By Joel Sappell and Dominic Massimino
Maria Elena Ramirez has found purpose in her community along the street.
Wearing surgical gloves, she gently picks up syringes around her Eagle Rock encampment, drops them into a plastic container and gives them to a nonprofit healthcare provider that rolls up every Friday at 11 a.m. with a clean supply for her. Ramirez distributes them to keep the addicts around her safer.
Meanwhile, she pesters her encampment neighbors to get vaccinated and to be regularly tested for COVID. She encourages them to be more responsive to outreach workers trying to improve the quality of their lives.
“I’m in everybody’s business,” says Ramirez, standing outside the tent she shares with her reclusive partner of 33 years. “He’s rarely out, and I’m everywhere.”
But she’ll soon be relinquishing her role as the self-styled mom of Figueroa Street with a journey that, while just a walk up the road, is miles from her life today. On March 29, Ramirez and most everyone else in Eagle Rock’s encampments will become the newest participants in a high-stakes housing experiment playing out across Los Angeles.
On that day, they’ll move into the city’s tenth “tiny home village,” a 48-unit interim housing site on a former parking lot on Figueroa, across from the Eagle Rock Recreation Center, where residents will encounter a far more structured and supportive setting.
Ramirez, 56, says she’ll miss some of the responsibilities that have filled her days during her two-plus years in the encampment under the 134 Freeway. But with an optimism that belies her struggles, she says: “I’m sure I’ll find another way to make up for that. It’s just something that’s a part of me. I know that everything is going to fall into place.”
A place to call home?
Tiny homes represent a new wave of emergency housing in Los Angeles—a way, in concept, to stabilize unhoused people and provide services that move them toward the holy grail of permanent housing.
Already, in just more than a year, nearly 700 of the eight-by-eight-foot homes have been erected—with more in the works. The largest tiny home village in the nation opened in early November in neighboring Highland Park, where 117 units are tucked into a park along the Pasadena Freeway.
Although the public messaging surrounding the development of tiny homes has focused mostly on their potential to restore lives, they’re also fulfilling another crucial need, this one for the elected officials and policymakers who’ve borne the brunt of the public’s rising ire over encampments.
By offering shelter to homeless people within broad “catchment” areas around the villages, the city can ban the reestablishment of encampments under an ordinance passed by the City Council last year. Municipal Code 41.18 prohibits, among other things, the obstruction of a “street, sidewalk or other public right-of-way.”
“Special enforcement zone” signs already have been installed for the Figueroa camp and on West Broadway under the 2 Freeway, the site of Eagle Rock’s other longstanding encampment.
Some of the more outspoken homeless activists contend that public appeasement, and not the wellbeing of tiny home residents, is the true goal of the villages.
“It’s a dog kennel, it’s not a house,” says Theodore Henderson, who hosts a podcast called “We the Unhoused.” “I call them tiny sheds.”
In the era of COVID, tiny homes have been considered safer than the communal, or “congregate,” shelters that traditionally have provided emergency housing.
Each insulated-plastic unit has two beds, four windows, an air-conditioner, heater and locking door. Residents share large hygiene trailers equipped with private toilets and showers. They’re served three meals a day at outside tables. The villages are pet-friendly, and there are on-site laundry facilities.
Residents are allowed to bring with them only enough to fill roughly two large trash bags, or 60 gallons—a tall order for many of the unhoused who have accumulated mounds of belongings.
No drugs, alcohol or weapons are allowed inside. Residents place banned items in so-called amnesty lockers, which they alone may access once outside the secured grounds. This accommodation reflects a guiding principle of the tiny home villages—to create a “low barrier” to live there.
Officials believe it’s more important to get people off the street and into an environment with services than, for example, to unrealistically mandate sobriety as a condition for entering the program.
Residents must agree, however, to numerous on-site rules.
The Boulevard Sentinel reviewed the rules for six sites run by the faith-based Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission. Among many other things, they require residents to comply with “quiet hours,” undergo searches whenever they return to the grounds and refrain from any violent, harassing or disrespectful conduct toward residents or staffers. Individuals can be “exited” from the program for transgressions.
Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de León’s field deputy for the area, Sarah Flaherty, says many people in Eagle Rock have been supportive of the soon-to-open village. But others, given the low barrier for entry, have expressed concerns about the community’s quality of life. She tries to set realistic expectations.
“They want us to tell them that once people go into these housing sites, they are cured. They don’t have substance use, there’s no fights, everything is champagne and roses,” Flaherty says. “But it’s not.” Quoting her boss, whose district includes Skid Row and the highest concentration of homelessness in the city, she says: “It’s messy.”
Inside the biggest tiny home village
In advance of the Eagle Rock village’s opening, the Boulevard Sentinel set out to take an in-depth look at the challenges and lessons unfolding at the much larger neighboring site, located on a remote strip of the Arroyo Seco Park in the gentrifying community of Highland Park.
