Day 26 – Kaleb Havens

Author: Joe Brizzolara / March 22, 2018

The season of Lent is one of self-denial. It is a season of solemn observance when many Christian traditions call on followers to emulate the suffering of Christ who is purported to have spent 40 days fasting in the desert shortly before his crucifixion. Kaleb Havens, of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, decided to spend this Lent bringing awareness to homelessness in Los Angeles. He is spending 46 days on a hunger strike in Skid Row.

Kaleb has worked in Skid Row since 2013. The Los Angeles Catholic Worker provides 3,000 hot meals a week as well as free medical care and other amenities.

Kaleb is chained to a fence with three locks: one for Skid row, one for mayor Eric Garcetti, and one for Councilmember Jose Huizar whose district includes Skid Row. He says he came up with the idea of a hunger strike “about 10 days” before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Catholic season of Lent.

Los Angeles voters passed measure HHH in 2016, an initiative that authorizes $1.2 billion in bond money to fund homeless housing. But many homeless advocates in Los Angeles believe the money from HHH isn’t hitting the streets quick enough to deal with the growing problem of homelessness. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, L.A. County had 57,794 homeless residents in 2017. That’s up 23% from 2016.

Kaleb Havens believes part of the solution is here in Skid Row. Skid Row’s many vacant buildings, Kaleb believes, should be converted into homeless housing.

_MG_6593

Protesters with the Catholic Worker outside of the office of Councilmember Jose Huizar demanding more action on affordable housing. Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

Kaleb on a conversation he had with Huizar who came to visit him on his hunger strike:

Little policy; little of what’s possible, little of what’s not. I asked for things, he asked for things. He needs activists in the city meetings, in the committees, in the city council meetings, vocalizing promoting the solutions that are in line with our core values. For instance, the Permanent Supportive Housing Ordinance and the Motel Conversion Ordinance last week. Things that we’re trying to do to cut red tape, more housing options down here [in Skid Row] but it’s a long process.”

 

_MG_7114

Kaleb is chained to a fenced. Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

The Permanent Supportive Housing Ordinance is currently in committee. It expedites city approval for buildings that provide housing for the homeless and have on-site supportive services. If the building meets the requirements of the ordinance, it would not need to be approved by the City Council to begin construction. The Motel Conversion Ordinance allows for motels to be converted into permanent housing regardless of the building’s zoning. If approved by the Planning Committee, these ordinances will go before the City Council for a vote.  

 

_MG_7099

Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

Kaleb Havens on his philosophy of property rights:

“The problem with land use is kind of embedded in our own psyche about what we believe are our own property rights. So most Americans, when you ask them, ‘well ya a developer can do with his own building whatever he wants if they bought it cause it’s their property’. And that’s true, for almost everything, to a certain point. Like if you’re a rich person sitting on a reserve, a cache of water in the middle of a drought, and you’re charging such exorbitantly high prices, or just not even selling that water, to the point where people are dying of thirst, than your property rights have violated someone else’s human rights. So there is a point where that doesn’t become true anymore… So we’re just educating people about how land use can be corrupt. For instance, just land banking and not even developing a property you buy, letting it sit empty while people die on the streets. That’s not an OK use of your personal property. Either s— or get off the pot. Either develop something that is of use to the community or let go of the asset. Cause vacant properties are taking up space that could be used to solve this crisis and they’re lowering everyone else’s property value because vacant properties are bad for cities.”

 

_MG_7110.jpg

Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

Kaleb on civic engagement and the struggle to end homelessness:

“We can’t do anything if people don’t make noise. If people don’t vote and just stay home and make a facebook post about how bad things are then don’t do anything. If you don’t go to a City Council meeting, if you don’t go to a Planning and Use Management meeting, if you don’t go to a Homelessness and Poverty meeting, if you don’t sign a petition meeting, if you don’t vote, if you don’t write your representative, you’re not doing s—. I am trying to generate conversation for this but this is just the first few steps in a very long marathon.”

 

April 20, 2016April 20, 2016_CR10274

During a heat wave in Los Angeles, a homeless man collapses on the downtown sidewalk. Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

Kaleb Havens points out that it is less expensive to provide permanent housing for homeless people than to have them live on the street.

A study commissioned by L.A. County found that formerly homeless people who were given permanent housing were hospitalized and arrested less. When accounting for the costs of permanent housing and supportive services, the county saw an average decline of 20% in spending.

