Officials in Los Angeles have cleared a homeless encampment near SoFi stadium, where the Super Bowl will take place in three weeks, drawing backlash from human rights groups and the unhoused residents who have been displaced.
On Monday and Tuesday, the state transit agency Caltrans shut down the tent community, which visitors would probably have passed on their way to the big game, calling it a “safety issue”.
But some have accused authorities of forcing people out of sight without providing housing or services.
“They are just trying to survive,” said Sofi Villalpando, who works with some of the displaced residents. “It feels like [authorities] are removing people so they won’t be seen.”
Dawn Toftee (57), who was living at the encampment that was cleared, told the Guardian on Wednesday that she lost the couch she had been sleeping on during the sweep and was now sleeping on a blanket on a nearby street where she felt less safe. “Now I’m at this site where I didn’t want to be. There’s been killings and shootings around here. They should let us have our home back.”
Ms Toftee said another unhoused resident, who uses a wheelchair, had also lost the mattress he’d been sleeping on during the cleanup. She blamed the Super Bowl: “It’s terrible and it’s bullshit.”
The controversial sweep comes as elected officials in LA have increasingly launched high-profile encampment shutdowns in response to a worsening humanitarian crisis. There were an estimated 48,000 people living on the streets in LA county at the start of the pandemic, the latest count showed.
The strategy of sweeps, critics say, has prioritised aesthetics and the complaints of neighbours, leading people in established tent communities to be scattered into more dangerous living conditions.
It also comes as the region is dealing with major Covid outbreaks in homeless shelters across the county, further limiting unhoused people’s options.
It’s unclear how many people were affected by this week’s sweep and whether anyone received housing, shelter or other services. Michael Comeaux, Caltrans spokesman, directed the Guardian to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (Lahsa), the county service provider that partnered with Caltrans for “outreach and support”.
A Lahsa spokesman said that the agency had talked to eight encampment residents on Tuesday, but he did not confirm whether any were successfully placed into housing.
Mr Comeaux said Caltrans had brought “personal belongings left behind” to a nearby maintenance yard where they would be stored for a few weeks, and that the agency had posted notices about the “cleanup” 72 hours in advance. Mr Comeaux said that if a couch or mattress looked to be in “unusable condition”, the crew would dispose of it.
Madeline deVillers, another advocate working with the residents, said Caltrans had showed up hours earlier than some residents had expected and that she had witnessed people’s belongings being thrown out. She estimated that more than two dozen people had been displaced by the sweep and said she did not personally know of anyone who received any form of housing or shelter. Most people were camping around nearby streets, she said.
“There are community bonds out here – people help each other,” she said. “If I give out certain supplies, they get passed on through other people. So having this loss of community really takes a lot of resources from people, and is really hard and dangerous for these folks.”
While Caltrans has said a “fire safety” concern was driving the cleanup, advocates questioned why the whole camp had to be closed. And a worker on site told the local station KTLA that the Super Bowl was the impetus for the sweep.
“No one wants to take responsibility for what is happening,” said Annie Powers, an organiser with NOlympics LA, a coalition that has organised against the Olympics in 2028 in LA, partly out of concern that it will lead to these kinds of sweeps. “We see this