VAN NUYS >> Some business owners along Bessemer Street where the homeless congregate say the situation has improved, but more tents now line the adjacent Orange Line busway bike path, which continues to attract drug dealing, prostitution and defecation in the streets.
“It looks really bad, disgusting,” said Artour Teroganesian, who owns an auto repair shop on Bessemer Street, west of Cedros Avenue.
Teroganesian said the tents along the bike path are affecting his business “big time.” When customers drop off their cars and start walking around, “they don’t want to come (back),” he said.
He pointed to pieces of toilet paper in the corner near the entrance of his store that he said had been used for defecation.
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Another business owner there, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation, said customers “are afraid to come to the area because it’s dangerous.”
One time, a homeless man walked onto the business owner’s lot cursing and yelling in a threatening manner, but by the time police came, he was gone. In another instance, a woman climbed inside a customer’s car and would not leave until officers arrived an hour later, the business owner said.
From ‘mini Skid Row’ to ‘beautiful’
But one block over on Bessemer east of Cedros Avenue has improved, and business owner Mark Rumph said he’s “thrilled” with how different his block looks today compared to a year ago.
Scores of homeless people had been living along the industrial block between Cedros and Vesper avenues leaving tents, drug dealing, prostitution, piles of trash and human waste in plain sight of his business, he said. Three new vehicles were even burned last year in a parking lot used by an auto dealer there.
The Los Angeles Police Department closed the sidewalk there due to the uptick in crime, and city transportation officials put up signs in November declaring “Pedestrians Prohibited” to discourage homeless encampments while implementing overnight parking restrictions.
“It’s been absolutely beautiful; it’s a pleasure to come down here now,” said Rumph, one of the owners of Van Nuys Plating in the 14600 block of Bessemer.
In agreeing to LAPD’s request for the signage, the city’s Department of Transportation noted the encampments had blocked sidewalk access for people in wheelchairs. It also highlighted the danger their shopping carts, boxes and bicycles posed to pedestrians and passing motorists.
Businesses had been “getting hammered” by thefts and burglaries before that stretch of Bessemer — between Cedros and Vesper — known as “mini Skid Row” was dismantled, said LAPD Officer Saul Guardado of the department’s Operations-Valley Bureau HOPE Team. HOPE is a collaboration that enforces city regulations around encampments while connecting homeless Angelenos with housing and supportive services.
The city’s Sanitation Department, with assistance from police, disposed of waste and debris as well as tents that were not rolled up during the day as required, Guardado said.
They even got rid of a makeshift “landfill” of trash in the middle of the intersection of Bessemer and Cedros, he said, for which odors could be detected from “blocks away.”
Shifting the problem
Of the roughly 100 people who had been living in encampments on Bessemer Street near Vesper Avenue, Guardado estimated that about half moved to the adjacent bike path while the other half spread out to other parts of Van Nuys.
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The bike path and surrounding areas have become a destination for some because of its location near the Van Nuys jail, Guardado said. After convicts with nowhere to go are released, “they see the nice bike path” and “stay here.”
Matthew Tenchavez, an emergency response team member for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority was walking the bike path near Vesper with a colleague on Thursday looking to help families get into housing.
Tenchavez had just spoken to a woman living along the bike path who had a Section 8 voucher but lost it after she was incarcerated some months ago. Tenchavez said they were going to try to help her get it reinstated.
Many of the homeless here use the Metro Orange Line bus and even have bicycles they ride on the bike path. There’s also less foot traffic here than in other areas, so it feels more private for them, he said.
‘They kick us out’
Among those who have been living along the bike path are Dalon Johnson, 24, and his girlfriend, Sarah Reese, 25. The couple said they had been there for more than two years after being kicked out of family members’ homes and then a shelter and have been drug free for about three months.
“Everywhere else we go, they kick us out,” Reese said. “We were in a (nearby) alley for almost a whole month, then LAPD told us to move.”
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Johnson said police “haven’t really bothered us as much” along the bike path. But they said their tent and all their belongings were thrown away by the city around a month ago after they failed to take the tent down one morning as required. They said they lost their EBT cards as well as Johnson’s identification.
“We clean up as much as possible,” Reese added, standing outside their large tent next to the bike path. “Every day. I put baby powder (at the entrance of the tent). … I carry sanitizers and wipes to try to clean up my little area.”
But they don’t always have access to a restroom since local businesses don’t let them in — or charge 25 cents to use it, she said.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority said in a statement that it’s coordinating with City Councilwoman Nury Martinez’s office, police, city public works and transportation departments to “rectify this situation” of the homeless encampments on the bike path. While Metro owns the right of way, the city is tasked with maintenance, a spokesman said.
“This will take a multi-agency effort so that the cleanup is as complete as possible,” the agency said.
LAPD Deputy Chief Bob Green, who heads up the Police Department’s new transit services bureau, said he’s working with Metro to expand the department’s HOPE teams to the Metro bus and rail system in the city — and its right of ways — once it takes over policing in July.
“Together, we will make sure all the encampments along the Orange Line get the full attention of the new Metro-specific HOPE Team,” Martinez added in a statement.
She helped launch the HOPE Team in her district last year.
“Keeping this area safe and clean for families and all bicyclists is a priority for me,” she said.
But it’s unclear how such efforts will affect those living in the area now.
“The homeless people have nowhere to actually go. Every week they’re asked to move,” said a homeless cyclist, who lives out of Van Nuys hotel rooms and identified himself as “James Bond.”
“They got a right to be somewhere.”