‘The Welcome Party’: Trump’s First Visit to the Southland

March 13, 2018 – President Donald Trump touches down in California for the first time since becoming President. He came to inspect prototypes for the southern border wall in San Diego, address service members at Miramar Marine Base, and attend a fundraiser in Beverly Hills at the home of Edward Glazer, co-Chairman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

People flooded Beverly Gardens Park to protest President Trump’s arrival. The rally was more like a festival than a protest; apparel and hotdogs were sold by local vendors. A large float of Donald Trump, holding a KKK hood in his right arm, made an appearance. With the exception of a few minor altercations, the protest was a peaceful event.

 

Maywood embroiled in scandal; D.A. investigation into possible corruption dominates City Council meeting.

 

_MG_6918

Mayor Roman Medina looks to Gerardo Mayagoitia, City Clerk as he accuses him of corruption. “I’ve been sending the DA paperwork for awhile now,” Says Mayagoitia. Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

 

Author: Joe Brizzolara / March 7, 2018

The Maywood City Council chambers were heavily attended this past Wednesday, February 28th. Along with the numerous residents, the back wall was lined with Sheriff’s Deputies. There were calls for resignation and recall of Mayor Ramon Medina, along with a few rebukes from his supporters. Shouting matches erupted.

A little over 2 weeks before, on February 9th, City Hall was being searched by investigators with the Los Angeles County District Attorney. While residents spoke about the shame being brought to Maywood and openly accused the Mayor and other councilmembers of corruption, an activist dressed as a clown lumbered through the room from time to time, occasionally speaking out of turn. More on him later.

 

This is the city of Maywood as it is enveloped in an imbroglio involving accusations of pay to play contracts and bribery of city leadership, claims of high level nepotism, and a city government which is in debt by over $15 million—two times what its yearly spending is.

On February 9th, D.A. investigators searched the residences of Maywood Mayor Ramon Medina, former Councilmember Sergio Caldaron, 13 businesses and City Hall itself seizing boxes of documents and computers.

The LA times obtained the search warrant. In it, 4 current and former council members are listed, along with current and former city administrators, 13 companies, and local political activist Edwin T. Snell. Along with the Medina and Calderon, other officials under investigation include Vice Mayor Ricardo Villarreal, City Attorney Michael Montgomery, Building, and Planning Director David Mango, former Councilmember Thomas Martin, and Interim City Manager Reuben Martinez, who is currently on a leave of absence.

 

_MG_6603

An empty frame hangs on the wall that was once held the portrait of Councilmember Sergio Calderon, who resigned in January after being sued by County prosecutors for occupying two public offices at once. The L.A. County District Attorney’s Office conducted a raid at Maywood City Hall, the homes of Mayor Roman Medina and Sergio Calderon, and 13 other businesses.  Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

 

The hiring of Mr. Martinez was itself the subject of criticism as Mr. Martinez has no government experience and was found to be a personal relation of Mayor Medina.

One of the mayor’s neighbors saw the raid took place early that morning. She reports seeing members of the household brought in the front yard with their “hands up”, while investigators removed “paperwork.”

When asked about allegations of corruption, she seemed unfazed. “This city’s [been] freaking crazy since I remember.”

 

_MG_6859

Heather Willson, a resident of Maywood, stands up and applauses after City Council rejects the hiring of Arnaldo Beltran. Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

 

The 2016 Audit

In 2016, the California State Auditor released a report that labeled Maywood a “High Risk” city due to substantial problems with its finances and operations. The city reported a general fund deficit for six straight years leading up to the report, which had totaled over 15 million as of June 2015. Financial statements by the city omitted critical information.

The report cites a lack of transparency in regards to hiring of administrators and awarding city contracts. The city repeatedly violated the Brown Act, which requires local legislative bodies to hold open meetings with posted agendas when deliberating on issues that dramatically affect government operations. This would include the hiring of a city manager. Between December 2015 and May 2016, State Auditors documented 6 violations of the Brown Act, 3 of which involved hiring.

At last Wednesday’s City Council meeting, chants of “Brown Act” could be heard from disgruntled residents.

On that night Michael Montgomery, City Attorney, recommended the hiring of Arnaldo Beltran as interim City Manager to replace Martinez. Councilmember Edwardo De La Riva asked Montgomery who he had conferred with on the council before making this recommendation. Montgomery stated he had spoken with one member of the council. De La Riva went on to question why they didn’t have a lengthier hiring process in which numerous candidates could be vetted. Medina took it to a vote and to the surprise of some, Medina was not able to secure a majority vote.

