What happens to the homeless when a Super Bowl comes to town?

7 eleven, california, chevron, david gross, ed lee, eugene, eugene oregon, fox, gavin newsom, geography of california, geography of the united states, giving, inglewood california, Los Angeles, luskin, madeline devillers, NFL, nfl title, outreach, project roomkey, skid row, sofi stadium, super bowl, super bowl 50, super bowls, the super bowl, tony kelley, unhoused, us department of housing and urban development, world championship

LOS ANGELES — If you saw Eugene at a Chevron station or a 7-Eleven in Los Angeles, at first glance you might not notice anything out of the ordinary. He is a Black man with a dark complexion clear enough in the early evening light that some might ask for his skincare routine. He’s under 6 feet tall, with a gray stubble beard. His teeth are small and fairly straight, and while he’s far from a large man, a person’s first thought upon seeing him would not be that he is undernourished.

His hands are another story.

People who have spent a life doing manual labor are going to have hands thicker and more calloused than those who earn a living operating Macbooks. But his hands weren’t simply coated with scar tissue on the palms. Both of his hands are entirely swollen. Swollen like he’s been in a championship fight against life that has never gotten to the 12th and final round. Now the tent next to him begins to make a little more sense.

Assumptions might be made about him. He must be an addict, crazy, came out to Los Angeles years ago to try and be in the entertainment industry and it didn’t work out for him. Eugene owns up to the fact that he made some mistakes in his life that resulted in him being incarcerated a couple of times — 60 percent of Los Angeles’ unhoused population has been in the criminal justice system. Since then he has been hustling, and has lived in some group homes. His trade is music, which he has been pursuing since he graduated high school. That high school is Hillcrest High School in Inglewood, Calif.

“I think there’s a big perception that people who are unhoused are looking for an easier way of life,” said Madeline deVillers, an activist for the unhoused in Inglewood. “Maybe people have moved out to California and so you can live on the streets and you don’t suffer as much.

“Imagine not having access to a regular bathroom that you can use. Imagine not being able to bathe whenever you want. It’s people who are collecting recycling to make recycling money or like walking all over town to find things to recycle. People are working their butts off to survive. Yet we, as the housed society, have the idea that people are just lazy or just want this easy way out. The majority of folks that I am working with out here have been in this area for decades if not born and raised here in Inglewood or in Hawthorne or Torrance.”

DeVillers works with unhoused people, mainly where the 405 passes over Century Boulevard, less than two miles from Los Angeles International Airport. It was here, two weeks ago, where unhoused encampments were cleared underneath the overpass and in a field next to the offramp.

Eugene was living in that field. He has been in this area for nearly two years and is still there, but has to figure out his next move.

“I don’t have any idea what I’m gonna do.” Eugene said. “I’ve already been told that I gotta leave [where I’m at now].”

Life beneath the underpass.

Life beneath the underpass.
Image: Stephen Knox

That is not the only encampment that was cleared. In early December, one was cleared from the Prairie Ave. exit off of the 105. Those are two places that many visitors will have to pass on their way to SoFi Stadium in Inglewood where Super Bowl LVI will be held. The California Department of Transportation sent a statement to Deadspin about the clearing of encampments near the 405, but did not answer additional questions about the removal in December.

”Caltrans identified an encampment at Century Boulevard on-ramp to northbound Interstate 405 that needed to be cleared due to a fire safety issue. Caltrans’ responsibility is to ensure the safety of the traveling public and to protect and maintain California’s highway infrastructure. The department is coordinating with local partners to provide outreach and support including Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). Caltrans posted a notice at the site 72-hours in advance of the cleanup, on January 20, to allow those at the encampment time to gather their belongings and take advantage of services. The department is collecting personal belongings left behind and bringing them to a nearby maintenance yard for later retrieval.”

It’s not an uncommon practice for unhoused people to be forced to leave areas where visitors for major events like the Super Bowl will gather. It has been alleged that the Texas Department of Transportation cleared an unhoused encampment underneath a highway overpass in midtown Houston to make the area more presentable for Super Bowl LI, and when it came time for Super Bowl 50 at Levi Stadium the former mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee, told the unhoused living along the Embarcadero — where many parties were held before the big game in Santa Clara, Calif. — that they “would have to leave.”

