A homeless man slowly stretches in the morning sun, eyeing the three volunteers, dressed in orange vests, hardhats, T-shirts and steel-toed boots, below him.
“He is having a lazy Sunday,” says Joan Vanderbur, who, along with fellow Hollywood residents George Abrahams and Laura Dodson, has been staking this guy out. “Just kicking back.”
As far as homeless encampments go, this one isn’t so bad. Tucked among some brush just below the 101 freeway off Cahuenga Boulevard, it’s secluded, spacious, and blocks away from the dangers of Hollywood Boulevard, where homeless youths and adults sleep, live and use the health clinics, drop-in centers and feeding programs that line a mile-long stretch between Gower Street and Van Ness Avenue. It is an area commonly plagued by crime, drugs and hopelessness. The homeless man found this spot a few days earlier, but the jig is up, because Abrahams stumbled upon the man’s makeshift home at about the same time. The wiry, middle-aged bachelor had already taken the homeless guy’s sleeping bag. Confiscated, too, were the belongings the homeless man had stashed in the brush. Abrahams thought that would be enough to roust the guy, but his presence this morning has thrown a wrench into the works for the zealous activist. Abrahams fears an altercation and calls the California Highway Patrol for assistance. A call to CHP dispatch has been a regular weekend ritual since another homeless man chased Abrahams and Dodson after they attempted to make off with his belongings.
“They get angry when they are woken up,” says Dodson, an owner and one of the occupants of a two-story apartment building in Hollywood.
The trio spends most Sundays scouring the 101 freeway underpasses from Gower Street to Cahuenga Boulevard as part of the Adopt-a-Highway program, which allows volunteers to take responsibility for cleaning small stretches of freeways and state property as long as they register and watch a 30-minute safety video. The instructions are no-brainers, but there are a few warnings. The two biggies are don’t pick up syringes and don’t mess with homeless encampments. Perhaps these three need to watch the video again.
“We are down here in the trenches,” says Dodson, who, along with Abrahams and the Franklin-Hollywood Hills Community Council (FHHCC), received a Volunteer of the Year award from Caltrans in 2004. “We don’t have to pick up syringes, but we do. The recommendation is for the average person not to do it. If we leave it here, it is a problem. We found 75 syringes in one day.”
To emphasize Dodson’s point, Abrahams shuffles over to his white van and presents a large wicker basket full of plastic bottles. Inside them are dozens of used syringes that the highly motivated threesome picked up in the last four months.
“This is evidence,” says Abrahams, who plans to show the bottles to city officials. As he walks away from his van, Abrahams points toward broken glass on the street from a car that had its windows broken. “It’s the bums,” he adds. “Each smashed window represents a car break-in. [City officials] are using us as an experiment. By exposing the homeless to us, they will be okay. No one has shelters but Hollywood and downtown. They are just trying to make themselves feel good. Anyone who helps them are enablers. They are immoral.”
Dodson and Abrahams, who has lived in his childhood home in the Hollywood Hills since 1959, are the self-proclaimed watchdogs of Hollywood. The two clean up homeless encampments regularly. When local police or politicians refuse to act, they take matters into their own hands. They are foot soldiers who get their marching orders from Fran Reichenbach, a 53-year-old Hollywood housewife, newspaper publisher and tireless community organizer.
“She has the stars on her helmet; she’s the general,” says Abrahams. “She’s a wonderful leader and I’m happy to march in any direction she says.”
Reichenbach is considered by some to be a patron saint for her efforts to clean up Hollywood. To others, she is NIMBY-ism incarnate.
Reichenbach has ruffled the feathers of local politicians, social-service providers and numerous business owners. Over the years, Reichenbach’s foes have called her a Nazi and a racist. She has orchestrated public protests and has shown a particular genius for starting neighborhood groups to block any civic or commercial projects that raise her ire. So far her organizations have thwarted plans for a needle-exchange program, a new fire station and a Whole Foods Market in her beloved Hollywood. She is currently attempting to stop a planned $20 million project in Hollywood that would provide stable homes for the homeless.
Although her neighborhood groups boast hundreds of quasi-members, it is the same dozen or so people who show up at meetings and protests. She claims to represent Hollywood “stakeholders,” but some people wonder who these stakeholders are.