The council has had a track record of approving contracts that did not undergo a competitive bidding process.

According to the audit, “Maywood frequently used a noncompetitive process to contract for vital city services, and thus it has not ensured the cost‑effectiveness of those services.” Normal procedure entails a city issuing a R.F.P. (Request for Proposal) where the city specifies what is required for a potential contract. The proposal is then posted publicly or sent to multiple vendors who bid for the contract. Ideally, the most cost efficient bid is selected. Contracted services that did not undergo this process in Maywood include: law enforcement, special legal counseling, and accounting. In the case of engineering contacts, auditors found that the city’s R.F.P. lacked detail that would have allowed for vendors to submit informed bids thereby invalidating the competitive bid process.

ECM Group Engineering & Construction Management received a contract from Maywood in May of 2016. This followed the abrupt firing of Willdan Group, Inc. without any reason given. ECM did not undergo a competitive bidding process. They lobbied the council aggressively, making a legal campaign contribution of $250 to one of the councilmembers, and providing a promotional packet to the city manager that included a letter of recommendation to hire ECM written in the manager’s name for him to issue to the city council. The city manager informed the council that he had not written the letter. This contracting of ECM all occurred while they were being investigated by the city of South El Monte for overbilling the city, including logging 27-hour days for its employees. Maywood allowed ECM to begin work without even acquiring a written contract.

 

_MG_6803

Mayor Roman Medina stands alone next to an American flag during a presentation made by Ray Mirzabegian about commercial cannabis in the city of Maywood. Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

 

Other reasons for the City’s poor financial condition include officer misconduct lawsuits stemming from the now defunct Maywood Police Department and wasteful spending. In 2009, a report issued by then California State Attorney General Jerry Brown found that the Maywood P.D. had regularly engaged in practices that deprived people of their constitutional rights. Along with improper staffing, city oversight, and record keeping, the report found that the culture of Maywood P.D. was one of “sexual innuendo, harassment, vulgarity, [and] discourtesy to members of the public.”

An example of wasteful spending includes the City Council issuing itself $250 a month automatically in travel expense reimbursements. State Auditors found this to be largely unnecessary for a city that only totals 1.18 sq miles. “Using the current federal reimbursement rate of 54 cents per mile,” the report reads, “We calculated that to justify the full payment for mileage, each elected official would have to drive 463 miles every month, an equivalent of a round trip between Maywood and Fresno.”

Councilmember De La Riva stopped accepting the travel reimbursement a few months after it was introduced. “We already receive a monthly stipend,” says De La Riva. “That should be enough to cover every travel that we have.”

Controversy, Clowns, Civic Participation

Despite its small size, the City of Maywood is one of the most densely populated cities in Southern California with around 30,000 residents. Maywood has the 2nd highest Latino majority in L.A. county at 96.4%. It received national attention in 2006 when it became a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants, quickly resulting in the ire of right-wing pundits and protesters. 46.1% of residents are foreign born, according to Census figures from 2016.

 

_MG_6809

ET Snell, a local political activist, who lists his name as “I am a Clown” during public comment. He told the Council that he was assisting Mayor Roman Medina with bringing retail marijuana to Maywood. Snell was upset about a bingo hall that was rejected. Snell is being investigated by the District Attorney.  Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

 

Edwin T. Snell is the clown-costumed activist referenced earlier. Initially a supporter of Medina, Snell was one of the speakers at the most recent City Council meeting calling on him to step down. Snell claims he told the mayor “I’ll be glad to help you do recalls.” Recalls in Maywood occurring from 2015 thru 2017 are currently being investigated by the D.A. Snell says that he and Medina had a falling out after plans for a bingo hall on city property fell through. A percentage of the profits were going to go to Snell’s nonprofit organization.

Mr. Snell says he has initiated some 22 recalls of politicians all over Southern California. He likes to repeats a classic adage: “Politicians are like diapers, they need to be changed often and for the same reason.”

Both City Clerk Gerado Mayagoitia and Councilmember Edwardo De La Riva claim to have been targeted by the Mayor in 2016 recalls because they were obstacles to his questionable management of the city.

“They knew I had already talked to the press about some of the stuff that was going on that I saw that was wrong. They knew that I questioned everything that they did,” says De La Riva.

Mayagoitia claims to have been in contact with the D.A. since early 2017, alerting them to illegal activity in City Hall. He says about him and De La Riva: “We don’t play their game. We’re not the guys that look the other way.”