Two reporters spent three weeks interviewing village residents, advocates and local officials. They also reviewed key statistical measures of the village’s operation, which is run by Hope of the Valley under a $3.7 million contract with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, or LAHSA.
The most recent figures provided by Hope of the Valley show that the Arroyo Seco Park site housed between 97 and 127 individuals at any one time from November through February. During that span, 64 people left the facility. Some voluntarily “self-exited.” Others did not. Those individuals, according to Hope of the Valley, were “exited due to threats or acts of violence or due to being hospitalized and needing a higher level of care.”
The agency would not provide a more detailed breakdown of the involuntary exits and its chief executive, Ken Craft, did not respond to an interview request.
One statistic the organization provided stands out above the rest: Since the village’s opening, only one resident has been successfully placed in permanent housing.
Officials concede that the number is disappointing. But they say it largely reflects the impact of the pandemic and a severe shortage of low-income housing that has left limited options for the case workers who develop housing strategies for each resident.
“We want as many people to get permanent housing as possible,” says LAHSA’s director of interim housing, Emily Endrade. “The reality is that we have this gap in permanent housing options so that makes it incredibly hard to fulfill that goal.”
But there are other obstacles, too.
Among them, case workers are having trouble finding supportive or rent-subsidized housing in areas where residents feel they can begin to rebuild their lives.
“If you talk to a lot of the people who are staying in the Arroyo Seco village, they’re from the area. They grew up here,” says Flaherty of De León’s office. “They don’t want to move to a whole other neighborhood because their support network is here.”
Staffing shortages in the Arroyo Seco village and across many social service agencies also have slowed the housing efforts, Flaherty and LAHSA officials say.
“In this very tight labor market—and working in this field—it’s not easy,” Flaherty says. “And frankly, it pays OK but there are a lot of other things that pay better. And you’re being asked to do quite a lot, to navigate a lot of trauma…So it took them [Hope of the Valley] a little longer to staff-up than I think we were hoping for.”
All this suggests that residents in the Arroyo Seco village and beyond are likely to be in their units much longer than the 90-day turnaround housing authorities had hoped to achieve, thus creating a bottleneck for others to get off the street.
The timetable today for finding permanent housing, according to LAHSA: “As quickly as possible.”
Gratitude and growing pains
In July of last year, Craft, the high-profile CEO of Hope of the Valley, participated in a Facebook Live panel hosted by the agency that has been picked to operate Eagle Rock’s tiny home village, Pasadena-based Union Station Homeless Services.
Craft’s Arroyo Seco village was still three months from opening, but his organization at the time was overseeing four others in the San Fernando Valley. During his turn to speak, Craft suggested his residents couldn’t be happier. He said they’d found “a refuge,” “a do-over,“ “an incredible joy.”
“One gentleman told me, ‘I feel like I live in a gated community.’”
But Craft’s entirely upbeat report did not reflect the rocky adjustments and brewing dissatisfaction among some in the villages.
In Arroyo Seco Park, despite the whimsically-painted tiny homes, the village remains a 24/7 work-in-progress as management works to strike a balance between creating a secure environment and a desire by residents for more freedoms.
Many say they’re grateful for a heightened sense of safety and for the services the village provides directly or through referrals to private and governmental agencies. Those have included on-site visits by, among others, a UCLA medical team and Los Angeles County mental health workers.
But others say they continue to feel marginalized. They complain of being disrespected and misunderstood by some staff members who haven’t experienced the traumas of homelessness. “Learn the clientele around you,” advises one resident. Even seemingly small things can take on larger significance, such as one young woman’s complaint that she can’t keep a tiny mirror in her tiny home.
Maria Gonzales, 52, was recently sitting on a curb just beyond the village’s largely concealed entrance, where two uniformed security guards sat under an awning near a stack of amnesty lockers.
Gonzales says she grew up in neighboring Glassell Park but for a year she’d been living either in a car or with a friend after a divorce left her nowhere to go. “I was devastated,” she says.
“I didn’t let my kids know,” she says. “I’ve never been homeless before.”
Gonzales says she learned of the Arroyo Seco village from a community service provider and within two weeks she was in. “It’s a good program,” she says. “I haven’t had no problems. It feels like your little place.” Safely sheltered, she finally let her five children, two of whom are step kids, know of her ordeal. “You should have told me,” one counseled.
Sitting next to Gonzales on the curb was Angel Rodriguez, sipping from a bottle of Jägermeister he’d retrieved from his amnesty locker. The burly local grew up in El Sereno, where he was living on the street before landing a room in a downtown L.A. hotel as part of the COVID-inspired Project Roomkey. “Every day,” he says of being unhoused, “you’re risking your life.”
Asked to sum up his life so far in the tiny homes village, he was direct: “It sucks.” He says the staff is always “just watching us.”
“How do you want us to grow up if you won’t let us grow up?” asks the 42-year-old resident.
