Jacob King holed up in his tent on the slope of a bluff overlooking the San Pedro Harbor, slumped over his knees, a cigarette wedged between scuffed fingers. It was deadline morning. City workers had posted signs saying this was the day that people in his camp had to leave.
King didn’t feel like interacting and kept to the dim light of his nylon refuge, wondering if he’d get the shelter bed he said he signed up for a month ago or would he be told to move again.
The 39-year-old listened to the homeless camp come to life, a tent unzipping, a laugh, distant chatter, the crisp crack of a beer can opening.
They call this strip of dirt the Gulch not because it is one, but because it sits along Gulch Road, which runs up the slope between the harbor and Beacon Street on the top of the bluff.
Homeless people have long lived in this gritty southern tip of L.A., drawn to its halfway houses, dive bars and cheap motels. They can hang out in peace on the tree-shaded hillside, taking in the sea breeze and watching the bustle of the nation’s busiest port.
King grew up in San Pedro, but how he ended up on the streets seven years ago he doesn’t like to say. He gives fragments of the story: a fiancee, some type of family intervention — or as he calls it, “tough love.” He prefers to speak about his plans once he gets housing — find a job, get his own apartment, have a stable life.
Two months earlier, he was roused from another spot and asked the police where he should go. The Gulch, they said. So King came to the camp and fell into its desultory rhythm marked by the white noise of daytime traffic below and moan of the fog horns at night.
Now it was being targeted, part the city of Los Angeles’ effort to get people off the streets.
In the camps, the process sometimes feels like a dismal game of musical chairs, where for every person who gets shelter, many others return to the streets or move to the next spot, only to move again and again.
Paul Garcia, 62, sat on the curb a few tents away, sipping his beer as he got his head shaved by his best friend, Elizabeth Villalobos, 52, who came by to check on him. She used to live here but got into long-term housing in San Pedro. Garcia said he keeps trying to get a bed, signing his name here and there when social workers show up, but nothing ever comes of it.
“Might as well put me in prison,” he said. “Just to get off the street.”
“They’ve been giving him the runaround,” Villalobos chimed in.
He mumbled something unintelligible but for a curse word.
Villalobos worries about him because he suffers high blood pressure, diabetes and sometimes gets seizures. She fears he might die out here. There have been shootings in this camp, and overdoses.
With the April 30 deadline looming, people had been dropping off food and drinks. After 9 a.m., two members of a local church brought Starbucks coffee and doughnuts. One of them went to high school with King. Now, they were helping him regain copies of documents he lost when he ended up on the streets.
So much effort here goes to trying to square people’s chaotic lives into the orderly boxes needed to get them off the streets — and keep them off.
Roxanne Sanchez, 57, had returned to the camp after losing her place at a Bridge Home shelter half a mile away for failing to check in at the front desk for a third day straight.
“I was going to call, but I didn’t have a number to call them,” she said. “So I didn’t go back.”
Now she was packing her stuff, combing through the luggage, plastic bins and bags of clothes scattered on the dirt.
The day rolled on and visitors stopped by to chat, drink and smoke pot. There was no sign of police or sanitation crews to clear them out. The tension subsided for a little, but the campers remained unsettled, not knowing their fate.
Maybe the city was giving them until the end of the day to move. Or until morning. Or maybe the signs had been an idle threat.
A man speaking to himself showed up, tossed a beer bottle into the street and rammed a shopping cart into the fence of a business before walking away.
The campers say they look after one another, and when benevolent strangers drop off food and groceries, they make sure everyone gets their share, not just the more aggressive or outspoken. This day, a young man with long brown hair walked up, painfully shy and shoeless.
“Hey, you want some shoes?” one of the campers yelled out.
The young man nodded. He was handed a pair of white Adidas sneakers and two cigarettes. He thanked the group and left quietly.
As homeless camps popped up all over Los Angeles, the City Council revised its anti-camping law last year, prohibiting people from sleeping, sitting or placing property in the public right-of-way. Each council member can designate no-camping zones in their districts, as long as the displaced are offered services and interim housing.
About 150 signs listing deadlines for the homeless people to leave have been posted throughout the city since the law was adopted.
Enforcement is mixed. Tents remain at many of the sites weeks or months past the deadlines. City and county officials say it’s because there aren’t enough shelters, tiny homes or hotel rooms to offer and not enough people to help coordinate getting them there.
Homeless advocates say the law furthers the criminalization of people living in the streets when they deserve more services amid sparse housing options.
So far this year, city officials have issued only two citations for setting up tents or otherwise being in a no-encampment zone. They say the low number underscores their focus on getting people into shelters and temporary housing.
In March, the signs went up where King was living near 7th and Beacon streets. Three weeks after he moved to the Gulch, workers installed no-camping zone signs there, too.
“This is wrong. I literally have nowhere to go,” he told a reporter, three days after they were posted. “I was born and raised here, I played for the high school football team, and now my own community spits on my face.”
Nearly half of the 14 people living at the encampment said they were waiting to be placed in shelters. Frustration boiled over. What were they supposed to do?
King said he’s so eager to get housing or shelter that he’s chased after outreach workers driving by.