Oscar Magaña is a former Mayor and City Councilmember in Maywood. He is calling for the mayor and others being investigated on the council to step down. He believes low voter turn-out in Maywood is a factor in problems with city leadership. “It’s a very low turn-out,” says Magaña. “If people participated, and if people knew what was going on, I think they would make better decisions.”

The Sprawl will continue to report on the ongoing corruption investigations in Maywood.  

 

Protesters Gather Outside of Councilmember Huizar’s Office to Demand More Results for Homeless Housing

Skid Row Housing Protest at HuizarÕs Boyle Heights Office

February 28, 2018 – Members of LA Catholic Worker forum in front of, Los Angeles Council Member; Jose Huizar’s Boyle Heights office, to demonstrate the development hold-ups on Prop HHH projects in the city.  Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

Author: Joe Brizzolara / Feb 28, 2018

Protesters with the Los Angeles Catholic Workers and other homeless advocacy groups gathered outside of the office of Councilmember Jose Huizar Tuesday afternoon. Protesters say they were there to put pressure on the Council-member, whose district includes both Boyle Heights and Skid Row, to create more permanent housing for the homeless.

Signs outside of Huizar’s office read: “House Keys Not Hand-Cuffs”; “150 Vacant Buildings on Skid Row”; “⅕ People Arrested In LA are Unhoused”.

Los Angeles Voters passed measure HHH in 2016, an initiative that authorizes $1.2 Billion in bond money to fund homeless housing, with a two-thirds majority. Last December, the city began construction in East Hollywood on the first project funded with the money.

Skid Row Housing Protest at HuizarÕs Boyle Heights Office

Jeff Dedrick, a member of LA Catholic Worker, sits on in front of Jose Huizar’s office, holding a sign that reads; “How many homes did we trade for a $3.5 Billion Jail.”  Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

But protesters believe the money from HHH is not hitting the streets quick enough to deal with the growing problem of homelessness. “If you have a crisis, you can’t wait around like 7 years finding a solution. And I think there clearly is a problem” says Teresa, who works at the Los Angeles Catholic Workers’ soup kitchen in Skid Row.

According to a homeless count released last year by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, Los Angeles County has 57,794 homeless individuals, up 23% from 2016.

The protest is meant to show solidarity with Kaleb Havens, a fellow Catholic Worker who is staging a hunger strike in Skid Row. He is currently chained to a fence near 5th and Gladys during the season of Lent, foregoing solid foods to demand the city use eminent domain to confiscate some 150 vacant properties in Skid Row and use them for housing homeless residents.

Skid Row Housing Protest at HuizarÕs Boyle Heights Office

A group of twelve members of, Los Angeles Catholic Worker demonstrate in front of Jose Huizar’s 14th District Field Office, The LACW will be protesting every Wednesday during lent to voice their frustrations on the development of housing for the homeless.  Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

“Sometimes meetings and photo opportunities are just excuses for them to do nothing” says Matt Harper, one of the protest organizers, about city leaders. “The most important thing to do is put pressure on them.”

Along with allocating more permanent housing, protesters would like to see law enforcement abandon tactics they see as predatory. These include citing the homeless for minor offenses such as loitering and littering. These policies amount to a criminalization of poverty according to some homeless advocates.

Harper noted that this protest was not merely done in Boyle Heights because it is the location of Huizar’s district office.  

“Boyle Heights has its own struggle around gentrification so we’re here try to call for greater affordable housing for all people and not just development that displaces people in this community.”

Protesters plan on coming back weekly until the end of Lent.

Restrooms and Retorts: The Skid Row ReFresh Spot

Author: Joe Brizzolara / Jan 31, 2018

In most neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the opening of a public restroom is unlikely to get much media attention. Skid Row, a 50 block district in the eastern section of downtown, is unlike most neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Of the counties 57,794 homeless people, Skid Row is home to 4,633 of them. That means that while accounting for only .0001% of the county’s total land area, Skid Row holds about 8% percent of the homeless population.

An audit done by the Los Angeles Central Providers Collaborative, Skid Row Community Residents and Partners found that the number of available restrooms for Skid Row’s homeless population is less than that offered in a Syrian refugee camp. The audit, titled “No Place to Go”, found between the hours of 6pm and 6am there are 9 restrooms available for some 1,777 people living on the streets of Skid Row. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees sets their sanitation standards at 1 toilet for every 20 people. At night, Skid Row is short of the UN’s sanitation standards by 80 toilets. During the day, when homeless shelters release their occupants and the number of people on the streets increases, that number jumps and Skid Row falls short of the standard by 164 toilets.

