At the January 9, 2023 Culver City Council meeting, Culver City Housing Administrator Tevis Barnes stated: “Just for the public to understand, when the term ‘swept’ is used it means to forcibly remove someone from an encampment. In my tenure here, which is over a decade, we have never forcibly removed someone from an encampment.”
To an extent this may be true, but it’s mostly a rhetorical distinction and not a substantive one, as Vice Mayor Yasmine-Imani McMorrin alluded to in her follow-up questions. I have a great deal of respect for Housing Administrator Barnes, and I know she does lead with care and that her work has, to put it simply, saved lives. That said, the picture here is more complicated.
There are two bits of context that complicate the bare statement that Culver City doesn’t forcibly remove people from encampments.
First, in 2022, the city actually did clear an encampment under the 405 at Washington Blvd. To my knowledge, they didn’t physically grab anyone and drag them from the encampment. Instead, the city instituted “cleanups” of the encampment, with police presence, where all encampment residents were told to clear out anything they didn’t want to be hauled away in a dumpster. City sanitation power washed the area once it was clear, and then residents were allowed to return and rebuild. The items in the dumpster would be retained, but of course all of it would be on the other side of town.
The city came out to perform these cleanups relentlessly every week until no one came back. This isn’t violent in the same way as physical removal, but it inflicts many of the same harms. Sweeps just shuffle folks around from one street to another, and what happened under the 405 at Washington Blvd was no different in that respect — sure enough, a few weeks later I saw some of the former 405/Washington Blvd residents living in an encampment elsewhere in the city.
The city’s usual outreach and cleaning services are welcomed by many encampment residents, but cleanups that are directed with the goal of closing an encampment are no better than sweeps because in practice they still amount to forced displacement. And they cause the same harms, setting folks further away from getting housed, exacerbating homelessness instead of addressing it.
Second, Housing Administrator Barnes’s statement is silent on how the city’s policy is changing. Councilmember Freddy Puza raised this issue when he asked staff to answer a public commenter’s question: “What will happen if [unhoused residents] decide not to move?” City Manager John Nachbar answered: “Councilmember, that’s ultimately a policy decision of the city council.”
Keep in mind that Culver City police already forcibly remove people from the streets every day when making criminal arrests, and this includes removing unhoused people when they, for example, are suspected of assault or theft. That’s not what this is about. As of late, the city’s policy had been to not enforce the city’s existing ordinances that make it illegal to camp in parks and by public buildings or to block public rights-of-way.
However, at a December 21, 2022 meeting, the city council instructed the city manager to change that policy and begin enforcing those ordinances. Councilmember Dan O’Brien stated clearly: “We need to enforce the ordinance that we have on the books.” Councilmember Goran Eriksson and Mayor Vera followed up with their assent, and City Manager Nachbar confirmed the direction was clear.
Furthermore, at the same meeting, the city council asked for a new anti-camping ordinance, perhaps just to really emphasize that they want this to be illegal and enforced. The idea that Culver City has never forcibly removed an unhoused person is cold comfort to unhoused people when the new city council majority wants to change that policy.
To everyone who wants it to be true that Culver City doesn’t forcibly remove unhoused people, we need to make our voices heard clearly. Because Mayor Vera and Councilmembers Eriksson and O’Brien have already given direction to change course.