A woman walks past a homeless encampment in the Venice neighborhood in Los Angeles on Feb. 18, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) last week announced
the arrest of two individuals accused of selling narcotics within a homeless encampment. The suspects allegedly had been running an operation out of a recreational vehicle (RV) parked next to the encampment, in an area of Westlake that’s “well known” for drug-related crimes, according to the LAPD’s Rampart Division.
Late last month, a series of search warrants led police to the RV, where they seized $147,987 in cash, cocaine, and a handgun.
Police determined that the RV was “not being used by any unhoused individual as a living quarter,” but rather “for the sole purpose of engaging in narcotics sales and consumption.”
An unregistered handgun and U.S. currency seized during a police investigation of an RV in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles on Jan. 31, 2024. (Courtesy of Los Angeles Police Department)
Parking a drug operation next to a homeless encampment where many are likely to be struggling with severe addiction is an established business model, authorities say. In Los Angeles, where entwined homelessness and deadly drug overdoses
continue to spiral out of control, law enforcement has spotlighted the infiltration
of gang members who use tent encampments as a cover to run drug operations.
The incident—one of multiple drug busts on RVs in 24 hours—points to a broader issue as officials struggle to respond to an explosion of RVs on the streets of Los Angeles, from Venice to the San Fernando Valley to the South Bay.
From 2017 to 2023, vehicle encampments in the city increased by 82 percent
. And while recent homeless outreach initiatives have focused on tent encampments, vehicles now make up the majority—57 percent—of homeless dwellings, according to Los Angeles’s 2023 point-in-time homeless count
“RVs often pose a threat to public safety by blocking visibility for vehicular travel, leaking sewage onto city streets, and have resulted in several fires when heaters or propane are used inside,” City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez said in a 2022 statement that announced the results of a pilot program in her district, which includes Sylmar, Pacoima, and Sunland-Tujunga. In its first year, the program placed 94 people in permanent supportive housing and disposed of 65 RVs.
However, some communities affected by vehicles in place since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a new influx of RVs, say they are frustrated with government inaction.
On Jan. 31, the same day as the arrest by the LAPD’s Rampart Division, across town in Venice, city officials removed three large RVs
that had been parked in front of a church and two schools.
As it turns out, it was also a narcotics bust by the LAPD, and arrests were made after an investigation.
City Councilwoman Traci Park, whose District 11 includes Venice, told The Epoch Times that the RVs had been there for years, and were “known to be engaged in narcotics and other types of criminal conduct.”
“Those RVs ... which have been a consistent problem for these families and neighbors, have now been towed,” she said.
Los Angeles Councilwoman Traci Park speaks with members of the community. (Courtesy of Traci Park)
While operations have cleared nearby tent encampments, Venice Neighborhood Councilwoman Soledad Ursua said many RVs have remained permanently parked on Venice’s residential streets since 2020.
Ms. Park says RVs are now the No. 1 complaint she hears from her constituents.
“A lot of the complaints relate to not only the excessive amounts of garbage and debris taking up sidewalk space, but illegal dumping, and a lot of alleged criminal conduct, narcotics, trafficking, sex trafficking, and things that run the gamut,” she said.
In response to a surge of complaints in many districts, the Los Angeles City Council in 2022 voted
to lift a COVID-19-pandemic-era moratorium on towing RVs.
A homeless encampment in Los Angeles on Jan. 20, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Recreational vehicles park along the street in the Venice area of Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
A man smokes a cigarette in a homeless RV encampment in the Venice area of Los Angeles on Nov. 10, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
But some argue that the actions did little good in Venice, where Ms. Ursua said city officials have told her that the municipal code regarding towing is now out of date.
“You can ticket, but you can’t tow. We used to have laws on the books, and they sunset—so it’s the transportation codes that lapsed,” she said.
Ms. Park confirmed that the code in question is no longer the governing law in the City of Los Angeles.
“Now it’s just a surge of vehicular homelessness,” Ms. Ursua said. “And it’s very scary to be walking by at night, the strip on Main Street. Any female should be scared to walk past a row of RVs with men sleeping in them. We know there’s something wrong with this situation.”
Venice Neighborhood Councilwoman Soledad Ursua speaks with The Epoch Times' "California Insider" about the homelessness situation in Venice Beach and beyond in 2021. (Hau Nguyen/The Epoch Times)
Meanwhile, in Harbor Gateway, an industrial area in the South Bay on the border of Los Angeles and unincorporated Los Angeles County, a local businessman said complaints about exploding RV encampments fell on deaf ears—until it was reframed as an environmental issue.
“The Department of Justice got involved in our case and things started moving,” Barry Coe, an independent business owner who operates a manufacturing company in the area, told The Epoch Times.
