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Homeless People Are Taking Over Vacant Homes to Escape the Coronavirus

by Michael McDevit
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“The LA mayor put a shelter-in-place order, but how am I supposed to wash my hands without a house?”

The kitchen cabinets of Martha Escudero’s new house in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles were all bare. The bedrooms only had mattresses on the floor, and the dining room still needed a table. Still, she was ecstatic that her two children, ages 8 and 10, had a place they could finally call home.

“The kids created an edible garden,” said Escudero, a 42-year-old elder caregiver. “It’s the happiest I’ve seen them in a long time.”

Now, the coronavirus has created another economic crisis. The various piecemeal shutdowns have lead to unprecedented unemployment claims, 46 million over the last 13 weeks. Meanwhile, rent forgiveness never came, eviction moratoriums are ending, and people’s one-time $1,200 stimulus has likely run dry. A new study suggests 250,000 more people won’t have permanent shelter in the U.S. due to COVID-19.

“The LA mayor put a shelter-in-place order, but how am I supposed to wash my hands without a house?” asked Benito Flores, a 65-year-old member of the Reclaimers, through a translator. Flores had been living in an apartment until 2005, when rent hikes became too much to afford on his minimum-wage income. Then, he lived in his van until moving into one of the vacant houses in El Sereno. “This tactic of taking over properties is nothing new. It’s been going on for decades, but it’s becoming more and more of a tactic,” said Jed Parriott, a member of Street Watch L.A. who assisted in the hours-long occupation of LA’s Ritz Carlton. Actions like the Reclaimers or the string of attempted hotel occupations are then about not only highlighting the system’s current frayed ends but also urging others to take matters into their own hands.

In the meantime, as everyone waits for the threat of COVID-19 to subside, for evictions to resume, for whatever new version of normalcy to take over, the Reclaimers will continue fighting to keep what little they have. Recently, a group successfully blocked the Department of Water and Power from shutting off the water to a home occupied by one of the Reclaimers. And in-between preparations for the inevitable skirmishes with the city or the police, they’ll just live.

“My daughter wants a jasmine bush, the others want poppies, so we’re trying to figure that out,” Gordillo said. “I now have a washer and dryer of my own, and I never had that before. I’m looking forward to washing pots in the beautiful sink.”

“I was actually looking forward to doing chores this morning when I woke up,” she said, as she wiped away a tear.

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