The practice has been alleged to have gone on as early as the first two Super Bowls that were held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the late 1960s, back when it wasn’t the Super Bowl but the First World Championship Game AFL vs. NFL. Senior Recreation Director at Darby Park’s Martin Luther King Community Center, Tony Kelley, grew up in South Central Los Angeles and remembers what happened near the Coliseum prior to those first AFL vs. NFL title games.

“They spruced up Exposition Park when the [Green Bay] Packers played,” Kelley said. “It’s always cool for the city to be like it is until you gonna have visitors. Now you gotta paint the face and show it in a good light. Everybody knows that there are homeless in every city.

“When you live in the area and they start cleaning up the area or changing things you notice. That wasn’t there before. What happened to what was there? Things that normal city life show you, but now you got guests coming in and you need to put out the good china.”

As normal and cruel as it is for a Super Bowl host city — and a future Olympic host city — to polish and display its china by removing unhoused people from where paying customers will gather, it hits a little different with a place that has been known at times as the “Homeless Capital of America” since the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development first gave it that title in 1984. As of 2019, Los Angeles had the highest number of unhoused people in America who do not sleep in emergency shelters.

Unhoused find a place of solace beside the highway.

Unhoused find a place of solace beside the highway.
Image: Stephen Knox

According to a 2020 count — the 2021 study was suspended due to the COVID pandemic — more than 63,000 people were homeless in Los Angeles County. Who knows how many more people have fallen into homelesness since people like Eugene, who had been doing janitorial work, have been unable to secure employment since the onset of the pandemic. But don’t worry, those exiting off of the 105 freeway from their downtown hotels to SoFi Stadium, or taking the short trip up Century from the hotels near the airport, will not be bothered by the sight of Los Angeles’ most abhorrent urban decay. A decay that has been gradually eating at Los Angeles for decades.

The nationwide roll back of safety-net programs in the 1970s and 1980s hit Los Angeles like it did many other places in the United States as has industrialization. Kelley worked in aerospace at TRW for 21 years. That company has been defunct since 2002.

It especially took a toll on Black Americans who did not receive the government stimulus of the New Deal that was offered to White Americans — Black Americans make up only 8 percent of Los Angeles County’s population and 34 percent of its unhoused per a report by UCLA’s Luskin Center released in early 2021. Black Angelenos are still finding impediments to being able to participate fully in the economy.

The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in South Los Angeles was up for sale last year. There were Black investors who attempted to purchase this shopping center located in a historically Black South Los Angeles community, and claim that the bidding process was unfair. The head of one investment group, David Gross, said to Fox 11 Los Angeles that when their initial bid wasn’t high enough, they increased it. He said DWS then informed the group that they preferred to go with a group that was led by Harridge Development, the same thing the Downtown Crenshaw Rising Group claim was said to them. DWS sent statements to both Fox 11 and KABC that said the process of selling the property was fair and open.

Another common American problem that hit Los Angeles hard, is the rising cost of living.

Per the Luskin report:

“Starting in the 1970s but accelerating in the 2000s, the financialization of real estate intensified the push to maximize the rate of return on every parcel of land, leading to a continuing wave of evictions and displacement in Skid Row [the most well known concentration of unhoused people in Los Angeles and possibly all of America] and throughout the city.”

That attitude can be seen in Inglewood. It’s a place that Kelley said was a destination for Black professionals to buy homes. These days, developers have offered many of the previous homeowners large sums of money to sell and it has caused property values to skyrocket.

“Your parents bought a house in Inglewood, you grew up in Inglewood. You 30 years old, but you live in Hawthorne.” Kelley said. Your parents own they house when your parents are deceased, that house, do you live in it, or do you let that guy buy it for $500,000, $600,000? You not gonna be able to make that $500,000 anywhere else.

“As time progressed property went up. The amount of money that you made went up. The amount of money that you paid to live in a place went up. The majority of your paycheck, or the money, that you get a month goes for paying rent, house note.” According to the Luskin report, by the early 1990s 25 percent of Angelenos were paying more than 50 percent of their income toward rent. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has recently said that 509,000 affordable housing units are needed.

There is also the issue of mental health. Getting through a day in many parts of Los Angeles often involves ignoring extreme cases of heartbreaking distress. People letting out blood-curdling screams at any time of day or night, people pacing up and down the sidewalk, or in the middle of an intersection, cursing and talking to themselves, and maybe even someone gripping the bumper of a parked car with his pants down his ankles and defecating on the street while making no attempt to hide from passing vehicles.

