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‘They’re gone but not forgotten’: Los Angeles homeless community mourns those killed by city policies

Members of the Van Nuys homeless community in Los Angeles tell Mike Bedigan that amid their ongoing struggles with city authorities, they just want their friends to be remembered for the people they were

Friday 22 March 2024 15:49 GMT
Homeless deaths have soared 300% in Los Angeles. One community gathered to mourn family members they’ve lost
Homeless deaths have soared 300% in Los Angeles. One community gathered to mourn family members they’ve lost (Anthony Orendorff)

In a carpark north of Los Angeles a makeshift wooden altar stands decorated with photographs of people. Some are smiling, others are serious but all were members of the Van Nuys homeless community, and all have died within the last six months.

“What we’re doing today is to honour our family that had lived here, homeless and struggling, that have now passed on,” Kookie, a community member, said during a memorial held on Saturday.

“We all came here by ourselves but we ended up being with family, we ended up real close,” Kookie continued. "It’s sad when one goes but you’re not promised tomorrow. And they’re gone but not forgotten.”

Around 30 people attended the event to remember those who’d passed and draw attention to failings of the city government’s unhoused policies, which organisers say have increased the numbers of homeless people dying.

Shocking data from the Los Angeles Medical Examiner revealed that more than 2,000 unhoused people died in Los Angeles in 2023, an increase of almost 300 per cent since 2014.

A memorial in Van Nuys remembering members of the local homeless community who have passed away in recent months (Mike Bedigan/ The Independent)

“Even though I am unhoused, I have an unhoused community, we look out for each other, we all look out for each other. We get each other because we’re all going through the same thing,” another community member, Jelly, tells The Independent.

Gone but not forgotten

Among those remembered at the memorial were Anjileen “Green Eyes” Swan, Michael Flores, Gino, Terry Mason Kendrick, “Spicy” Mike Baldwin, Tony Goodwin, Big L, and April.

The event marks exactly two months since Green Eyes passed away in her tent across the road from the car park in San Fernando Valley, and members of the community had fond memories to share.

“Green Eyes was special, may she rest in Heaven,” Jelly told The Independent. “She was an extremely stubborn lady – she was set in her ways and there was no changing too. But she was a lover too. She didn’t put up with shit but she still loved everybody too.

“She was a cool, classy woman and I loved the time I had with her.”

Green Eyes was a fixture of the Van Nuys community, helping to feed others or organise clothing donations. Shortly before her death in January she had been given accommodation through a city programme, but after returning from heart surgery in Las Vegas, found she was unable to check back in, and returned to the streets.

Anjileen ‘Green Eyes’ Swan was a valued member of the Van Nuys homeless community (Carla Orendorff/ Anthony Orendorff)

Those who knew her said she had felt that being evicted from her housing due to health-related issues was an “injustice”.

“There is a silence there from the city and we blame individuals for their own deaths. What happened to Green Eyes should have not happened to anyone and yet it’s happening again and again and again,” says unhoused community organiser Carla Orendorff.

Also featured on the altar was Flores, known to friends as Mike Flo. He was the subject of a previous investigation by The Independent into the housing arrangements introduced by LA mayor Karen Bass.

Flores been living in a homeless encampment at the Van Nuys bus station for at least three years when he was offered a place in the mayor’s Inside Safe initiative to get people off the streets.

In September, Flores moved into the Palm Tree Inn, a rundown motel. By late November, he was dead of a drug overdose. Orendorff says that Inside Safe  enforced “isolation policies” that meant those staying at the motels could not receive visitors and this, in part, contributed to Flores’ death.

“Mike was cool, he was a real funny guy, really laid back, and wasn’t into no mess or anything like that. A really cool character, always full of laughs, and he could take a joke too,” Jelly told The Independent.

Michael Flores, known as ‘Mike Flo’ to his friends, died in November 2023 (Carla Orendorff)

“Ain’t nobody ever have no problem with Mike Flo, nobody had nothing bad to say about that dude.”

Tony Goodwin, who passed away three years ago, was another strong member of the Van Nuys community. Orendorff said he was “targeted incessantly” by city authorities because he ran a food pantry out of his tent.

“He couldn’t stand the thought of anyone going hungry so he had a food pantry right outside of his tent where anyone could come by and get some food. And City Sanitation declared that a threat to public health and safety,” she told The Independent.

