Homeless families sheltering from COVID-19 in California vacant homes evicted before Thanksgiving

Sarah Parvini
Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles – California Highway Patrol officers forcibly removed people who had “reclaimed” vacant, publicly owned homes in El Sereno late Wednesday – the night before Thanksgiving – amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Videos of the evictions, posted on Twitter, show dozens of officers crowding the street near Sheffield Avenue and Poplar Boulevard around 7 p.m. The officers were met by a wave of protesters, who shouted, “Shame on you!” as authorities moved from door to door removing those who had moved into the homes.

At least one CHP team rammed open the door to one of the homes, video shows.

Activists in March “reclaimed” vacant houses owned by Caltrans to house people amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The evictions came just hours after 20 families moved into the homes owned by Caltrans, arguing that government officials have failed to provide the shelter that’s necessary for them to remain healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was not clear how many people were evicted from the houses. The CHP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Caltrans owns dozens of homes in the area that were purchased years ago as part of a now-failed plan to extend the 710 Freeway. In March, a group of homeless and housing-insecure Angelenos occupied a different group of houses, citing the coronavirus.

Claudia Lara, a member of Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community, said the families who moved in on Wednesday included children as young as 3 months and seniors over 70 who had been living in cars and encampments.

Lara said she watched last night as officers descended on the homes after the group wrapped up a news conference pleading for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s support.

“To do this during the holidays, it is inhumane. It’s really irresponsible,” she said. “Housing is a human right, and all families deserve to have safe shelter, especially during the global pandemic.”

Housing activists sent a letter to Newsom on Wednesday notifying him that people were moving into the houses and asking for his support while those living in the homes used them to “shelter in place” during the pandemic.

“We, people of color, are certainly facing ‘The Darkest Winter’ not only because COVID-19 is again spiking, but because for us, the economic crisis has worsened and the tsunami of evictions is dwarfing the already minuscule number of available affordable housing statewide,” the letter said. “As you said, we are safer if we have the ability to self-quarantine and safely isolate in a home. We therefore ask that you, as Governor, direct Caltrans to allow the new families to immediately turn on all their utilities: heating and running water and electricity are essential to shelter safely in place.”

Newsom and his family are currently in quarantine at their Fair Oaks estate after his children were exposed in two separate incidents to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Records kept by the Los Angeles Times show that in 2015, 37 of the El Sereno homes were listed as “uninhabitable,” including two dozen apartment units. Over the years, residents have complained of break-ins, mold and vermin infestations. That figure appears to have increased in recent years.

In a statement, Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco confirmed that vacant homes along the 710 freeway were “unsafe and uninhabitable.”

“As such, Caltrans requested the CHP remove trespassers so that the properties can be re-secured and boarded up,” Rocco said.

The agency has been working with local governments to lease several of its available properties for use as temporary emergency shelters, he added. He said Los Angeles’ housing authority recently signed a lease to use 22 of the vacant properties owned by Caltrans 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,” Rocco said in the statement.

In March, the families who took over homes in El Sereno said they were inspired by a group of homeless mothers who took similar action in Oakland late last year. Those women took over a vacant, corporate-owned property and, after they were evicted, secured backing from the governor to force the Bay Area property’s sale to a community land trust.