LOS ANGELES - In LA County, more than 500 homeless RVs line the streets for miles, creating a scene that looks more like a third-world country than the United States.
It’s the largest concentration of homeless RVs in LA County. And on Tuesday, community leaders started cleaning it up, thanks to one man, who says it’ll only scratch the surface in what needs a serious overhaul.
He’s a man on a mission, with nothing to gain, led by his heart.
"We spend the first 6 hours of our day going through and reporting the illegal dumping," says Harbor Gateway Community Advocate David Matthews, 57, who spends every day, trying to tackle a crisis that only continues to get worse.
Today, the community advocate started before the sun rose, with a 6th homeless RV fire in 30 hours.
"Our fire station now has to bring water to many of the fires that they go to because they cannot access the fire hydrants because the RVs are blocking the fire hydrants," says Matthews.
A small part of the area is Harbor Gateway, unknown to most that shares zip-codes with Gardena and Torrance. The large majority of these RVs are parked in unincorporated LA County – bleeding into East Gardena, West Rancho Dominguez, Compton and Willowbrook.
"Everything kind of overlaps itself so this is the perfect spot to have the Wild West," says Matthews.
Trashed-out, broken-down homeless RVs, blocking sidewalks and lanes of traffic, infested with filth, drugs, weapons and crime.
"At night, it’s crazy around here!" says Jose Sanchez who says he chooses to be homeless and live in his RV.
From Broadway to 140th to Redondo Beach Blvd, derelict boats, surfboards and trailers, where puppies roam free, parking is free and rules don’t apply.
"The septic tanks are being emptied by a few individuals who charge $50-$75 to take the waste out of the septic in the RVs and then they’re disposing of that waste into the storm drains on the streets so we often have back-up overflow," says Matthews.
Some homeless fires here are accidents, others "pay-back," like one today, captured on surveillance. The burned-out RVs just become part of the roadside décor. One on 135th burned down 4 months ago and is still here. In front of it, exposed electrical wires run along the sidewalk, where the homeless steal power by hard-wiring their RVs into the traffic light. Across the street, the Song family, like the other 12,000 who work around here, tries to run business as usual at the LA Garden Center.
"In the beginning, we were trying to see if we can help them out, but it’s just been really tough to work around them," says the owner, Leonard Song.
"The campers have bunch of pictures of cartoons and stuff," adds his young son, Evan. "It’s very smelly, and it makes me sad that they have to live there."
Just as we were leaving the Garden Center, right in front of our camera, this homeless man falls to the concrete and his mouth fills with blood. He hit his head on the brick wall when he tripped running with a drink. We called 911 and tried to stop the bleeding. Firefighters and paramedics quickly arrived and took him to the emergency room.
"Just holding his hand and just making sure that he felt safe and that he wasn’t alone, regardless if he’s homeless, doesn’t make it any different," says Harbor Gateway Community Advocate Fabiola Robles. "It’s even more special because we should make a difference every day so that when we get home, just as well looking back in the mirror and laying your head to sleep that you know that you made a difference today."
Around the corner in Rosewood, isn’t any better. A near fight over accused snitching, with no intention or desire to leave this lifestyle. "It’s a blessing," says Sanchez. "I want a peace of mind. That’s my freedom," he adds pointing to his RV. He says his nextdoor neighbor who lived in a RV still parked there died of an overdose last month. And back in October, HAZMAT responded to almost 40 barrels of wood glue seeping into the storm drain. Dorene Campos says it was an accident by her ex-husband, a carpenter, now homeless. Armed with a Taser, she visits him often to help.
"He doesn’t have anybody else," says Campos. "I had 3 kids with him. People give them things, and they take them and then that causes problems because you know, they’re feeding the situation. I’ve never seen him this bad in my life."
Matthews offers his assistance as well. A lot of the homeless out here know and trust him and even invite him inside.
"We have rat-infested RVs that have hundreds of rats," says Matthews. He moved here from Pasadena 6 years ago. With some savings as a private chef, he quit at the start of COVID to form the Harbor Gateway Chamber of Commerce. He doesn’t make any money, but earns what he holds more valuable – a sense of purpose – in fulfilling the promise he made to help his new community – not only the outraged residents, but the homeless. Matthews met Fabiola Robles, who quit her accounting job in August to voluntarily help him full-time.
"Me and my family decided to do community clean-ups so we started doing that every Saturday and from there I learned how complicated our jurisdictions were and how much of a need we had to help our community, just with keeping it clean, simple trash pick-up," says Robles.
"The majority of RVs are being rented so if you don’t pay your rent on time they’re basically burning you out," says Matthews. "They’re renting from unknown individuals who apparently own the bulk of these RVs that are on the street. There are quite a bit of undocumented here I think that’s probably the hardest and that’s why we’re trying to bring translators in to help make sure they understand that there are resources available to them."
Along with a dozen volunteers, the two advocates did a homeless count last month. The findings are staggering: 552 homeless RVs in 6 square miles.
"There are 65 kids in 7 RVs in one area," says Matthews. "Why? That’s the million-dollar question and we’re out there every day trying to get services and get them to accept it, but they don’t want to take the services."
Matthews only represents that one tenth of the area but says he’s trying to help everyone here and needs a lot more support. The rest of the 90% of the homeless RVs fall in LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell’s district. Matthews says she started writing a pilot program in January of last year to remove these RVs and her district office is part of a clean-up Tuesday. But Matthews fears it’ll only scratch the surface…in what needs a serious overhaul. It’s a homeless crisis some are now desensitized to…others – fed up with. But this will only continue to grow unless more people like Matthews and Robles step up and work together.
"I think we all really need to look within ourselves and really make a difference," says Robles. "People can hide behind social media or in any type of forum but action, always, back to the basics, speaks louder than words and just treating others as you would want to be treated. It’s really simple. It’s not that hard."
"These are people who need our help and we can’t just say someone else is going to do it," says Matthews. "There isn’t someone else. It has got to start from within the community."
A man of his word striving to do all in his power to help the housed and unhoused, so everyone in the community can have peace and feel safe at home.
Supervisor Mitchell’s Office released this statement: "The East Gardena community and the Chamber of Commerce have been actively communicating with my office about the challenges in their community due to RV encampments. Their voice along with many of other constituents across the 2nd District informed the motion I authored for a Countywide RV pilot program. The County teams, LAHSA and St Joseph’s VHOP team have been out to the provide services to the encampment between San Pedro St and Redondo Beach Blvd and Avalon Blvd. My team will be working with all the County teams and our community partners to prioritize housing our neighbors living in these RV’s before towing and dismantling them which is why this work is taking time."
Matthews reached out to FOX 11 after this story first aired saying, "The federal government is going to get involved. They just contacted me. They just saw the story."