For five nights, Melissa Grady refused to sleep.
She told me this one afternoon the other day, rubbing her eyes with blackened hands, trying to ignore the burnt shell of twisted metal that barely resembled the RV she’d shared with her boyfriend, Woody Akiedis.
No one is sure how it started, but during Presidents Day weekend, a fire engulfed their metal home, melting the tires on the sidewalk and causing a dark plume of smoke undulating over the Ballona Wetlands, Playa Vista and Playa del Rey.
Grady, who had been sleeping, saw the flames and ran out in a panic. So did Akiedis. But then for some reason he went back in. Grady tried to chase him and got close enough to see his ankle. But the heat was too much. Others who had been driven over from their own motorhomes could not get to him either.
Eventually, firefighters found Akiedis’ body, charred and lifeless next to his prized, if now destroyed, collection of Hot Wheels toy cars. He was 60.
“I just got him cinnamon rolls,” Grady told me in disbelief, taking a break from digging through the wreckage as a line of storm clouds rolled in. “Cuddled with him in bed.”
What happened to Akiedis is just one of many terrible incidents to befall this Jefferson Boulevard encampment. It’s not far from my apartment, and since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve seen the number of RVs — and the number of desperate people living in them — grow and shrink, and grow and shrink again.
There have been fires and overdoses, and at least one fatal shooting.
Meanwhile, the Ballona Wetlands and adjacent Freshwater Marsh, once prized birdwatching destinations, have taken an environmental beating, with mature trees cut down, storm drains used as dumpsters and the whole area doubling as a toilet.
“It’s so messy and so bad right now,” complained Scott Culbertson, executive director of Friends of the Ballona Wetlands.
That this camp persists as so many tents have vanished from the west side of Los Angeles under Mayor Karen Bass’s new “Inside Safe” initiative has caused confusion and consternation among my housed neighbors and environmentalists alike.
But there are reasons for the difference, so I’ve come to understand. Complicated reasons that more Angelenos should understand, too, because what’s happening on Jefferson Boulevard will almost certainly be repeated in other parts of Los Angeles as the city ramps up its efforts to move homeless people inside.
“We haven’t solved the RV problem yet,” Bass acknowledged. “But we absolutely will, because it’s a very serious problem.”
Just don’t expect it to go fast. Nearly a year after the LA City Council voted to lift a pandemic-era moratorium on towing oversized vehicles used as residences parked on city streets for months, there are all sorts of logistical issues.
Then, as now, there weren’t enough trucks to carry such large vehicles, not enough space to store them, and not enough money to pay for it all. More recently, finding the owners of motorhomes has become challenging, as the occupants are often just renters, making towing a legally questionable decision.
But those issues pale in comparison to changing the mindset of many of the people living in those RVs.
“They don’t necessarily consider themselves homeless,” said Va Lecia Adams Kellum, the new CEO of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “This thing they had that kept them from being in a tent was extremely important to how they defined themselves (and) how they saw themselves.”
After the storms that swept through LA in January, for example, street workers in Venice were able to motivate people in tents to trade their soggy bedding for a hotel room and the promise of future permanent housing.
That probably won’t work out too well for those who live in RVs on Jefferson Boulevard. They rolled through the storms of February with roofs over their heads and dry, if dilapidated sleeping quarters.
“How,” Adams Kellum continued, “do you convince someone that they’re vulnerable and homeless and that they don’t see themselves as homeless?”
When I first met Wendy Lockett, she was the newest resident of the Jefferson Boulevard encampment.
It was deep into the pandemic in the summer of 2021. I was trudging down a path with Culbertson, who seemed as pained by the environmental damage to the Freshwater Marsh as the humanitarian crisis unfolding next door, when we reached out a hand encountered. painted board.
“DO NOT THROW TRASH OVER THIS FENCE!! IF I CATCH YOU I WILL CATCH YOU AND EAT YOU FOR BREAKFAST.
Lockett, a petite woman with dark hair and piercing eyes, emerged from a white van, smiling proudly at her handiwork. She told us she lived there for about six months.