“I told them: Hey, I want to get off the streets. I’ve been out here for years. I’m tired, man — this is just going to lead to prison or death, can you guys help me?”
Reina Alvarez, 48, pitched her tent on the bottom of Gulch Road in early April, on the corner of Miner Street, a busy four-lane thoroughfare. She’d been living on the streets for four months.
“All I can do is survive now,” she said. “I ask God to get me out of this situation, because this isn’t for me.”
She was recently hit by a car crossing the street, and needed to go to downtown Los Angeles for physical therapy, a bus journey that takes up half her day.
The incident has her terrified that a car speeding along Miner Street is going to jump the curb and crush her while she’s sleeping. When the road is quiet, she worries a stray bullet will hit her. She’s heard of other campers whose tents have been hit with pellets or bottles. People drive by cursing at them, throwing trash.
For two months, she said, she’s been on a waiting list for a shelter. But with the deadline here, she felt anxious not knowing where she’d go and if the next spot would be safe.
“Ultimately, I follow the rules,” she said. “This is not my place.”
Her neighbor Carl Sanchez said he would not abide by the order to leave.
At the library he came across a story about a lawsuit on homelessness in Boise, Idaho. In that case, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that people experiencing homelessness cannot be criminally punished for sleeping outside on public property, if there are no available alternatives.
Sanchez thought the case applied to everyone at the encampment. He wrote his summary of it on paper, made copies and handed them out at the camp. He taped a few to the no-camping signs.
“How can people who have everything treat us like trash?” he said. “They have beds, they have air conditioning, they have cars. I don’t even have a bicycle, I don’t even have a skateboard. How dare they treat us like that?”
Ahmad Chapman, spokesman for Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said between April 11 and April 17, the agency’s teams went to the encampment six times to connect with 43 people. Outreach workers from Harbor Interfaith Services and Mental Health America went there as well.
In 2020, when the last homeless count was conducted, about 2,257 homeless people were living in San Pedro. The report found that 323 of those were sheltered and 1,934 were unsheltered.
Sanchez said many people don’t like the shelters because the tight quarters create tension, people steal and the rules are too strict. He said he left a shelter in Long Beach when he was told he could not bring a soda inside.
His outrage faded late Saturday afternoon, when the cleanup crews and cops never came. Talk turned to other subjects or drifted off. Maybe they’d actually get a reprieve.
Sunday morning felt like a repeat of the day before. There were no sanitation crews, no police cars, just kind people stopping by to offer coffee and doughnuts, lunch plates and water.
A live band started playing music for a 5K event.
By now everyone felt confused. Some were convinced that they would be kicked out the day the city regularly cleans the area, Tuesday, even though county officials said the local shelters were full.
Sure enough, on Tuesday morning, everyone who was at the camp woke up to see sanitation trucks and homeless agency workers on Gulch Road, backed up by eight police cruisers.
King was nowhere to be seen. The campers said he got an offer from the high school friend who had been helping him to camp in a family member’s backyard. His tent, however, remained at the Gulch.
The social workers had people sign up on waiting lists for shelter that many had already signed up for.
Not far away, the local city councilman, Joe Buscaino, who was then running for mayor, watched as sanitation crews started to load trash in the trucks. Buscaino became agitated when a Times reporter told him that some people were waiting to get into a shelter but that shelters were full.
“Who says they’re full?”
The county’s homeless authority, the reporter told him. Chapman, its spokesman, had said the afternoon before that the shelter sites in the San Pedro area were 97% full.
Buscaino shook his head.
“That’s BS, we have available beds, and I personally offered available beds just down the street, ” he said. Referring to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, he added, “That’s why LAHSA’s got to go.”
A homeless activist from the Los Angeles Community Action Network also told Buscaino that shelters had no openings. He and his staff disagreed.
Busciano crossed the street and introduced himself to the homeless people sitting or standing next to their property. He told them there were beds available at the Bridge Home shelter.
“It’s a lot safer to be there,” he said. “Resources, showers, food. … We need you to make that choice. Please go into safer locations.”
Roxanne Sanchez stood next to her luggage, listening to Buscaino.
When she took Buscaino’s shelter offer, he clapped his hands and asked to hug her. She gave him a polite hug.
Reina Alvarez, who had been waiting two months for a bed, also took Buscaino’s offer, as did two others.
The Bridge Home shelter took three of them in. One person got a tiny home.
It’s not clear how space was suddenly available. Buscaino’s office said people got into shelters because L.A. County’s Department of Public Health had allowed shelters to increase their bed count days before. But LAHSA said the restrictions, placed during the pandemic, were still in effect when crews cleared out the Gulch.
Three people refused to leave the area, Carl Sanchez and two activists. Police arrested them.
The other campers grabbed what they could and walked off. Carl Sanchez was released that day, and three days passed before he could retrieve his property or medicine. He’s back to living near the Gulch. So is Garcia.
Days later, Alvarez and Roxanne Sanchez said they’re both still staying at the Bridge Home.
“Still here, doing all right,” Roxanne Sanchez said recently.
As of last week, the Gulch was still empty.