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LA Clears One Of Its Largest Homeless Encampments

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

In late March, Los Angeles cleared a large homeless encampment at Echo Park in the central part of the city. Officials say the hundreds of people forced to leave were offered shelter, but not everyone took it. Matthew Tinoco has the story of one woman who's still living on the sidewalk in LA.

MATTHEW TINOCO, BYLINE: The day before Los Angeles surrounded Echo Park Lake with police, Susan Samuelson was in the shade feeding stray cats.

SUSAN SAMUELSON: Come, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty.

TINOCO: In her 12 years on the street, caring for her animal neighbors has kept her going. She just turned 64 and moved to the park last summer because it had bathrooms and nice people brought her food and water. But when homeless outreach workers approached her with an offer of shelter, she declined.

S SAMUELSON: Well, what good is it, you think?

TINOCO: She's had social workers before but is still on the street.

S SAMUELSON: You're going to be treated like, you know, an invalid or incapable of thinking clearly.

TINOCO: As for her plan, when the city closed the park...

S SAMUELSON: I'm just going to stay, and I'll just go to jail.

TINOCO: The next evening, police swarmed in, and city crews started putting up a fence. By daybreak, the entire park was fenced off with Samuelson and a few dozen others still inside. Authorities escorted her out that afternoon.

S SAMUELSON: Believe it or not, you're going to miss me over there.

TINOCO: Amid the chaos, news photographers snapped pictures of her. A man in his 20s looked on indignant.

WYATT SAMUELSON: Hey. Hey, guys, guys. Do you guys want to take photos as she's, like, walking out?

TINOCO: That's Wyatt Samuelson, Susan's son. He left work that day to come find his mother and planned to rent her a hotel room. But first, they needed to pare down her belongings so they would fit in his car.

W SAMUELSON: Make sure it's the essentials, though.

TINOCO: They bickered over cooking supplies.

S SAMUELSON: Why, I can't cook in my own home?

W SAMUELSON: What home?

TINOCO: After repacking into trash bags, they drove off. Officially, about 170 people from Echo Park Lake accepted some sort of shelter from the government. Local politicians hail that a major success. Heidi Marston directs the government agency that connects homeless people to services.

HEIDI MARSTON: We can meet the needs of the city of elected officials and also meet the needs of the people who are experiencing homelessness.

TINOCO: The city of Los Angeles has more than 40,000 homeless people. Its elected officials are under pressure from increasingly angry residents to break up the tent encampments, like the one at Echo Park Lake.

MARSTON: We were able to do it in a way that there was no enforcement.

GENEVIEVE LIANG: I understand, like, no police officers physically touched, you know, unhoused residents and, like, took them away.

TINOCO: Genevieve Liang is with the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition.

LIANG: But it was a psychologically pretty similar type of thing.

TINOCO: Liang says it's only a matter of time before even those who accepted a place to stay will be back on the street. The shelters are temporary, and cheap rent is difficult to find. As for Samuelson, her son wasn't able to get her a hotel room. He isn't in a position to have her move in with him, so he dropped her off a few blocks north of the lake at a spot she's camped out for years. She wants to move to a patch on dirt across the street and out of the sun.

S SAMUELSON: I had it nice at one time there. Until I can get it cleaned up, I can't stay over there.

TINOCO: She doesn't have a bathroom, and now finding water is a matter of survival. She misses living at the park and wonders about the people who demanded the park be cleared.

S SAMUELSON: While they live in their nice little rich homes (laughter). And how do we ruin their view? If we ruin their view, what does that tell you? (Laughter).

TINOCO: So while politicians call the whole operation a success, Susan Samuelson calls the sidewalk her home. For NPR News, I'm Matthew Tinoco in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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