueroa, who has lived under the overpass for a few years. She'd like to see the city provide a better place for their garbage.

She gets trash bags from Tommy Navarrette, the paid attendant who staffs a pair of portable toilets placed nearby under a city contract.

(Gabriel Cortés/KPCC.)

"Some of them do their best to be organized and clean about it," Navarrette says. "They'll bag it up or they'll come ask for bags. Others just dump on that corner over there or come and dump right here."

His trash can isn't big enough to accommodate all the garbage generated there. Instead, he wants the city to commit to regular pickups.

"If it's a matter of a budget, let's make a budget for it, because it's a need we're throwing so much money, you know, as a county into helping the homeless. Let's let that part be a part of the budget because it's a part of the homeless problem."

Another long-time resident, Michael Carbajal, agrees. "We just need dumpsters here," he says. "Not no trash cans, dumpsters."

What has been the city's past answer to trash accumulations?

These trash piles often inspire neighboring businesses and residents to complain to the city's 3-1-1 service request line. And those complaints can trigger the city to come in and clear away the encampment.

With only a day or two of notice, residents have to pack up and move off the site before sanitation workers and police come in with pressure washers and bleach for a deep cleaning.

But other sweeps occur even without advance warning, meaning residents can lose what little they have, including medications, documents, blankets and other essentials.

"We already got nothing," Carbajal says. But the sweeps "clear us out. And then we lose more. What that does to a person's mental stability isn't cool."

(Gabriel Cortés/KPCC.)

But do the homeless encampment sweeps work?

City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice and coastal areas, says they don't.

He argues that says the city spends $30 to $40 million dollars a year on encampment cleanups but without a clear goal that improves public health or moves people into housing.

"And that is a phenomenally large amount of money to be spending for a program that absolutely nobody is satisfied with," Bonin said.

He says the sanitation workers who do the cleanups, and police who provide security, dislike the confrontations that can occur as people are ordered to move their belongings.

The periodic sweeps only briefly displace the encampments, so the residents and businesses who called in complaints to the city's 3-1-1 service line are left dissatisfied.

And homeless people themselves find the cleanups disruptive.

Bonin favors regular trash pickups at homeless sites, echoing a demand by a coalition of homeless services groups called Services Not Sweeps.

The case for garbage service at homeless encampments

Bonin says the city does not have alternate housing for the tens of thousands of people who are unhoused. And courts have ruled that a person who has no alternative place to live has a right to exist in the public right-of-way.

Encampments aren't disappearing any time soon, so the city needs to better manage the health risks they create, Bonin says.

"For me it's a matter of practicality," he says. "Do we have people leaving trash on the streets with the periodic cleanup or do we have trash receptacles with regular pickup?"

That view puts him at odds with those who say any services that make encampments more livable just makes them more permanent.

Deputy Mayor Christine Miller, who heads up Garcetti's homeless initiatives, says homeless people want to keep their places clean.

"We've all seen the man, you know, sweeping sort of the stoop of his tent," Miller says. "We know that if we give people the opportunity to have regular predictable services, just like you and I do in our homes, that there will be less debris and trash to pickup when we have more comprehensive cleanups."

And she says more cans and regular pickups are part of an eventual answer.

The city has already put out more than 100 trash cans and provides daily trash pickup on Skid Row and in Venice where the most concentrated populations of homeless people live.

And there's a pilot project to provide regular trash services to a very few other locations - like those closest to interim housing projects.

The interest in extending that service is there, but the funding and an extensive roll-out strategy is not, she says.

That's where the mayor's new plan comes in. If approved by the City Council, it could improve the public health at many of the city's most concentrated homeless encampments.