Long Beach, CA’s MacArthur Park serves as a gathering ground and semi-permanent residence for a pocket of the city’s 2,000+ homeless people. The Park offers open space, portable toilets, and picnic tables beneath trees whose branches and leaves provide shade from the blistering sun that hangs in cloudless skies typical of Southern California. Life is hard for those who call MacArthur Park and its surrounding streets “home,” and for many, it is more than hard; it is hopeless. Alcohol and drug use are common crutches for people to lean on in the hope that they will carry them through their days. Many see little to no hope in the future, and when pressed, even the hopeful will admit that their hope is more a matter of faith than anything backed by or based on evidence. “They say, ‘Good things come to those who wait,’” said one Park regular a comrade and I spoke with. “I been waiting for so long… Sometimes, being out here just makes you wanna say, ‘Fuck it,’ and give up. My biggest fear is to die out here on these streets. I’ve seen quite a few different people die out here on these streets, and I’m like, ‘Aw, man, I don’t wanna become one of them.’ So I be struggling… My options is homelessness, jail, or death.”
One of the many obstacles in the road to stability for MacArthur Park regulars is the police, who perform planned and random sweeps of the Park, routinely clearing out and throwing away what little property the homeless have accumulated. Given the difficult and precarious nature of living on the streets around MacArthur Park, many homeless people were understandably reluctant to share their stories about confrontations with the police. Those that did, however, gave voice to routine harassment and theft by police. One man spoke of a recent sweep in which police not only confiscated his property, but stole his dog without explanation as to why, saying, “It was fucked up, man. That dog ate better than I do.” Another regular provided important context that demonstrates just how detrimental these sweeps are for the homeless:
Usually, when they come out here, they throw away stuff that is left by itself or it looks like trash, but now, they’re throwing away my stuff right in front of me, with me asking them not to! I think that they’re trying to clean up the city somewhat, but it’s not doing anything for any of us out here. It’s just making it more worse, because when they do that, I gotta start all over again. The more I get to get higher to get out of this [homeless] situation, they chop me back down to where I’m even more stuck into this situation, to where I can’t do anything else but start over.
Starting over is an investment: with their possessions confiscated or thrown away, the homeless must use what little money they have to re-purchase blankets, clothing, food, and other essentials. Furthermore, this need for money to re-purchase essentials often requires people to hustle, thus endangering them and others by drawing them into and sustaining the local drug economy, respectively.
There is consensus among Park regulars around identifying one cop in particular as the most cruel and inhumane: Officer Navarro. Even those who were reluctant to share personal stories were not shy about confirming that Navarro is the most hated and notorious cop patrolling
MacArthur Park. “Navarro’s at the top of the list of being an asshole,” said one regular. He continued:
Him and his partner are basically the only ones who come out here and harass us and try to keep us on our toes. When they’re here, we just scatter and try to hide our things before they try to throw it all away. Last time they threw my stuff away, they threw away my high blood pressure medicine, and if I don’t take my blood pressure medicine, I get a headache, and then I go into strokesville.
In addition to confiscating and throwing out people’s belongings, Navarro has also been accused of more insidious forms of endangerment and harassment, such as sowing distrust and disunity among the Park’s already strained community of regulars. One man we spoke to recounted an incident in which Navarro intentionally had him targeted as a snitch:
One time, he pulls up in here, and he’s loud. He’s extra loud. ‘Hey, how you doing?! What’s going on?!’ And then he says the worst thing you can ever say: ‘Hey, it’s nice giving me the information you gave me, buddy! Good looking out, pal! Thanks, bro!’ And all the other people that were out here looking at me, like, ‘Wow… Really?’ Once they left, people were hitting me up about, ‘Oh, so now you’re talking to the pigs, huh?’ This cop, he puts me out there like that, and now everybody thinking that I’m working with the cops! I had three fights behind that shit. You people are the only ones I ever sat and talked about this to. I never sat down to talk to no pig. Fuck no. Fucking pig, man.
To emphasize that Navarro is in his own league when it comes to harassment, the same man juxtaposed his bitterness toward the officer with his feelings about the general police presence in and around MacArthur Park:
The other cops that come through here, if there’s a gathering at one table of too many people drinking and smoking and loud noise and music and everything? Oh yeah, they’re gonna come out here and they’re gonna rough us up a little something, which I understand. I can deal with that. So when they come out, they do they job, they got us on the hood and everything. I really don’t trip on that.
The surrounding residential community does not offer much in the way of support or sympathy for Park regulars. Rather, some community members feed information to the police, leading to arrests and more harassment, as was described by one man we spoke with:
The neighbors are the ones that’s sending pictures to the pigs that we’re out here. Most of them really don’t really give a fuck; as long as we don’t mess with them, they ain’t gonna mess with us. But then, there are some, like this guy over there; he will call the cops. If you go down that alley and piss next to his house, he will call the cops. He’ll call the cops if he sees more than 5-6 people at one table. He’ll call the cops if he sees someone arguing too loudly. He’ll call the cops on almost any situation that goes on out here if it gets too ruckus and loud. And that lady on the corner, too. She calls the cops.
While indifference toward the homeless and snitching are certainly not helping matters, it is important to place these behaviors in their proper context. Local residents seem to be a multinational mix of working- and lower-middle-class people who are likely concerned with crime
rates, drug use, and other symptoms of the war for survival into which MacArthur Park regulars were drafted. In a word, while there is a need for and room to struggle through and seek to resolve conflicts and contradictions between the Park’s homeless and residential populations, it is important not to lose sight of the system’s primary role in imposing these conditions upon people to begin with, further discussion of which requires reaching beyond the limited scope of this report.
With increased criticism of and scrutiny on police since protest and rebellion shook the country in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd, we were curious whether MacArthur Park’s homeless population has noticed any changes regarding policing efforts. One man described minor adjustments, which he attributed to fear of the masses:
They don’t come through as often as they were before, and their approach is more gentle, like they wanna be aware that they’re coming in smooth and coming in right. They come in more quietly and more respectful-like. See, I believe the cops are in fear of all the people in every community just getting together against them, ‘cause everyone in the community is more than the cops would be. So if we all got together and went up against them, we’d probably take over the whole cop system. They don’t want that; they really scared of that, so I believe they wanna come in nice now.
Upon further reflection, however, his mood soured, as did his perspective. “There hasn’t been really any change at all,” he said. “It’s the same struggle, just different faces. The struggle’s never gonna change. The struggle’s always gonna be the struggle; it’s always gonna be there.”
The conditions facing the homeless population in and around MacArthur Park are neither extraordinary nor unique. More accurately, they reflect a more general systemic failing on the part of the US. Despite a surplus of vacant homes, people are forced to live on the streets around the country. Despite progressive state and local initiatives such as Project Room Key, which temporarily houses the homeless in vacant hotel and motel rooms, people with doctors’ approval are routinely–and inexplicably–denied shelter during the worst pandemic in recent history. Living on the streets, homeless people are stigmatized by society at large and left to fend for themselves as they struggle to pull themselves out of a situation that invites despair and hopelessness. Those who acquire the means to accumulate money or possessions–the bases for building toward a future with a roof over their head–must be vigilant, and even then, there are no assurances that these means will not be stolen or thrown away by other members of the homeless population or the police. They are simultaneously subjected to routine harassment and neglect befitting how they are regarded by this society: as a disposable surplus population.