June 16, 2015

By Gale Holland

Photography by Katie Falkenberg

The Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on proposals to make it easier for the city to remove homeless people’s belongings from sidewalks and public parks. Previous efforts to seize property left on sidewalks and to arrest homeless people for sleeping in the streets were struck down by federal judges.

But faced with an 85% rise in encampments in the last two years, the city is looking for new ways to clean up homeless enclaves without running afoul of the courts. Many of the city’s 26,000 homeless residents live in tents or lean-tos, and gather possessions both practical and personal. Here is a look at a few of these people and the things they keep close:

Inside Brenda Bryant's tent, she keeps some of her hygiene products organized in an old “Country Crock” container.
Bryant is currently living in a tent on skid row in Los Angeles.

Brenda Bryant

54, San Julian Street, skid row

Bryant keeps a plastic bucket for relieving herself, a whisk broom, a dustpan, toothbrush and toothpaste, and a gallon jug of liquid soap she mixes with bleach and water to keep ants off the sidewalk in her camp. She pours baby oil down the storm drain to keep the roaches from coming out at night.

“Believe it or not, baby powder and oil does it for roaches,” Bryant said.

A Tinkerbell blanket lies at the tent entrance, and her face cream, Let Your Beauty Shine hair product and pink hand mirror are organized in a plastic tub that once contained Country Crock spread. Attached to the tent flap are notes, on Hello Kitty-bordered paper, that she leaves for friends when she’s away: “Make yourself at home,” signed “Peaches,” her street name.

Bryant was released from jail last year but was “put out” of housing after she failed a drug test. “I’m an addict,” she said, tears sliding down her face. She keeps a storage bin at a city-funded warehouse with extra items for when she gets a place to live, which she fervently hopes will be soon.

“I’m a ticking time bomb,” Bryant said.

The city maintains more than 1,400 bins on skid row to store belongings seized during street cleanups or voluntarily stowed by homeless people.

Terrion Brown holds the Bible, a belonging he keeps that is important to him.

Terrion Brown

27, Fifth and San Pedro streets, skid row

Holding a Bible, Brown leans against a brocade sofa cushion on top of a mattress in his sidewalk lean-to — a tarp stretched across shopping and pull carts and a panel screen. A toddler’s plastic keyboard in bright pastels is handy. “It brings back memories of my childhood,” he said. A green baby buggy with a sunshade is “for recycling, or maybe my future kid if I have one.”

Brown said he fell out of a two-story window as a toddler and was taken away from his mother. “Spanish was my first language,” said Brown, who is African American.

He said he’s been homeless and in and out of jail since leaving foster care, and hopes to move to Orange County or somewhere where “people are not tripping on stuff. I want an environment with people functioning off beautiful, brilliant things.”

One in five youths who arrive at shelters come directly from foster care, according to a study cited by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Edna Broussard holds her sewing kit that she has in case she gets a hole in something.
Broussard sits near the tent she and her husband currently live in.

Edna Broussard

48, Wilshire Boulevard and Alvarado Street, MacArthur Park

Broussard has one tent for food, bedding, cleaning supplies and clothing, and a storage tent for plastic bags of summer clothes, blankets and baby clothes. “I’m expecting,” she said.

She uses scissors to fashion a makeshift wash basin out of a gallon jug of drinking water. “You cut the top off and fill it with water and put your rag in there,” she said, hoisting the plastic bottle. She keeps a sewing kit, with a thimble and tape measure, in case her favorite shirt needs mending, Broussard said. A half-empty can of Gravy Train is for the little white dog named Squirrel that a woman dropped off four days ago. “I don’t know why,” Broussard said.

She said police pushed her and her friends out of the park, so they moved their tents to the sidewalk just outside. As she talked, tourists leaned out of a sightseeing bus to take pictures of the camp. “They do that every day,” said Broussard’s husband, who would not give his name.

Broussard said she has multiple serious ailments and lost her apartment nearby when her son was extradited to Texas.

“It’s not like I want to be out here,” she said.

