Upland Using Code Enforcement To Break Up Homeless Encampment

(March 1) At the prompting of the city’s code enforcement division, property owners of vacant property along Route 66 between Benson and Central avenues last month began bulldozing and clearing an expanse of undeveloped property in Upland that has been a haven for scores of homeless over the last several years.
The property in question is located just north of the 1700 to 1900 block of Foothill, an approximately 40 acre patch of dense chaparral owned by Bongiovanni Construction, west of Lowe’s Hardware.  Partially obscured from the view of motorists driving along Foothill Boulevard by the In-N-Out Burger, a car wash, and the Hubcap Annie specialized auto parts store, the area is host to squatters, who have been staying there for varying durations. One denizen of the area said he has been there, living in a tent, for six years. Others are mere transients, staying only a few days and nights before moving on.
City officials have long been cognizant of the crude encampments there, just south of Cable Airport. For years the bedraggled shelters have been begrudgingly tolerated by city officials. Within the last year the city did a survey and it estimates there are between 50 and 100 residents within the encampment at the present time.  The Bongiovanni Corporation, with diverse holdings and a construction company empire that is focused elsewhere, had for years made no effort to evict the uninvited settlers.
Last month the city’s code enforcement division issued Bongiovanni Construction a weed abatement notice. An employee of Dineen Trucking, a Bongiovanni tenant on the northwest end of the property, responded by employing one of that company’s bulldozers to begin scraping substantial portions of the chaparral, including some parts inhabited by the squatters.
On February 26, more than two dozen people remained encamped on the property, though some said they were resigned to having to leave.
“We have to move,” said one of the area’s occupants, who gave his name as “Bobby.”
“They said they were going to plow the field so we are going to have to get out of here,” he said.  Bobby said he had previously lived in Upland when he was formerly employed as a “contractor” but that since falling on hard times he had been living there for about three years. “Code enforcement told us we have to move. They came in here and started bulldozing on the 21st.”
A woman, Rita, originally from Los Angeles, said she has lived there for about five years. “Code enforcement is not involved,” she said. “I do believe it is the people who run the operation grinding up the sand [i.e., Dineen Trucking]. They were knocking down the trees and taking out all of the growth.  She [the operator of the bulldozer] said from the time we plow around your tent you have  two weeks to get out of here.”
Rita said the arrival of the bulldozer had turned her life and those of her compatriots living in the chaparral upside down. Previously, she said, elements of the community had sought to accommodate the homeless there.
“People from some of the local churches were here several times,” she said. “They passed out sleeping bags and stoves and they still bring us propane for the stoves. They took me to [the] Goodwill [thrift store] and bought me clothes and a pot to cook in. The police have been here but they have let us stay here as long as we keep it clean and under control.”
Rita said “I know there are at least 45 people living here and that doesn’t include all the people further back, the people hiding out there.”
She said the camptown in the midst of the chaparral is basically a peaceful place, although it has social problems like all communities. Rita said there is a division between those living on the east side of the chaparral and those on the west side. “Down here,” she said, indicating the west side, “we drink. “Over there,” she pointed to the east, “they use drugs. They are robbing each other, stealing from us, our bikes or whatever they can get their hands on, so they can buy their dope.”
One of the homeless interviewed by the Sentinel on February 26, Heyward Lamar Waldron, said he had lived there for about a year-and-a-half. Waldron described the person wielding the bulldozer as a woman “who is pretty skilled with it. She went around where people are camped and tore up everything around them. She’s a good operator. She broke all the trees up, but saved my bike and tent. She didn’t disturb my possessions.”
Waldron said the bulldozer had only begun the task of uprooting the chaparral and scrapping the earth bare. “They did the outskirts and down toward Lowe’s. They knocked the foliage down around the front.  People have moved their camps further back [into the chaparral].”
On February 23, Upland Mayor Ray Musser along with members of United Methodist Church toured the homeless encampment and spoke with some of those subsisting there.
According to Rita, “Since the mayor came through, the bulldozing has stopped.”
Phil Velto, the proprietor of Hubcap Annie at  1917 West Foothill Blvd., told the Sentinel the homeless encampment has been in place for at least seven years and that he has been for the most part peaceably getting on with the inhabitants there on a daily basis.
“I’ve only had to call the cops twice,” Velto said, “once because of a fight and another time when there was a stabbing.  I would rather they weren’t there. I am forever picking up trash they leave around. But we coexist. The way I deal with it is we have an understanding.  I’ve told them ‘My back lot is your front yard.’ They know they are never to come up to my business and bother my customers. I will not put up with that and they know it. But at the same time, I treat them with the same respect they show me. I don’t go out of my way, but I do little things for them. I don’t tell them not to use my dumpster. They half fill up my dumpster and I don’t have a problem with that. I will leave bags of cans and bottles back there for them to recycle. I haven’t had a problem with them stealing things or breaking my windows. It depends on your approach. For some of the businesses here, like the Christian Book Store across the street, they have cost those owners a great deal of money by breaking windows and stealing stuff.”
Velto said many of those living in the chaparral have been there for a long time. “I recognize the same people who have been out there for three to four to five years,” he said. “There’s a hierarchy there. There is one guy who appears to be their leader. He has a generator and an air mattress.  He’ll have a hundred dollars worth of change, in quarters and dimes. He’s a middle-aged guy.”
Velto said, “One part me wants to see them gone and another part of me is sympathetic and would like to help them. When there is pouring down rain and it’s freezing cold, I feel bad for them. I’m sure they don’t want to be out in that.  There have been some church groups that have tried to help. There are no easy answers on how to deal with them. This is my city. Upland is a nice city. I know there are groups that want to help them. Others just want them out. Someone came in with a caterpillar and ripped the tree behind my place out and scraped the vegetation all around it. The idea between the city and the Bongiovannis is to level the property where they are so they’ll just go.”