A lack of bathrooms and hygiene facilities is believed to have been a huge factor in a recent outbreak of Hepatitis A. On September 9th, 2017, the LA County Department of Public Health declared an outbreak of the disease. The disease affects the liver and can be severe. It is transmitted by fecal contact with an infected person. The biggest affected community are the homeless, followed by service providers for the homeless. From their statement: “The hepatitis A virus can spread when a person does not properly wash their hands after going to the bathroom or changing diapers… People who are homeless are at higher risk because they face challenges to maintaining good hygiene.”

The city responded by opening the Skid Row ReFresh Spot. Located on Crocker Street between 5th and 6th, the Skid Row ReFresh Spot offers 8 restrooms and 6 showers broken up into 2 separate facilities for men and women. It’s staffed full-time with a mix of volunteers and paid staff who are both male and female. The staff includes Skid Row community members and residents. The space is inviting with plants, music, and a seating area for residents to lounge and socialize. The Skid Row ReFresh Spot is open 32 hours a week from 5 to 1pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 1 to 9pm on Thursdays, and on Saturdays from 9am to 5pm.

Evans Clark manages the facility and is an employee of Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization that has been contracted by the city to provide the service. “I’m from the Skid Row area and they needed someone from the Skid Row Community to kinda come in and oversee the project”.  

“Daily we provide showers, we provide shower kits, they can use the toilets.” He said that on average, they see 75 to 80 people. On the whole, they’ve received positive feedback. Clark says they plan to eventually expand the hours and also add three new trailers. “One’s gonna be for showers only. The other one’s gonna be for the bathrooms. And one’s for the washers and dryers.” He thinks that once this expansion is complete, there will be constant traffic of visitors.

The city has invested 1.8 million into the project. “We have to do everything possible to help people stay healthy and live with the dignity that each one of us deserves,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti at the opening. “Homelessness is a crisis of housing and public health — and the ReFresh Spot shows that when the community and City work together, we can help the most vulnerable Angelenos meet their most basic human needs.”

“People from the mayor’s office attends our meetings,” Clark says. The city interfaces with the center daily: “Emails, meetings, phone calls, text messages.”

Councilmember Jose Huizar introduced the motion to secure funding for the project, pulling from the city’s general fund and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s budget. Huizar represents the 14th District which includes Skid Row. “This will be more than a hygiene center,” Huizar said. “Our aim is to give the residents of Skid Row a sense of hope and dignity that better days are possible while we also take action to protect them from the spread of Hepatitis A. Today is not the end of our efforts. It is just the beginning, but it represents a critical first-step.”

Louise Mbella “Sinai”, known in the community as ‘Frenchy’, is a community organizer and advocate for homeless rights. She contributed to the bathroom audit and was involved in the planning of the Skid Row ReFresh Spot. “We wanted to make sure that the concept, everything behind the hygiene center… respect[s] the lives of the people unsheltered [and] on the streets.” According to “Sinai”, the city was sensitive to the Skid Row community’s discomfort with officials and law enforcement in handling security. “They picked a security company that’s been dealing with communities that are in need, that are poverty stricken… They know to de-escelate not just say ok put your hands up. [They know to] not use physical force unnecessarily.”

Not everyone is so pleased with the Skid Row ReFresh Spot however. General Dogon is a human rights organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network. LA CAN is known to butt heads with City officials and the L.A.P.D. over what they perceive as a long history of neglect and abuse towards Skid Row’s homeless on the part of the state. At the opening, General Dogon ripped up a certificate given to him by the city as appreciation for LA CAN’s involvement in the creation of the Skid Row ReFresh Spot. “This award is just like the mayor and his cronies. Worthless” he said while standing at a podium inches away from Garcetti. “These toilets you bringing, it’s 10 years too late and it’s 300 too short!”

General Dogon spoke with The Sprawl and added context to this last point. In 2012, he points out, the LA County Department of Public Health issued a report ordering the city to clean up Skid Row. One of their recommendations was more public restrooms and handwashing stations to deal with piles of human waste and other biohazards that were accumulating throughout Skid Row.

“According to the United Nations, we needed 382 toilets to get out of the crisis situation that we in,” says General Dogon. “The Mayor’s office thought that delivering 6 temporary toilets in a toilet crisis where almost 50 times that much is needed, that that would be acceptable… I am not impressed.”