Los Angeles is the least affordable rental market in the country, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Rocky Wilson sits with his dog, Margot, outside of a tent he shares with his wife.

Rocky Wilson

51, North Alvarado Street, Echo Park

Wilson and his wife, Christina, 53, tether their tent to a tree on a hillside median sparsely planted with cactuses. It holds things “dear to us,” Wilson said, chiefly a portable DVD player and 100 movies — including the Avengers, John Wayne and a couple of Shirley Temple films. “It’s our nightly entertainment,” he said.

A flowered tin recipe box for Wilson’s marijuana sits on top of an old book of short stories. “It’s my medicine box,” Wilson said. A dream catcher hangs over pillows crowded with stuffed animals for Margot, their big-eared Chihuahua. Bone-shaped, leopard-print pillows are actually squeaky toys and two stuffed Olafs — the snowman from the movie “Frozen” — were his wife’s, but Margot took them over, Wilson said. Outside the tent is Margot’s designer bed, donated by an animal rescuer. A shaving mirror hangs from a tree branch, and Wilson planted an American flag and a Halloween decoration reading “Beware” around a cactus. A stranger stuck a sparkly whirligig in the dirt.

Raised in Echo Park, Wilson said he just got off parole and can’t find an affordable apartment. While he was panhandling, a little girl brought him an oversized stuffed panda. “She walks up and says, ‘Jesus loves you and so do I,’” Wilson said.

“When a little girl is handing you something like that … it’s touching.”

A quarter of the nation's 600,000 homeless people keep pets, according to a Nevada-based advocacy organization, but most shelters do not allow them.

Pairs of shoes that Charles Smith has collected sit out on display near his makeshift tent.
Smith stands near his belongings under the 101 bridge on Alvarado St.

Charles Smith

66, freeway underpass, Echo Park/ Historic Filipinotown

In the dim concrete underpass, Smith assembled from junk what looks like a four-poster bed with a canopy. Separate rows of men’s and women’s shoes line either side of it. Smith said he gives the shoes and snacks, including peanut butter and lemonade, to his friends in the neighborhood, where he has lived for 22 years — the last one in the streets.

“Lucy, Lucy,” he yelled across the street at a motel maid he said has helped him out with food and clothes. The government got Smith, an Air Force veteran, an apartment in Baldwin Hills a month ago. The place is beautiful, he said, kissing his fingertips and tossing them away, Italian-style. But “I don’t have a TV and I don’t know anybody” there, Smith said, so he comes back to his underpass pied-a-terre. One of Smith’s friends lies on the bed amid crates topped with a derelict boombox and dish antenna, pots and pans and cleaning supplies.

“It’s like a home away from home,” Smith said.

More than 2,700 homeless veterans live in Los Angeles, an increase of 6% over the last two years.

Women's clothing hangs on a fence near Robert Allen Thomas' tent on skid row.

Robert Allen Thomas

57, San Julian Street, skid row

Thomas, an entrepreneurial type, tosses bottles and cans for recycling and garbage into three separate trash cans. He brought a mattress in on his own private “U-haul” — the bottom rack and wheels of a shopping cart. An office chair tossed out by a downtown corporate building made its way to his camp. “We need to sit down too,” he said.

A graduate of Horace Mann Junior High and Crenshaw High School, Thomas said he has been living downtown since 1978, in between jailings. “We used to cook out here with big garbage cans,” he said. “Now some guys have portable stoves.” He said he resells food — if it’s still hot — that comes in free to skid row. “If it’s cold I give it away, or feed the cats around here,” he said. “I appreciate it, but it’s like a big mess here already.”

On the fence behind his tent he hangs fancy women’s clothing: an ivory bandage dress with midriff cutouts and a fuchsia top. “I have lady friends who need clothing,” Thomas said. “I say, ‘What you got for me?’ They say, ‘I got a hat.’ It’s called looking out for yourself.” A purple flower stuck in the fence was from a lady friend, he said.

“That’s my flower,” he said. “Somebody told me I look like a flower.”