“I don’t know what the answer is or where they need to go,” Velto said. “I know they are here because the fast food places and the liquor stores are close. I know some of them get disability checks and they cash them at the liquor store.  They’re also here because there’s no one stopping them. I’m told the police in Claremont and Pomona tell the homeless they have to leave and say to them ‘Go to the field north of Foothill, just east of Central. They won’t bother you there.’ I don’t think Upland has the means to help all of them. It sucks when you see people who truly need help and there isn’t much you can do. I don’t know how to tell if someone is mentally disabled. I have my sense of it, but I’m not a professional psychiatrist. We spent six million dollars on a dog pound… For that cost we could have built a few homeless suites. The county and state have more resources. Maybe if we could just limit our help to those people here who came from Upland we could do something. I think there’s ways of fixing this thing and the first thing is to find out which are residents from Upland. If the mayors from all the surrounding cities were to meet and everyone had the same approach, like with the tent city in Ontario where only Ontario residents were allowed to stay there and we figure out who belongs to Upland, maybe we could help them out if it was just limited to our own population.“
Someone who has taken up the cause of those being displaced by the code enforcement action and Bongiovanni Construction’s reaction to it is local attorney Stephen Wade.
“Upland has a problem with the homeless population, which must be constructively addressed by the community,” Wade said. “Whether you feel compassion or distain for these people, they exist, and they are not going to simply go away. The impact they have on the community is significant in terms of use of police and paramedic time, the detrimental impact on certain businesses, and city parks. I believe there are resources in the non-profit, faith based and governmental arenas, which can be brought to bear on the situation, if the will exists to address the issue head on. I don’t suggest that this is entirely the city’s problem to solve, however, I don’t think they are absolved from playing a role in the solution, and they can play a vital role in addressing it.”
The city exacerbated the problem with some of its recent action, Wade said.
“With regard to the current crisis, in December the city gave a notice to the residents to leave the property,” Wade said. “This was backed by the prospect of the Upland PD conducting a sweep of the property to remove residents and their belongings. After I contacted members of the city council, the city manager and the chief of police, the city agreed that removal of the residents was not their directive. They agreed that if removal was necessary to effectuate the weed abatement mandated by code enforcement, it was the owner’s responsibility to do that.
“No further action was taken until last Thursday, February 21, 2013 when a bulldozer began systematically destroying encampments on the property,” Wade went on. “It was not incidental to weed abatement, but obviously directed at sending a message to the residents that if they did not leave they would be destroyed. To my knowledge, no court order was obtained for this purpose. Legally, I believe that the residents are trespassing. That said, even trespassers are entitled to due process of law prior to their removal. Although I have no immediate intentions of commencing any legal proceedings in this regard, it is clearly a possibility, if no other suitable arrangements can be made.”
The city’s heavy-handed approach is counterproductive to the goal of achieving a lasting and meaningful solution, Wade said.
“My position is twofold,” he said. “First, I have no objection to the right of the property owner to conduct weed abatement. I agree that the condition of the property constitutes a fire hazard, particularly for the residents. I merely suggest that the manner in which it is being conducted, with encampments being bulldozed, along with all of the worldly possessions of the residents, is inhumane and illegal. The city, as the party responsible for instigation of the weed abatement through its code enforcement procedure, together with the land owner has a responsibility to do this in a humane and orderly process, providing an alternate place for the residents, at least on a temporary basis.”
Wade noted, “One interesting phenomenon associated with the residents is that most appear to have been longtime Upland residents. Many were born and raised here, attended Upland schools and lived normal productive lives here. Many have relatives in the area. At some point, however, they became homeless, and chose Upland as the place to live as homeless residents. My observation is that most suffer from some combination of drug/alcohol addiction, and/or mental illness. My limited knowledge of homelessness in general is that this situation is something of a chicken and egg conundrum. That is, are they homeless because of their addiction or mental illness, or are they addicted or mentally ill as a result of their homelessness? The answer, I am sure is a combination of both.
“In any event,” Wade continued, “they are clearly the ‘least among us’ and deserving of our compassion and assistance, particularly for those willing to embrace a second chance. It is for this reason that I formed a non-profit corporation called Operation Second Chance in 2012. Our goal is to create a transitional housing project for the hard core homeless in Upland. After a good deal of work and investigation, we began meeting with the city of Upland in January to enlist their support for the project. We have made it clear that we are not seeking the city’s direct financial support for either the construction or operation of the project, but rather, their full throated support for the concept and the ability to ‘partner’ with the city in overcoming obstacles to it going forward.”
Upland City Manager Stephen Dunn sought to distance the city from any responsibility for the homeless population’s displacement.
“Our code enforcement’s action was for weeds on the property,” Dunn said. “Our code enforcement division issued a notice to clean up the property. It was the property owners that took action on their own property, not the city. It is private property and theirs to with as they want.”
Dunn acknowledged city officials were aware that the area was a hosting ground for the homeless and that the issue was one that has been discussed.
“We have lots of concern because we get complaints about the homeless people from surrounding businesses,” Dunn said. He nevertheless maintained that the weed abatement order given to Bongiovanni Construction was not intended as a ploy to eradicate the homeless encampment.
Regardless of the city’s intent, Rita said the action against Bongiovanni Construction had set off a chain of events that would drive the homeless out.
“Now they are going to plow this all up and that is going to put a lot of people out on the streets with shopping carts,” she said.

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