For those who have never seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, there were many problems with state-run mental health facilities throughout the early 20th century. In 1963 the Community Health Centers Act was supposed to allocate federal dollars to the construction of community-based mental health centers. According to the Luskin Report, by 1981 those funds had largely dried up.

In 1967, Los Angeles passed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which prevented authorities from institutionalizing people unless they were seen as a danger to themselves or others, or were unable to provide basic care for themselves. People in that state could only be held for 72 hours. For one, this act did not stop authorities from arresting people with mental health issues, and it also led to many people suffering from mental health issues being treated temporarily and then they were back on the streets. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2019 that 67 percent of homeless adults in Los Angeles County suffered from mental illness or substance abuse issues.

Since spring of this year, Los Angeles’ answer to its homelessness crisis has been force. One mile east of Dodger Stadium is Echo Park Lake. During the pandemic an unhoused encampment formed, and in March they were told to leave because the park was going to be closed — a few months before the 41.18 ordinance was passed, which declared that any public park in the City of Los Angeles is eligible to be declared a no-camp zone. When the day finally came, there were protests. Unhoused and housed faced off against police in a tense altercation in which police say protesters launched projectiles at them, and responded by shooting bean bag rounds into the crowd. At the conclusion, 182 people were arrested and by the end of that week the park was cleared.

Authorities claim that housing was offered, much through California’s Projects Roomkey and Homekey that offered hotel rooms to unhoused people during the pandemic. Roomkey — ironically named since people in the program do not receive keys — is temporary, and Homekey is long-term. It sounds great, but space is limited.

California Governor Gavin Newsom recently granted $21 million to Los Angeles’ city housing authority to create 78 units of permanent housing. Of the nearly 3,000 rooms secured for Los Angeles County in Project Roomkey, only around 1,150 are occupied. Also, once people are assigned rooms it’s not always happily ever after.

There are rules such as a curfew, and a limited amount of time that can be spent off site every day. For people who have jobs, they can’t work any available shift which makes them less employable. There have also been complaints about unattentive staff — one woman in the Little Tokyo neighborhood said that she left the Key program because for everything it provided, she couldn’t get a working toilet. They also aren’t allowed to have guests. In the middle of a pandemic that does make sense, but deVillers explains that goes into what authorities don’t understand about the people they are forcing to leave home even though there are no doors or walls.

“I feel like the attitude of the city and of the police and the city and the county, whichever entity is responsible for whichever sweep that we’re talking about the idea is the attitude is sort of, well if you’re homeless here you could be homeless somewhere else,” deVillers said. “That doesn’t take into account these kind of connections that people have and how much people help each other. I can give out Narcan or supplies or something and those will go to people who need them. So to scatter folks around you’re cutting them off from their resources.”

The whole sheltering environment also speaks to why someone like Eugene did not care for group housing and elected to move back outside a while ago.

“It wasn’t for me,” Eugene said. “They were trying to tell me how to be a man and I don’t need nobody telling me how to be a man.”

What some may think is ungrateful, asinine, or insane, to choose the outdoors over a building, the last thing that people who are unhoused have to hold onto is their dignity.

All they have is that and possessions. They will defend them as hard as possible, even if it’s a man living underneath that Century Blvd. overpass lunging at traffic with a knife. For those doing everything possible to keep their finances in order and families taken care of, an unhoused person has been stripped of everything largely because of the issues previously outlined in this story. They know that they’re on the street, and surely never thought that they would end up there. When there’s nothing else to fight for, all there is left is dignity. It’s why Eugene isn’t going to talk too long about his situation without repeating, “Ima be alright though.” Sometimes that is worth more than a roof over your head with people you don’t know, even if Eugene is on the move again because this week his tent was nowhere to be found.

That’s what is being removed from the view of visitors. The people so often looked past and through on a daily basis. It’s not like for those visitors it will be their first time seeing unhoused people, but the best china has to be put out everywhere, and that includes the highway exits and sidewalks that thousands will see on their way to the Super Bowl. Sure the host city wants to put its best foot forward, but it’s really ashamed. Ashamed of the way it looks, people living in tents in one of the wealthiest places on earth.

And Los Angeles — as well as the entire United States of America — should be ashamed, but not of the people that have been moved. It needs to be ashamed of itself.

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