By Mary O’KEEFE
Residents near a section of the Big Tujunga Wash in Sunland-Tujunga have moved toward taking their neighborhood back. Although it has not been easy and vigilance is required, there are some signs that their grassroots effort has in fact taken root.
“I am not an activist. I hate being an activist,” said Brian Schneider, a resident near a portion of the Big Tujunga Wash. “[But] we were not being listened to.”
And with that, like it or not, Schneider became an activist. The issue of concern is a 300-acre section of the Tujunga Wash that is privately owned. According to Schneider, that area has always been an area of concern regarding the homeless; however, over the last few years, and especially after Prop 47 was passed, the squatters in the Tujunga Wash have changed.
Proposition 47 was approved by California voters in November 2014. It reduced the penalty for most nonviolent felonies, like non-violent drug and property crimes, to misdemeanors. It also permitted those currently serving a prison sentence for any of the offenses reclassified by Prop 47 to have their sentence reduced to a misdemeanor. Some offenders who had already completed a sentence for a felony under the Prop 47 description can apply to have their convictions changed to misdemeanors.
“[Some of these] people pled down from assault and battery,” he added.
Schneider described neighborhood residents as feeling they are in a “constant state of siege” as those living in the Tujunga Wash began moving into the neighborhoods. He described having transients standing in front of the entrance gate of his home making it difficult for him to enter his residence safely. After he became vocal about this issue, he was threatened by one of the transients who came onto his property.
“For three years we called our councilmember (Felipe Fuentes, councilmember of the Seventh District) and sent memos,” Schneider said. “Occasionally we would get a response but no one did anything.”
Schneider reached out to everyone from the Los Angeles Police Dept. to the Dept. of Water and Power, which owns sections of the wash, and even to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for several of the bridges. His frustration grew as the answers he received did not help the situation.
Then in October the body of a woman was found in the area of Tujunga Wash that is privately owned. The body was badly decomposed but was later identified as Julia Moniz, 34, a mother of two. She reportedly had a troubled history and police have not found the cause of death.
“The coroner deemed [her death] as undetermined,” said Officer Cesar Contreras, senior lead officer for Shadow Hills, Lake View Terrace and Sunland.
There was a second body found in the wash behind the McDonald’s along Foothill Boulevard. That was also the body of a woman and the cause of death was undetermined.
Although some have called these two incidents murders, Contreras said that cannot be determined.
“The bodies were badly decomposed,” he said.
Recently a human hand was found. That discovery is under investigation with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Dept.
Regardless of the cause of death, the fact that these tragedies occurred in the Tujunga Wash did not do anything to calm neighbors’ fears.
This fall the Los Angeles Sanitation Bureau took nine days and spent $300,000 cleaning the wash. Before they began cleaning, the L.A. Homeless Services Authority contacted several of the nearly 100 people in the Tujunga Wash encampment and offered them services. Less than 1% took them up on the offer.
“Basically they picked up trash and left the [squatters] there,” Schneider said.
The cleaning did not, according to Schneider, take away the temporary housing that transients had built for themselves.
In November Schneider and about 100 volunteers entered the Wash and went to work. They cleared the makeshift encampment. According to Schneider, they found mattresses, clothing, furniture, hypodermic needles and drugs. The cleaning done by residents and concerned community members appears to have made a difference.
It is Schneider’s hope that the transients who were “down on their luck” will get help and take the offer of shelter now that they have been cleared from the Tujunga Wash. He added that he understands that some of the squatters were there because they had nowhere else to go. He has reached out to many of them to help but it is the criminal element that worries him and his neighbors the most.
Schneider drafted a letter titled CD7 (it is in this week’s Viewpoints on pages 8-9) and shared it on social media. The letter describes the problem and asks for support. Over 600 people have signed the CD7 letter in support. His Facebook page has over 2,700 followers and he has recently started a blog/website that gets about 170 visitors each day.
He added this response is evidence that there is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Schneider said the LAPD has been supportive but it is difficult for them to cover such a remote and large area as the Tujunga Wash. He is still critical of Fuentes. He met with the Councilmember’s staff prior to the volunteers cleaning the wash.
“They promised they would help but they didn’t,” he said.
However his efforts have appeared to spark some motion at both the LAPD and the city levels.
“On our side we are asking for more resources,” Contreras said. “We have officers on motorcycles patrolling to look for violations and encampments.”
LAPD also has officers on horseback who have made arrests.
“Last week we met with [different agencies] to tackle this problem together,” he added.
Contreras said Fuentes was the person heading up that meeting.
“Recently, the Councilmember convened a meeting with LAPD, LADWP, L.A. Sanitation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Mountains Recreation Conservancy Authority to essentially get on the same page when it comes to clean up efforts in the Tujunga Wash in addition to discussing deploying resources to this 13-mile stretch of stream. This was just the first meeting; it will not be the last as we are coordinating efforts and resources on how we handle the upcoming rains from El Niño,” stated Cheryl Getuiza, communications director for Fuentes.
Schneider’s website on Wednesday stated that the LAPD’s Off Road Unit was in the Big Tujunga Wash on Wednesday.
“The Off Road Unit is going to regularly patrol the area to ensure the Wash continues to recover from the damage it suffered due to the encampments and also to keep it safe so we can all enjoy it again. Regular patrols of the Wash were one of the requests made in the open letter that was recently published. We are already beginning to see results. This is what can happen when the community speaks with one voice. Thank you to all the people who took the time to be signers of the letter. You made a huge difference,” his website states.
Contreras added that it is a difficult area to patrol.
“It is a rough area, it’s not a neighborhood, you are deep in there,” he said.
But keeping the Big Tujunga Wash clean and safe is to everyone’s advantage, he said.
But vigilance is still needed. Anyone who would like more information or wants to show their support can visit www.savecd7.com.