“Every week they came and threw away all the food that he had collected in his pantry. To us that was an injustice and it eventually took a toll. Tony died of a heart attack on the sidewalk.”

People getting thrown out like trash

Members of the Van Nuys community frequently criticise the enforcement of Section 41:18 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code, which states by law that there will be no "sitting, lying, or sleeping, or ... storing, using, maintaining, or placing personal property in the public right-of-way.”

However, an amendment to the ordinance in 2021 states that no one can be found in violation of the law “unless and until” the City Council has designated the specific areas of enforcement, or until 14 calendar days after official signage has been posted to indicate such areas.

Van Nuys: Los Angeles homeless community pay tributes to dead ‘family’ members

Van Nuys homeless community members say that despite this, authorities still take a “guerilla” approach to cleaning out encampments.

“If anyone actually sees what’s going on, it’s atrocious, and it’s unnecessary,” Jelly tells The Independent. “City Sanitation are really not doing their job, they’re supposed to clean up trash and they don’t do that. They come and throw away our belongings, specifically.

“They’re not doing their job, they’re here to harass and inconvenience us. They want to get there early so they can take all of our belongings and throw it away, just to discourage us.”

Last month, following the severe storms in California, The Independent spoke to Whitney, a homeless woman living in the Van Nuys area. The day after the interview Whitney’s encampment was removed during an unannounced sweep. A metal fence was erected around the area.

“These events of displacement and banning people from public space and fencing it up has caused so much distrust, hurt and it’s only a contributing factor to people losing their lives,” said Orendorff.

“We’ve seen it over and over, and over again and the impact on our community has been severe. It’s almost like a message being sent.”

Zach Seidl, Deputy Mayor of Communications told The Independent in a statement: “Every death that occurs on the street or in a hotel is a tragedy and we express our condolences to those friends, family and community members who have lost a loved one.

“Since Inside Safe began, we’ve taken urgent action to bring Angelenos off the street and into housing, which has saved lives. This year, Dr [Etsemaye] Agonafer as Deputy Mayor of Homelessness and Community Health has joined the team to improve and expand health services and care to enhance our comprehensive approach.

“We continue to provide new services and implement new strategies to help protect participants from isolation and substance use including keeping communities together in housing, assisting interested participants with substance use treatment services, and offering participants to have a roommate in some locations.”

The Independent has also reached out to City Sanitationand Council District 6, for comment about the concerns of the Van Nuys homeless community members.

‘We just want to be treated equally’

Van Nuys homeless community members Kookie (left) and Jelly (right) speak at a memorial event for their frriends (Anthony Orendorff)

Community members told The Independent that Saturday’s memorial is about remembering their friends and “family”as people, contrary to the cliched societal perceptions of unhoused people as drug addicts or violent.

“They think they’re better than us, they don’t want to sit by us. We’re not about hurting people, you know, we just wanted to be treated equally,” Kookie says.

“Nobody knows the story behind what got us here, what led us to this point. Everybody has a story, everybody has their own shoes to walk in.”

And, Kookie says, people experiencing homelessness want the same thing as everyone else: a safe, comfortable life and a chance for things to get better. “It’s sad,” she said, “Since I’ve been living here we’ve lost a lot of people due to whatever situation… overdose, being homeless. Now these people, they’re not here no more – they didn’t get a chance to know what it feels like to have a home or an apartment or to see everybody grow.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Jelly. “Living out here has very much humbled myself in a lot of different ways and [taught me] to be more accepting of people and their issues and problems because we’ve all got them,” she says.

“Until you meet us... [to meet us] is to love us, we’re not what everyone makes us out to be. We have good support, there are really awesome people out here.”

Community organiser Carla Orendorff address a memorial event in Van Nuys (Anthony Orendorff)

At the memorial event, alongside the flower-adorned altar – a trestle table held donated clothes, hygiene and medical supplies, and other useful items. A local vendor has also fired up a portable pizza oven.

“What our event is highlighting is the fact that without community there is no life,” Orendorff told The Independent.

“The fact that three people who are a treasured part of this community have passed away within the last three months… It’s not an easy story to tell. But it’s an important story to tell.”

But even amongst the ongoing grief, community members remained resilient.

“I’m still gonna fight for us, I’m still gonna go forward and struggle,” Kookie said. “You get spirit and then something always knocks you down, you know? You just have to dust yourself off and keep going.”

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