He said he demanded the federal government take legal action against the county immediately to address what he said was an environmental disaster caused by the RVs.
“I called for a consent decree against the county because of the harm it caused, dropping raw sewage into storm drains and into the ocean,” Mr. Coe said, adding that in the heavy manufacturing district, there were few constituents, but the area had become “rife with crime and prostitution,” prompting some business owners to complain.
He estimates that authorities have removed about half of the 600 or so RVs that were parked in the area.
“It’s complex because there’s a law regulating motor vehicles, you have to impound them for a month, put up for lien sale,” Mr. Coe said.
To overcome such hurdles, a few local businesses donated property where the vehicles could be stored before the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had them destroyed, he said.
A deputy from the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department speaks to a homeless man sitting in front of his encampment in the Venice area of Los Angeles on June 8, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Law enforcement agencies, Mr. Coe said, are “not getting the green light from politicians. No one seems to know why. They make excuses. Places like Venice—it’s terrible. Here, I pointed out, ‘we have an environmental disaster on our hands,’ and as soon as I did there was some movement.”
The challenge of housing people, addressing filthy and unsafe streets, criminal activity, blocked traffic, and the rise of predatory “vanlords
”—who exploit low-income renters of RVs—is worsened by a tangled regulatory environment and a lack of political will, those impacted say.
Concerns over public safety, environmental issues, and law enforcement are often pitted against the civil rights of RV dwellers, some of whom are not criminals but part of the city’s working poor
. Some leaders vocally oppose sweeps and have refused to clear encampments, even when they pose a serious threat to public safety, critics argue.
While the Los Angeles City Council in 2022 banned
tent encampments near sensitive areas such as schools and day care centers, the code is not evenly enforced
. Some councilors, including Hugo Soto-Martinez of Council District 13 and Eunisses Hernandez, who represents Council District 1, vehemently oppose
the ban. Others, such as Ms. Park, have taken steps
to implement it in their respective districts, and introduced measures to extend similar prohibitions for RVs.
“I don’t think that any family should have to worry about the safety of their children coming and going to school or using our parks, so that is a reasonable regulation that makes sense to me,” Ms. Park said.
The City Council in November 2023 voted 11–2
to pass a resolution by Ms. Park and Councilwoman Heather Hutt, representing Council District 10, to ban RV parking on multiple streets in South and West Los Angeles.
Requests for comment from Ms. Hernandez and Mr. Soto-Martinez, who voted against the measure, as well as Councilwoman Rodriguez, were not returned by press time.
Throughout the city, regulation and enforcement remain a patchwork endeavor.
A Venice Beach resident drives past a homeless encampment in front of the Abbot Kinney Memorial Branch Library in Los Angeles on Feb. 18, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Women walk past homeless encampments in Venice Beach in Los Angeles on June 8, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
The LAPD recently entered into a $250,000 contract with a recycling company to clear a years-long backlog of dilapidated RVs. The same company, according to city records, also has a $1 million, two-year contract with Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’s Inside Safe program, which clears encampments by bringing people into interim housing.
Still, many officials complain that they are constrained by a lack of space to park impounded RVs, as well as the need to create safe parking lots with services for RV dwellers.
Ms. Bass has said banning RVs from certain areas would be pointless because the city only has one
truck that’s capable of towing the vehicles. The mayor’s office has acknowledged the need to designate safe parking lots, but as of December 2023, couldn’t provide a list of potential locations.
Los Angeles County’s new Pathway Home initiative
, which began last month, is attempting to scale Ms. Rodriguez’s pilot program, with 144 RVs removed so far.
And yet, all such efforts continue to be hamstrung by political division.
Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass speaks in Studio City, Calif., on Jan. 30, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
While some Democratic leaders, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, filed amicus briefs urging the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the appeal of a Ninth Circuit ruling that has prohibited municipalities from enforcing anti-camping bans—the court has taken up the issue and an opinion is expected in June—Southland Democrats remain divided.
Citing the billions that the state has invested to address homelessness, Mr. Newsom said
in a statement last month that recent rulings have tied the hands of state and local governments and resulted in “costly delays from lawsuits that have plagued our efforts to clear encampments and deliver services to those in need.”
And at a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting last week, Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger introduced an amicus brief, amended to stress that the board does not seek to criminalize homelessness and only wants clarity about whether authorities can dispose of bedding and possessions when people are moved to housing.
The blanket prohibition, Ms. Hahn said, “has led to huge encampments in many of our public spaces—our beaches, our metro stations, our parks. And we know these encampments are unsafe to live. We know drugs are rampant. We know there is violence against women.”
After a stream of public comment against the brief, primarily from employees of nonprofits that serve the homeless population, a divided board approved the motion on a 3–2 vote.