Like others—even those who say their experience has been largely positive—he complained about a ban on site visits by family and friends. “Even prisoners get visitors” is a common saying around the village. Says one resident: “Parents being denied the right to reunite with children—why would anyone want to deny this?”
De León’s communications director, Pete Brown, says some restrictions are the result of the pandemic, which has led to two quarantines at the facility and the voluntary departures of a number of residents. But, he notes, “every place you live has some kinds of rules or limitations.”
“We’ve got people on the streets, and especially women, being sexually assaulted every day and the only thing protecting them is a zipper on a tent,” he explains. “So we’re trying to create an environment for people not only to be housed but where they can feel safe and get back on their feet.”
Local homeless advocate Jane Demian says most tiny home residents simply want to be treated with more “respect and dignity.” So Demian and other community members have been working behind the scenes to give Arroyo Seco residents a stronger say in the affairs of the village because, she insists, “nobody listens to them.”
In recent weeks, the residents made sure they were heard loud and clear on one issue that had become a test of their collective will and a symbol of their determination for more independence.
They demanded keys to unlock their tiny homes.
Although residents can bolt their units from inside, they’ve been required to summon staffers to unlock them from the outside, which they complain is demeaning and suggests they are somehow untrustworthy. As Demian put it: “They don’t want to be told, ‘You can’t go into your room unless we open the door for you.’”
Hope of the Valley initially resisted changing the practices and policies it had instituted at the Arroyo Seco site and its other tiny home villages. But with a push from De León’s office, the residents prevailed, and keys are now on the way.
“I think this was big, just to show ownership of their own tiny homes,” says Matthew Tenchavez, who oversees homelessness issues for De León.
One Arroyo Seco resident, who goes by the pseudonym “Mr. Hope,” has emerged as an ambassador of sorts for the village. During Zoom meetings of the Highland Park Neighborhood Council’s homeless committee, he has offered updates on everything from a well-received Super Bowl gathering in the village to the need for more bathrooms to the unacceptable behavior of discourteous and unfriendly staffers.
In an interview with the Boulevard Sentinel, he praised the facility for doing a good job of providing basic necessities, but “it’s the soul that they’re forgetting.”
“Give me a place to lay down my head, give me a meal to fill my stomach…that’s nice,” he says. But that’s not enough, he argues, to motivate some people to truly want to be housed again.
“You need to know them,” he says. “If they played guitar, give them a guitar. If they were a painter, get them some paints. Even if they played video games—whatever connects them to that previous life.”
The program’s ultimate success, says Mr. Hope, will come from being able to “reinvigorate those fond memories of when you had a house, whether it was your house, your mother’s house, whatever. You have got to remind them of that.”
“It’s got to be better”
Gabriel Estrada’s death attests to the high stakes of having a roof, even a tiny one.
Estrada, 38, died in his tent in the Figueroa encampment on February 19 while waiting for the Eagle Rock village to open after months of logistical and red-tape delays. He had turned down a spot in the Arroyo Seco village so he could stay in his hometown, close to his dad.
On that Saturday, in the neighboring tent, George Meza heard Estrada “moaning all night. And then it got real quiet.” He says he had offered to call paramedics but Estrada refused. “It’s made me feel guilty that I didn’t do anything,” says Meza, who is 52.
Had Estrada been living in the tiny home village, Meza says, the staff likely would have intervened to get him help and “he’d still be here.”
(The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner has yet to determine Estrada’s cause of death.)
Meza and the others who’ll be moving into the new village say they’re not expecting an overnight transformation of their lives.
For them, for now, they say it’ll be enough to be rid of the smaller things they confront every day—the theft of a pair of socks by a neighbor, the battle to keep your spot on the sidewalk clean from another person’s encroachment, the need for a break from the noise.
“I think it’ll really be easier,” says Gary Sheffield, who, in his early 70s, has been homeless for more than a dozen years. “I’m going to take it as it comes.”
Maria Ramirez, the encampment mom—or, perhaps more aptly, its Guardian Angel—says she’ll miss interacting with the “very nice” people of Eagle Rock, who have given her food and clothes during her time on Figueroa, in the neighborhood where she was raised.
Ramirez says she came to the encampment after she and her partner lost their mobile home in Las Vegas and police began harassing them. She called her sister in Eagle Rock. “Just get us home, take us back home,” she pleaded. Ramirez says she asked her sister to drop them off at the encampment.
“I felt at home. I know the neighborhood,” says Ramirez, who attended Eagle Rock High School and whose elementary school, Annandale, is just minutes away.
Ramirez says she’s not apprehensive or nervous about the upcoming move.
“I’m really excited,” she says. “It’s got to be better. We’re going to have resources that we don’t have now. It’s been a long stretch here. But I know I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been safe. I try to stay grounded. It’s easy to get lost out here.”
Joel Sappell, a former reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times, lives in Eagle Rock. Dominic Massimino, a recent graduate of Occidental College in Eagle Rock, was a reporter and editor for The Occidental campus newspaper.