Evicted four months ago from their Highland Park apartment, Louis Morales and his 18-year-old stepson, Arthur Valenzuela, live half-hidden by brush along the nearby Arroyo Seco riverbed.
Morales, 49, keeps a framed bible verse and a stuffed monkey in his tent. Water hauled by bike from a park heats up on the camp stove.
Next door, their friend Johnny Salazar fixes bikes and shattered computer screens on the cheap for people who live in the neighborhood. A brother and sister Morales has known for years live up the river, and three couples stay down by the bridge.
“Everybody here is from Highland Park,” Valenzuela said. “We don’t allow other people.”
Over the last two years, street encampments have jumped their historic boundaries in downtown Los Angeles, lining freeways and filling underpasses from Echo Park to South Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a city-county agency, received 767 calls about street encampments in 2014, up 60% from the 479 in 2013.
Some residents believe the city is exporting its downtown homeless problem to their neighborhoods. But social service agencies and volunteers say it isn’t that simple. They say that although downtown development and skid row cleanups are squeezing out some homeless people, many camps are filled with locals.
Soaring rents, closed shelters and funding cutbacks are pushing residents from neighborhoods such as Highland Park and Boyle Heights into the streets, where they cling to familiar turf.
“Homeless people, especially the mentally ill, they don’t like new,” said Senior Lead Officer Gina Chovan of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Northeast Division. “They want to stay where they know all the nooks and crannies.”
Bound by court decisions, the city has largely quit breaking up homeless groups and confiscating their trash and belongings, leaving the camps to grow and multiply.
Whether homeless people are more numerous or simply more visible could be answered by the biennial tally taking place this week.
As many as 6,000 volunteers will go out Tuesday through Thursday searching for homeless people living in alleys, riverbeds, cars and RVs. For the first time, homeless people will be asked about their gender identity, domestic violence and prison histories, and years of military service — information that could better track where they came from and why.