Day 41 – Kaleb Havens

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March 27, 2018 – Skid Row – Kaleb Havens, sits in a lawn chair, five days shy from the end of his 46 day hunger strike. Photo: Chris Rusanowsky / The Sprawl

Author: Joe Brizzolara / May 2, 2018

Near the corner of 5th and Central on Skid Row’s eastern border, a sanitation worker asks Kaleb Havens if he’s accomplished what he set out to.

“The first steps of accomplishing something. Communication. Lines opening up.”

Kaleb Havens works at the Hippie Kitchen, a soup kitchen run by the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, down the street and was on Day 41 of a 46 day hunger strike. The strike was done to bring awareness to the plight of the homeless in Los Angeles and to put pressure on the City to provide more permanent supportive housing.

Communication is something Kaleb excels at. Even after days of minimal calories, consisting of chicken broth and pedialyte, he attacks subjects earnestly, and with passion. He’s a man on a mission.  

“Through inaction, we let unregulated capitalism create these conditions. And I’m not one of these people who says we need to get rid of capitalism. I will just say it’s worked a lot better before than this. Like in the 50s and 60s when we had great social programs and a safety net and college was immensely more affordable and job training was a lot more accessible.”

Read our first discussion with Kaleb here.

Kaleb Havens on Christianity as a source for Social justice:

“I think it can be. I think it should be. I think when the Roman Empire [co-opted Christianity] and made it its own, that was more to Rome’s benefit than the mission of Christ. I think that the message of Christ has gotten watered down a lot over the years. I think at its core, it’s very much about social justice. And about standing up for people that don’t have a voice, for neighbors that go without.”

Kaleb Havens on the experience of being homeless:

[In dialogue with the reporter]

“How much your phone charged right now? Percentage wise? 88%? You charged it this morning right? You’re going to charge it tonight? What if that, in itself, was a homeric journey, to find a place where you can sit and keep your phone charged, without being hassled or told to leave.”

“When was the last time you used the bathroom? An hour ago? At your place, at the office? At your place? What if that was its own journey everyday? It’s own new problem. ‘Ok so today, where am I gonna s**t where I won’t get arrested?’ And that becomes its own project. That’s your whole morning. Just figuring out where you can use the bathroom. Or your whole evening, cause there’s only about 6 restrooms, 9 or 6 public restrooms overnight between 5,000 people who live on the streets.”

“How many gallons of possessions would you guess you own? Everybody down here limits it to 60 gallons of possessions. There’s a reason. Because if you have more than that, anything in excess of that, technically, can be thrown away at any time on the streets. Cause they can come by and do a sweep and say you have to much s**t here and you have to pick 60 gallons and we’re gonna throw away everything else. Nobody owns more than they can move by themselves every 2 weeks because of street sweeps, cause you can’t ask for help cause everyone else is moving their shit on your block.”

“I have the umbrella, not so much for the sun. I do use it for the sun, sometimes. What I use it for most is at night, when these blue lights are buzzing. Bzzz. At night.”

“You can look at a lot of studies that show blue light is the worst thing to submit someone to, especially if they’re suffering from substance abuse or a mental illness. It’s not peaceful. It’s not natural. Bzzz. I do the umbrella, just so I don’t have to look at it. That’s why a lot of people get under their tents, people who stay out here cover their face or put their hood up, cause even at night, you can’t, it’s not peaceful. There’s no rest.”

“My skin ages. I just cleaned my nails, and an hour later I look like a coal miner cause of all the debris that’s coming off the street.”     

“Your life expectancy is 75 in this country as a normal adult. It’s about 48 if you’re experiencing chronic homelessness.”

City Hall

While on his Hunger Strike, Kaleb was contacted by the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is currently being talked about as a potential candidate for president in 2020. Garcetti recently announced in his State of the City address that districts in Los Angeles that open themselves to emergency homeless shelters will get the benefit of sanitation teams dedicated to cleaning up areas where encampments were once located.

“Homelessness can’t be swept away — we must give people a place to stay,” said Garcetti. “We’re not going to wash down sidewalks only to see an encampment return a few days later. That doesn’t help a single person get off the street and it doesn’t help clean up a neighborhood for good.”

Operation Healthy Streets is a cleanup program in Skid Row, first started in 2012. City officials notify homeless residents of the date of cleanup and, with the L.A.P.D. in tow, evict those who do not leave by that date.

Kaleb was himself in danger of being forced to move for a scheduled sweep, something he was unwilling to do.

“People are sometimes arrested, or have their things thrown away, when they fail to move for the operation healthy street sweeps. So when they told me I’d have to move, that was something on the table, but they just swept around me all three times. They didn’t end up arresting me. We had a big protest the first time. The sargent told me by order of the Mayor they were told to just sweep around me and do an optional cleaning on the street, so it didn’t end up going that way.  I think that’s good. I think that means our leaders are listening to what the most vocal members of our community are saying our needs are. But there is a lot of space between listening and hearing and taking action. So we’re working on that journey.”

Along with making sure the strike was uninterrupted by the sweeps, Garcetti contacted Kaleb personally. The mayor shared that he himself had participated in a hunger strike in the past and that he was committed to improving the lot of Los Angeles’s homeless population.

While Kaleb appreciated the outreach by Garcetti, he seemed unconvinced that the mayor was willing to put his full weight behind eradicating homelessness.

“His job is to seem receptive.”

Kaleb on Misconceptions of Homelessness and Skid Row:

Fears of violence and theft in Skid Row are largely unfounded according to Havens.

“I walk down the street here a lot. I’ve never been shot. I’m not saying there’s not gun violence down here, everyone i know down here’s who’s died from violence was engaged in the drug trade. And i’m not casting blame. I’m just saying if you’re trying to help down here, and you didn’t snatch somebody’s stash like last week, i wouldn’t be worried about getting shot.”

“I’ve been out here for 41 days, everything I own is in full view of everybody and not a single possession has walked off.”

And the people living in Skid Row are not so foreign as many might perceive them to be.

“No matter how much difference you think might exist between you and someone who is experiencing homelessness, you are one bad day away from being that person in a tent who you cross the street to avoid.”

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.”