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Housing and Homelessness

Time Is Up For El Sereno ‘Reclaimers’ Who Occupied Caltrans Homes During COVID Lockdown

Two women wearing face masks stand side-by-side in front of a porch holding an embroidered mat that says Welcome to Our Home.
Reclaimers Martha Escudero and Sandra Saucedo hold up a welcome mat.
(Courtesy Reclaiming Our Homes)
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An agreement between the city of Los Angeles and unhoused and housing-insecure families living in Caltrans-owned homes in El Sereno is expiring after two years.

Starting next week, the residents of six households will have to leave these homes.

In March of 2020, just as the city went into COVID lockdown, a group of people calling themselves Reclaimers took over around a dozen unoccupied homes owned by the state transportation agency.

Caltrans purchased hundreds of these properties in the 1950s and 1960s, intending to demolish them to build the 710 freeway extension. But the agency canceled the project in 2018, and the homes remained unoccupied.

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“No one should be homeless when homes are empty,” the group wrote on Twitter at the time.

Martha Escudero is a single mother of two daughters, and is one of the Reclaimers.

When she returned to L.A. from living in South America, Escudero found that rents had skyrocketed in her former neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

"We were couch-surfing for over a year,” she said.

In 2019, Escudero learned about Moms 4 Housing. The group had occupied a home in Oakland and then turned it into temporary housing. She then read about the Caltrans homes in El Sereno on Facebook, and reached out to local community members.

They started coming up with a plan to occupy the homes in early 2020. A few months after the group took over the homes, the Housing Authority of Los Angeles (HACLA) was granted a lease of up to three years by Caltrans. HACLA agreed to lease out up to 26 homes as part of a two-year temporary housing program.

"I feel like it was very chaotic at the time and they weren't able to even think about getting us out,” Escudero said.

Escudero says she wants to stay for a third year, if not longer, for her daughters.

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“They go to school in this area, we have a support system, and we're just really comfortable in our home,” she said. “So I don't see why we would move out."

A HACLA spokesperson said the agency has always made it clear that this program would be transitional, and that families could only stay up to two years.

The agency says it has offered everyone resources to find permanent housing.

Escudero said housing options in the community are scarce, and she feels like the city has been pushing her to leave ever since she moved in.

“It just adds a lot of stress and anxiety, and rent is still high,” she said.

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