Industry Homeowners Wage Battle Against Homeless With Help From 'Point Break' Scribe

South Robertson residents placed boulders blocking a homeless encampment under the 10.
Andrea More

South Robertson residents placed boulders blocking a homeless encampment under the 10.

A new and "really ugly” fight in L.A.’s homeless crisis has emerged under the 10 freeway, where tensions have led to vicious name-calling, death threats and possible felony charges.

In the early morning hours on Sept. 6 over Labor Day weekend, a group of residents from the surrounding neighborhood — known as South Robertson — worked with a landscaping company to place upwards of 50 large boulders along the sidewalk where Cattaraugus Avenue passes under the freeway. The effort was designed to displace homeless encampments, mimicking a similar installation in the Motor Avenue underpass.

It was paid for with donations totaling $3,650 raised by a GoFundMe campaign led by Point Break and Varsity Blues screenwriter, and area resident, Peter Iliff, along with dozens of others. It’s a practice referred to as “hostile architecture” and has been commonly used by cities and business owners as a way to maintain order. Critics counter that it is harmful to unhoused individuals and negatively impacts vulnerable populations.

Iliff — who directed the 2017 documentary short Trump's America following a homeless man in Venice — and some others who supported the initiative said they were acting out of concern for public safety following attacks and threats to local residents in and around the underpass, which is used as the main connector to Culver City and the Helms Bakery District. Though there have been multiple individuals who have made the underpass home, one man, Matteo, had been the focus of effort as his encampment is known to be the most sprawling.

However, once news of the boulders got out, the backlash was swift. Homeless advocates and activists from such groups as Street Watch L.A., Los Angeles Community Action Network and K-Town for All helped sound the alarm about the boulders, which were placed without a city permit. Councilmember Herb J. Wesson condemned the action on Twitter, posting, “This is wrong on so many levels.”

K-Town for All posted that hostile architecture “is bad for us and for our public spaces” and encouraged its followers to “remove or neutralize” design elements that are implemented illegally. On the night of Sept. 8, the South Robertson Neighborhood Council (SORO NC) held a virtual meeting during which activists flooded the open comments portion to voice concerns in what turned out to be a heated, nearly three-hour session with parties on both sides expressing their views.

At the same time, a group of activists descended upon the Cattaraugus Avenue underpass to remove the boulders, a task that was not entirely completed due to the weight of some of the rocks. Another issue that has caused concern on both sides is graffiti that appeared at some point following the removal of the rocks reading “Cancel rent.”

Iliff is known to have gone to the site upon hearing about the removal. Once there, he is said to have had a meaningful conversation with Street Watch members and other activists. Though he has been positioned at the center of the controversy, Iliff says he was acting in tandem with more than 30 fellow residents in the area. Because his name appeared on the campaign, he has been threatened with a felony for illegal dumping from the city of Los Angeles' sanitation department by an environmental compliance officer (though no charges were levied after the boulders were removed), death threats and hundreds of menacing emails and messages.

On the activist side, Street Watch L.A. member Olga Lexell, who has worked as a writer’s assistant and script coordinator, tells THR that homelessness is “obviously” a complex issue, but she finds it disappointing that a resident of the neighborhood would raise funds to install the hostile architecture rather than put money toward housing.

“In all of these discussions, the unhoused person has been framed as some kind of intrusion or public safety hazard — he is a resident of this neighborhood, and has as much of a stake in it as anyone who owns a home here,” Lexell explains. “Perhaps he even did own a home here at some point. We have no idea what happened to him as he hasn't been seen since then, and that's a huge concern. Public safety must also extend to our unhoused neighbors, who are in much more dangerous situations than those who have a roof over their head.”

Iliff took to Facebook on Monday night to post a lengthy statement about the controversy, which has extended into a second week amid continued tensions in the area. He stated that before the residents banded together to place the boulders there, they offered the individual who had been living in the passageway an apartment but he declined.

"The 150-ft-long dark passage can be a very dangerous place for both residents and the unhoused. The issue is how do we strike a balance between a person’s right to shelter, and a child’s right to safely walk through on their way to elementary school? This July, an unhoused individual camped in the tunnel attacked and chased a resident walking through holding his 4-yr-old daughter’s hand while pushing a baby stroller. Our community had finally had enough," he posted. "What we need is to come together and get the city to find real solutions for residents and our unhoused brothers. Because those who came to protest the boulders, and those who defend them, are ALL on the same team - the team of people who care. Indifference is the enemy."

Another resident places the blame on L.A. leaders. "The city government is failing us by doing nothing to clean up the streets and house the unhoused," says Laurie Levine. "They have let down their housed and unhoused constituents. They should be ashamed of themselves."

As for SORO NC, the organization, which is chartered and funded by the city of Los Angeles to promote citizen participation at the grassroots level, issued a formal statement Friday saying it does “not support any effort to marginalize or endanger any of our residents,” and that it’s against the hostile architecture. During a meeting this week, board members made it clear they were on the hunt for any other councilmembers or board members who were involved in supporting the initiative.

As one person put it, “The story is not over.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.