Dec. 8 2010 10:28 AM

Storage facility seeks to lighten homeless folks' load

Onean Hampton and his knapsack
Photo by Kelly Davis
"Ann" carries umbrellas for protection-six of them, full-size, pointed ends facing outward, strapped to a suitcase that sits atop her wheeled walker. From the walker's handles hang various nylon bags. One bag has a day's worth of food; another holds hand wipes that give off a faint smell of Johnson's Baby Oil. Tying everything together is an elaborate chain-and-lock system that encircles Ann's waist, her best attempt to keep thieves from trying to take the walker and, with it, everything she owns.

"It's all a person has left, you know," said the 68-year-old, who asked that her real name not be used. "The Bible tries to teach you that personal property's not much, but that's not true. You just see the look on somebody's face after they've started over two or three times-they just want to die."

Onean Hampton's possessions are limited to what he can fit into his black knapsack-two sleeping bags, a few items of clothing, a winter coat, cigarettes, instant coffee and packets of sugar ("I like my coffee sweet," he said). The 69-year-old never lets the knapsack out of his sight.

"I've got a strong back, strong legs, strong hands," he said. "I have to have that to tote my stuff, because I'm not going to leave it nowhere."

To be homeless means cramming your life into a knapsack, suitcase or shopping cart-sometimes all three, depending on how good you are at whittling down to basics.

"I wonder how much some people would have if they had to carry around everything they really needed," Ann said.

To be homeless also means minding those items. "It's difficult for [people] to put it somewhere while they go out for the day. They have to stay around and protect it," said Raoul, a homeless vet. "Sometimes they come back and it's gone. Sometimes people take it; sometimes police come around and they make a clean-up sweep.

"Down there at the Bottoms, you've got to watch your items," he said, referring to the area east of Park Boulevard, Downtown. "It doesn't matter what you have because other homeless people pick up another person's backpack and take it if they're asleep. They'll pick it up and walk away with it, and you won't know it until you wake up."

Raoul uses a walker to get around. He sleeps in the same place each night and relies on his friend Julie, who lives in a nearby apartment, to bring him his bedding. Then, at around 6 a.m., Julie said, "I come down and pick up his bag and take it upstairs. If it wasn't for me, he'd have no place to put it."

The Central City East Association, a business-improvement district in downtown Los Angeles, operates the Personal Property Storage Facility for the Homeless-"the warehouse," as it's more commonly known, said CCEA Executive Director Estela Lopez. Donated in 2002 by a CCEA board member, the 20,000 square-foot building holds 500 bins-wheeled trashcans donated by Waste Management. Homeless people rent the bins, for free, to store their possessions, which they can retrieve through a system akin to how a bank handles safety-deposit boxes.

It's first-come, first-served, Lopez said. "We could double the size of the warehouse and still not have enough for everybody who needs it," she added.

L.A.'s program costs roughly $100,000 annually and is paid for by fees from CCEA-member businesses and a grant from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

San Diego's set to have a similar program, the result of a legal settlement stemming from a Sept. 22, 2009, incident in which employees with the city's Environmental Services Department threw away people's possessions without, the lawsuit argues, providing sufficient notice or following city law.

According to several witnesses CityBeat spoke with at the time, at around 11 a.m., police cars and a city trash truck pulled up near God's Extended Hand, a homeless-services mission located at 16th and Island avenues in East Village. A group of homeless people who normally camped on the sidewalk along Island, near an empty lot, had left their stuff behind-shopping carts, bedrolls, backpacks-to have lunch at the mission. City workers started throwing the items into the truck, witnesses said, where they were then compacted. When people tried to retrieve their stuff, they were told it was too late.

While the city's municipal code says it's illegal for personal items to obstruct the public right-of-way and unattended items "whose owner cannot be readily identified are presumed to be abandoned," the law also says: "Wherever possible, Enforcement Officials shall make a reasonable effort to ascertain whether the unattended personal property or possessions have been abandoned," and "unattended personal property or possessions that are sanitary and saleable or useable and of a value greater than one hundred dollars ($100) shall be transferred as soon as is practicable to the Chief of Police."

Police confirmed that no items were turned over.

Scott Dreher, one of the attorneys for nine plaintiffs who say they lost medication, clothing and bedding, cash and personal documents, among other items, said initial settlement discussions with the City attorney's office focused on developing a better notification system, as well as a place to store items confiscated in future abatements.

"We talked about creating a lost and found with those metal shipping containers, stuff like that," he said.

Then they heard about CCEA's storage warehouse and made a trip to L.A. to check it out.

"We all agreed that a storage facility was a much better idea," Dreher said, "especially using the L.A. model."

Dreher said the city has identified a possible location-a property currently owned by the Centre City Development Corp., which oversees Downtown redevelopment. The facility, Dreher said, will be run by the Isaiah Project, a nonprofit whose born Again Baskets-repurposed shopping carts donated to homeless people-were among the items destroyed in last year's abatement. Though a report by KGTV 10News said the facility's $100,000 operating cost would be at "taxpayers' expense," the money will come from fees paid to dispose of large amounts of waste at the Miramar Landfill.

"It's technically not taxpayer funds," Dreher said. Like the CCEA facility, San Diego's will maintain a strict no-loitering policy.

"People aren't allowed to go there and hang out," Dreher said. "They're allowed to go, get stuff, deliver stuff and then they've got to leave. It's not a day shelter."

Though the property's available for only a year, according to the settlement, which the San Diego City Council is expected to vote on in January, the city "will use its best efforts" to find another suitable location.

"Theoretically, this will be run well and it'll be a shining example of what a thing can be," Dreher said. "And the city will say, ‘Yeah, we want this to continue because it keeps 500 piles of stuff of the sidewalks.'" CCEA's Lopez said she's "elated" that San Diego might open such a facility.

"The amount of personal possessions on the street now versus 2002 when we opened the center-there's no comparison," she said. "It's an important element to the homeless population and the business community. Hopefully it's something that helps get people back on the road to reintegrating into society."

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