Nearly two years later, and she’s still here. Well, I must say she is back outside. She had moved into a hotel room near LAX for a while, but told me she was “thrown out” for painting on the walls, mural-style. So she got another RV and returned to life and the people she knew.
With Akiedis gone, Lockett has been at camp the longest and as such feels responsible for protecting Grady, even finding her another camper.
“I’m kind of like the sheriff,” Lockett told me. “He was the mayor, for lack of better terminology. He was very diplomatic and knew how to handle things. I literally go after people with bats when I lose my temper.”
As if on the right track, she saw a man stealing something from a pile of belongings outside a neighbor’s RV and went screaming after him, her pit bull not far behind.
“There she goes,” Grady said with a laugh as another woman handed her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Like it or not, this RV camp, like so many others in Los Angeles, has evolved over the past three years into what can only be called a community. An established one, yes.
Those who live on Jefferson Boulevard see themselves as residents, the block along the Freshwater Marsh as their neighborhood, and their RVs dotted around it as homes with addresses and yards. They also watch out for each other.
After firefighters extinguished the flames and removed Akiedis’s remains, curious housekeepers from nearby neighborhoods began to drop by. A man brought a camera and started taking pictures. Lockett and other camp residents pulled him aside and told him to leave, out of respect for what had been Grady’s home.
“I was quite disgusted by the behavior,” Culbertson said. “No one has fought harder to get these campers out of here than I have, but for crying out loud, someone just passed away.”
So how do you convince someone that they are vulnerable and homeless if they don’t see themselves as homeless?
Adams Kellum has ideas.
One is to work with other organizations to secure cheap or free RV parking for people who have agreed to move indoors. It’s hard to believe, but apparently there aren’t enough underutilized city-owned parking lots.
Bass learned that when he was researching whether the Jefferson Boulevard encampment should be one of the first locations to try “Inside Safe.”
“We thought we had identified a residence near the airport. But it turned out that the rent for that parking space would be in the millions,” she told me. “And then we had to decide, are we spending money that way? Or do we take the millions who rent motel rooms and take people out of tents?”
Her administration chose the latter.
Another idea, which Bass favors, is to get people to give their RVs up for scrap. This can be done by offering to pay a lump sum for the vehicles or by overturning parking fines and warrants. LA City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez had a few success with such incentives during a pilot program last year in her San Fernando Valley district.
But to do so, city officials must first convince people like Lockett that it’s worth the risk. That giving up the only shelter they have in hopes of securing something better won’t backfire. After years of bureaucratic failures and broken promises for permanent and even temporary housing, such trust is hard to sell.
“When people feel like their income is so unstable or their housing has been unstable all these years, it’s hard for them, isn’t it? Their mindset is, ‘I’m not in the tent,'” Adams Kellum said. “’What should I do if I fall out of the house? Like, what if I lose my voucher or lose my job?’”
What is clear is that the supply of hotel rooms will probably not be enough for RV residents, who feel they are already in some form of temporary accommodation. Permanent housing will be key, but there is a shortage of it.
In the meantime, LA city councilman Traci Park, whose Westside precinct includes the Ballona Wetlands and Freshwater Marsh, said city sanitation workers have visited the RV encampment on Jefferson Boulevard several times over the past two months and removed tens of thousands of pounds. of waste and hazardous waste.
The number of campers, according to her office count, has dropped from 50 to about 25, thanks in part to the efforts of street workers. There are many more parked in unincorporated county.
“I am deeply concerned about the unsafe conditions these RVs create for the people who live in them,” Park said. “A lot of people use gas-powered generators for electricity and heat. People use space heaters and heaters in those RVs, many of which don’t meet basic fire safety standards.”
I am also very concerned. But watching Grady sort through chunks of burnt rubble just feet from where Akiedis died, looking for anything salvageable to move into her new RV, it’s clear she wasn’t.
“Thank God we had him,” Grady said, “even if it wasn’t long enough.”