Martha Escudero and her daughters Meztli, left, and Victoria, who were previously homeless, pose in front of their reclaimed home in Los Angeles.
Martha Escudero and her daughters Meztli, left, and Victoria, who were previously homeless, pose in front of their reclaimed home in Los Angeles. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Several Los Angeles families who have been forced to live in cars, shelters and other unsafe situations have seized control of 13 vacant homes owned by the government, with the goal of staying indefinitely – and staying alive.

The takeover comes as California’s homelessness crisis and the escalating coronavirus outbreak have collided to create a catastrophe threatening thousands of lives.

“To me, this is life or death,” said Benito Flores, 64, who has been living out of his van for years and moved into a vacant two-bedroom house on Wednesday. Wearing a face mask and standing inside the dusty home as volunteers cleaned, Flores explained that he is diabetic and at risk of serious illness or worse if he catches Covid-19. “By doing this, I’m giving myself a chance at living and surviving this crisis.”

The homeless residents and their supporters, who have called themselves the Reclaimers, were inspired by Moms 4 Housing, a group of houseless mothers in Oakland who publicly occupied a corporate-owned vacant home for two months. That protest sparked international attention and support from some California lawmakers, and ultimately, the mothers were able to purchase the home.

The rapid spread of coronavirus, which prompted LA officials and the California governor last week to order all residents to shelter in place, dramatically increased the urgency of the Reclaimers’ takeovers, as homeless people across the region have no way to quarantine and oftenhave health issues that make them disproportionately vulnerable.

The movement in Oakland shed light on real estate speculators who purchase foreclosed homes, evict tenants and then leave them vacant before turning a profit. In LA, the group has targeted a set of properties that currently belong to the public, but have remained empty, in some case, for years. Advocates say there are many more similarly empty homes that could be used to help solve the ongoing housing emergency – and immediately save lives.

Dozens of homes available: ‘The crime is that they’re empty’

With the support of a number of housing rights groups, the Reclaimer families took over a group of houses within a few blocks in a residential area of El Sereno, a predominantly Latino neighborhood that is increasingly gentrifying.

The residents are all working-class people of color who previously lived in El Sereno or the surrounding area, but in various ways fell victim to the state’s severe affordable housing shortage, organizers said. Some ended up homeless after recent evictions and others haven’t had stable housing for years. They’ve been sleeping on couches, crowding with relatives, staying at shelters, or living in vehicles. One family has a nine-month-old infant, and most are mothers.

The 13 reclaimed houses are owned by Caltrans, a state transportation division that bought hundreds of properties over the span of decades to make way for a freeway extension plan that was canceled in 2018. The agency currently owns roughly 460 residential homes, and activists estimate that nearly 200 sit vacant.

“This is public land. This is a taxpayer house,” said Ruby Gordillo, 33, a mother of three who moved into one of the homes on Wednesday. “You paid for it. I paid for it. We all paid for it. All of these vacant houses on public land should be used for public good, to create real affordable housing.”

Flores, the 64-year-old Reclaimer, lived in a shared LA apartment for years, barely scraping by on minimum wage jobs as a welder. Eventually, rent increases were too steep, and in 2005, he had no choice but to move into his van.

Life in his car brought challenges: “I’ve been harassed by police, by private security, by neighbors who come by and say I wasn’t welcome to park there.” Flores became so accustomed to police threatening him that he learned how to lie on the floor and pretend he wasn’t there: “That anxiety is just the daily experience.”

On Wednesday, he “finally had a great night’s sleep”, he said. That night, he slept on a carpet on the floor in his new home, because a donated bed hadn’t arrived yet. It was still more comfortable than his vehicle. On a FaceTime call, he showed his empty bedroom with a closet, the red curtains volunteers put in the living room, the laundry room and his backyard. The water in the house was running and he was still figuring out how to set up electricity. The interior was dusty when they got inside, but otherwise livable, he said.

“Knowing these houses have been sitting empty for years, that feels like a huge injustice,” he said. “Some people have said what we’re doing is a crime. But to me, the real crime is that these politicians aren’t doing anything about it.”

On the window, he put up a sign that said “Self-quarantine in progress. As per Governor Directive.”

The next step: ‘We’re taking back our lives’

Flores settled into his new home on the same day Governor Gavin Newsom warned that 25.5m Californians could be infected with Covid-19, roughly 56% of the state’s population. Officials have advised residents to stay inside, avoid physical contact and thoroughly wash their hands. It’s an impossible task for many of the roughly 59,000 homeless people in LA county, some who live in packed tent encampments and in underregulated and unsanitary shelters.

An average of three unhoused people die each night on the city streets of LA, and that was before the threat of a deadly and highly contagious virus. “With Covid-19, I cannot imagine what the deaths are going to be like,” said Gordillo, who moved into her new home with her husband and children, ages eight, 12 and 14.

Caltrans isn’t the only landlord sitting on empty homes. Census data from 2017 suggests there were more than 46,000 vacant units in the city of LA that were not on the market at the time, meaning some owners could be holding them for speculative purposes. That figure is more than the estimated number of homeless people in the city.

In response to coronavirus, the state has purchased 1,300 trailers and is looking to lease hotel and motel space to help get the homeless off the streets and into isolation as necessary. In LA, the mayor is setting up thousands of beds in recreation centers. But some advocates and health experts fear the measures won’t be enough and that the homeless population could ultimately overwhelm hospitals.

While some state lawmakers have called for all vacant Caltrans properties to be made immediately available, others have said they were concerned the houses might not be safe for occupancy.

“If that’s the concern, then they need to act and make them safe,” said Martha Escudero, 42, who is living in the first house the group reclaimed with her two daughters, ages eight and 10. The family was previously couch-surfing for months. “The community needs to take the power into their own hands. We’re not going to suffer for years when there are vacant homes we can actually live in.”

Caltrans declined to comment. State police, however, showed up in vehicles throughout the neighborhood last week and stationed themselves outside other vacant Caltrans homes.

Roberto Flores, an El Sereno activist who helped the Reclaimers, said it was emotional to see the empty homes occupied: “We’re trying to recreate the social fabric that used to be here before … We’re taking back our lives.”

If roughly 200 homes became available to three people each, “That is 600 human beings protected and treated like human beings,” he added.

Martha Escudero, left, plants corn in the backyard of her reclaimed home with her daughters Meztli, right, and Victoria.
Martha Escudero, left, plants corn in the backyard of her reclaimed home with her daughters Meztli, right, and Victoria. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP via Getty Images

The Reclaimer families said they were willing to pay rent at an affordable rate, and that no matter what happens, they don’t plan on leaving, especially during the pandemic.

Benito Flores, the Reclaimer, said he knew he could be arrested, but that it was a risk worth taking: “If I look at the alternatives, it’s illegal to be in a van and that’s unhealthy. It’s illegal to be here. It’s just illegal to be unhoused.”

He said he hoped their efforts inspired people across the state to take a similar stand: “These houses belong to the people and belong to the community and should stay that way.”