Uncovering Hidden Wetlands Encampments

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As Venice Beach continues to face a homeless crisis Yo! Venice has another story to share on the topic. This one is about the expansion of Los Angeles unhoused community into areas like the Ballona Wetlands.

LAPD Pacific Division PCU
LAPD Pacific Division PCU

The story first ran in our print edition on Friday February 19th after Yo! Venice was invited on an exclusive ride-a-long with LAPD Pacific Division into the wetlands.

While many of those camping in the wetlands at the time have moved on from the particular spot we visited in February, the homeless population in the area remains, suggesting they’re not finding housing – simply moving camp.

Los Angeles Hidden Encampments

By Melanie Camp

The cool white of the fluorescent light shines with clinical efficiency inside Los Angeles Police Department’s Pacific Division Station. Officer TK Kim of the Division’s Parol Compliance Unit (PCU) runs his hand over part of a map that hangs on the wall. Venice and Marina del Rey lay to the left, all the Playas are to the right, “within these large blank areas are what they call the Ballona Wetlands and that’s where a lot of the career criminals, we call them ‘Swampers’, camp out,” says Kim.

Strewn throughout the Wetlands there are multiple encampments, hidden away, invisible to passing commuters and patrol cars. “They travel behind the scenes. Through the alleys, along the bike paths that you can’t see from a normal patrol car, so you’ve got to get out of the car and get really dirty in there,” says Kim.

Officer TK Kim and Sergeant Scotty Stevens of Pacific Division's PCU
Officer TK Kim and Watch Commander Scotty Stevens of Pacific Division’s PCU

Kim recounts the day Pacific Division’s Captain Nicole Alberca made the call to send PCU into the Wetlands. There had been a surge in car and home break-ins in the area, “we were looking at the map trying to figure out the spike in crime and Alberca said, ‘what’s in this wetland area?’ The only way to find out was to go in there,” and that is when they discovered a village of homeless encampments within the wildlife reserve.

Cars race off Lincoln Boulevard onto Culver Loop, drivers are startled by the gang of police officers darting across the road in front of them. It is not easy to cross but it is, so far, the best way that Pacific PCU have found to access one particular part of the Ballona Wetlands where they have invited Yo! Venice to come for an exclusive ride along.

Pacific Division's PCU cross Culver Loop Towards the Orginial Location of the Encampment
Pacific Division’s PCU cross Culver Loop towards the location of the first encampment they discovered in October 2015

“You should have seen us the first time, we were darting across 4 lanes of traffic on Lincoln. I thought for sure one of my guys was going to get hit. It was like a game of chicken, officers dodging cars,” says Watch Commander Scotty Stevens who heads up the unit.

Altogether, the 7 men who comprise Pacific PCU have a combined 100-years experience as police officers. Even so, the first time they discovered the homeless encampments in the Ballona Wetlands, they were shocked.

Stevens predicts the first camp they came across could have been around for nearly four years. Pacific PCU discovered it this past September, hidden in a small wetland circle hugged by Culver Loop, and Culver and Lincoln Boulevards.

“We didn’t know what we were going to find. The homeless sure didn’t expect us. When they saw us they scattered. You could hear car tires squealing, people were slamming on their brakes. There were homeless people running out all over the road.”

One man they did manage to hold for questioning was Canine Kenny, at the time he complained, “he told us, ‘why do you cops always get the wrong guy,’ he said we should have grabbed this guy who had one eye. Kenny said this guy had killed people. A few days later there was a break-in further inland and someone identified this one-eyed man. We ran a check and it turned out he was wanted in another state for murder,” says Stevens.

So it was confirmed, the Wetlands was a hide out for the kind of criminals Pacific PCU were interested in keeping a close eye on.

Stevens says after the discovery of the first camp CalTrans came in and cleared it out, “they just scooped it all out with bulldozers.” While the area remains clear now, a handful of those displaced did not disappear altogether, rather they relocated within the Wetlands. Canine Kenny being one to do so.

Preparing to Check in with the Ballona Wetlands Homeless 2
Preparing to check in with the Ballona Wetlands homeless community

Trekking deeper into the reserve one by one campsites reveal themselves. First there’s a trail of litter that leads to tents, or thick bushes that people have draped tarpaulins over and burrowed into, creating warrens that they have filled with abandoned mattresses and broken chairs.

One lady even has a kitchen, in her toaster oven sits a cold, but cooked pizza. However, she denies it is hers, saying it was someone else who tapped into the city power source, exposing the dangerous tangle of live wires now covered by a simple, plastic flower pot.

Even though it has been weeks since it last rained the trampled earth is damp and there is a peculiar smell, a sugary stench that sticks in the back of your throat, “there’s garbage, there’s feces, there’s old food just thrown around,” says Stevens.

The lady doesn’t want her name printed because she says her Grandma lives locally, “over there,” she points to the apartment complex visible across the 90 Freeway, “she doesn’t know I’m homeless. I grew up playing here as a kid, and now it’s a mess. I tell the others to clean it up but they don’t listen to me.” Kim says the woman is a meth addict, like many others in the Wetlands.

While there isn’t sufficient proof to make an arrest, Pacific PCU suspect Canine Kenny is a dealer and keep a close eye on him. Since his move from Culver Loop he camps out in bushes near the bike path, living with his girlfriend Amanda, and their two dogs.

