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Los Angeles Resumes Large-Scale Cleanups Of Homeless Encampments

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to Los Angeles, where city officials have resumed large-scale cleanups of homeless encampments. They had stopped doing them in March at the beginning of the pandemic, in line with recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control. But then trash pile-ups and blocked sidewalks brought a new set of public health concerns. Anna Scott of member station KCRW reports.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: The type of cleaning we're talking about is a big production. One recently happened at a freeway underpass in the Wilmington neighborhood about 20 miles south of downtown LA.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK RUNNING)

SCOTT: A few days ago, the street was lined with people's belongings. There were tents up. Now the street is totally empty. There's some sanitation workers shoveling things into a big sanitation truck.

Three people who had just been moved out of the encampment sat on the sidewalk around the corner, surrounded by clothes and furniture. None wanted to do an interview.

No. OK.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends not moving people into crowded shelters where the virus might easily spread but rather letting them stay in homeless encampments as long as they can socially distance. LA did that at the start of the pandemic. The city also deployed trash pickup and handwashing stations at some large encampments. But those services have been spotty, and growing encampments have brought other health concerns and complaints.

ELIZABETH MACHUCA: I'm going to start losing business if this doesn't get fixed.

SCOTT: Elizabeth Machuca owns a clothing store about a mile from the freeway underpass in Wilmington. She says she's had issues lately with people going to the bathroom outside her store and believes breaking up the nearby encampment will help even though she can relate to the people there.

MACHUCA: I don't judge anybody that's homeless. I could barely, you know, pay my rent and pay my business, so homelessness is like - that could happen to anybody.

SCOTT: These cleanings are meant to deliver services rather than punishment. In addition to sanitation trucks and cops, the city sends outreach workers to shepherd people to nearby shelters and mobile showers.

JOE BUSCAINO: We already have a pandemic amongst us, and we can't afford to have another one.

SCOTT: City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents Wilmington, says these cleanups are important. And there are openings at three new shelters in his district, which are operating at reduced capacity for better social distancing.

BUSCAINO: Knowing that we have beds available, it's actually safer for individuals living in encampments rather than sitting in their trash and their filth.

SHAYLA MYERS: Numerous public health experts would disagree.

SCOTT: Shayla Myers is an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who has represented people experiencing homelessness in cases against the city.

MYERS: At the height of the pandemic, to start doing cleanups now just to force people into congregate settings is unconscionable.

SCOTT: There aren't even always beds to offer people. And when there are, that doesn't necessarily mean people are ready to take them - like Elicia Suarez. Back in July at an encampment cleanup, she said she had no plans to enter a nearby shelter. But packing up her tent, bike and belongings was disruptive and degrading.

ELICIA SUAREZ: I'm an individual who is just trying to survive like anybody else, but I'm a little bit on the - lower on the food chain. But I - in my heart, I really don't think so. And why are they making us move when it's coronavirus?

SCOTT: Suarez suggested having a designated camping area with bathrooms so people who aren't ready to go inside won't have to move. That's an idea some city officials are working on.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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