Amanda met Kenny through an ex-boyfriend. One story the police have heard is that Amanda’s ex owed Kenny money and that Amanda was part of the debt settlement. Whatever the case may be, it is a different life when you’re a swamper, “he’s a pretty cool guy, I like him. He has a good personality, he loves dogs. He’s a lovable person. His personality’s great. I love him,” says Amanda of Kenny.

Originally from Riverside, Amanda has been on the streets now for 9 years and has lived in the Ballona Wetlands for the past 2 years, “I couldn’t take care of a kid, gave her up to my sister, and I came out here.” She says she wants to get back and take care of her daughter but as is the case with so many of Los Angeles’ homeless, getting off the streets is no simple thing.

For Amanda and Kenny the first hurdle is that they are a couple. While Amanda could go to a women’s shelter she would have to go without Kenny. Kim says at first they were worried Amanda was scared there would be repercussions for leaving Kenny. They told her to tie a ribbon to the fence, “it would be a sign and we’d know she wanted us to take her away.” So far there’s been no ribbon.

Stevens says, “what keeps them here is their addiction. I think they’re afraid of what trying to get off the addiction is going to do to them. I think there’s some sort of uncertainty about what lies ahead after the addiction. At least now they know what tomorrow is. It’s the same as it is today. As long as they can go out and do what they do, get the Meth that they think that they need in order for their body to function. I think they’ve gotten themselves to where they’re content with it…and I think anything else really scares them.”

Piles of bicycles, and bicycle parts lay all around, Officer David Navas says they are more than likely stolen, “that’s what they do, take them apart, sell them, and that’s how they get money for their drugs.” Kenny has a different explanation saying people bring him bikes to fix, “they think for some odd reason, ‘oh anytime I get a flat, or anytime I need a wrench’ it’s like dude, no man, you can’t just leave it here. But they don’t listen they just leave it here anyway.” He points to two of the bicycles, “that’s my bike and her bike’s over there, the rest of these bikes aren’t even ours.”

Canine Kenny and His Girlfriend Amanda with their Dogs
Canine Kenny and his girlfriend Amanda with their Dogs. Finding shelter for couples is difficult, pretty much impossible if you have dogs.

Kenny’s Alsatian jumps up as his master talks. Placing his paws in Canine Kenny says He would Rather be Homless than Leave his dogs for a ShelterKenny’s hands, the dog plants a lick on Kenny’s face, “they’re way more important to me than being inside,” says Kenny. Another reason it’s difficult for him and Amanda to get off the streets, the shelters don’t allow dogs.

LAPD are able to issue citations for trespassing and illegal camping however this is not always an effective deterrent,  “a lot of the times we realize they don’t have a place to go,” says Kim.

Stevens says it is a juggling act, understanding that the homeless have to live somewhere, ‘but we also have to balance what’s best for the area that they’re in and the people that are surrounding. They can’t deny that there’s a criminal element that goes with what they do, their meth addiction and how they feed that meth addiction, which leads to the robberies and the burglaries. So, as long as we see them and they’re OK and they’re not doing anything at the time, we’ll just simply tell them, ‘we can’t make you move because this is State property but understand you’re going to eventually have to move,’ and at least right now we know where they’re at. If we need to find them we know where they are.”

This was the case with one man who had made his his home, along with a few others, under the bridge where Lincoln Blvd., runs over Ballona Creek. It was a small but elaborate set up, complete with a pulley system to get supplies to the camp.  According to Stevens the swampers staying here used the creek as their toilet, squatting off the edge of a pylon. They caught fish, and hunted snake and squirrel. However, all this came to an end when detectives came to PCU asking if they’d recognized a man wanted for a robbery. Due to their regular checks of the Wetlands, PCU  knew exactly where to find him. He’s now serving time, his camp is still under the bridge but abandoned.

Familiar Faces Pacific Division's PCU are familiar with all the Swampers
Familiar faces: Pacific Division’s PCU have come to know who most of the “Swampers” are.

Clearing the encampments is no simple feat. First, it is a matter of understanding which Government department needs to be contacted. However finding out who, whether that be CalTrans, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers, or any other State or Federal department that has jurisdiction, can be difficult according to Stevens.

This is something CalTrans Public Information Officer Patrick Chandler disagrees with, “If it’s blocking State right of way then that’s CalTrans,” says Chandler. He then continues, rapid fire, listing a plethora of other government departments who may or may not be responsible for maintaining the Wetlands, providing insight into the jurisdictional vagaries that delay clearing encampments. “It is a protected environment so we won’t go beyond our reach,” says Chandler.

It is true, CalTrans is not the sole body responsible for the Wetlands. Posted signs in some parts of the reserve point to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“All LAPD has to do is walk across the road and ask us. Our office is right across from their headquarters,” says Chandler, speaking of the CalTrans office in downtown Los Angeles, perhaps not as convenient a walk for Pacific Division.

While Chandler was unable to confirm, Stevens said that just last week CalTrans had been in to clear out some of the camps. While he believes this may provide motivation for some to leave the Wetlands for good, because they’re “tired of us knowing where they are.” He concludes others will stay close and eventually return, “I think they’ll try to come back,” and as such, so will continue the Ballona Wetlands game of Whack-a-mole, until a more permanent solution for homelessness players is figured out.

 

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