Manchester Square is a last resort for L.A.’s down-and-out, but soon it will disappear

By Gary Walker

95th Street in Manchester Square, slated for demolition in January, is the largest homeless encampment in West L.A. Where will everybody go? Photo by Ted Soqui

David Bloom remembers better days. In the 1970s and ’80s, the jazz percussionist and former Mar Vista resident played gigs in Europe, South America — places he’d always dreamed of visiting — and along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

A heart attack at 50 while performing in Hollywood and an ensuing cascade of hard luck changed his life’s itinerary. For about two years now, Bloom and his tiny dog Mitzi have been going to sleep and waking up inside a sun-faded nylon tent under the LAX flight path in Westchester.

“I never expected to end up here,” he said. “I never thought this could happen to me.”

Bloom, 62, is one of about 150 homeless people living in Manchester Square. The former middle-class neighborhood spans about a quarter of a square mile from Arbor Vitae Street south Century Boulevard and Aviation Boulevard east to La Cienega Boulevard. The airport has been buying up and clearing out single-family homes and apartment buildings to make way for a ground transportation hub that will connect passenger terminals to parking, rental cars and a light rail station.

It is a desolate, surreal place with no street lights. Where houses once stood are now empty lots. Most of the homeless live on 94th and 95th streets, which are lined with tents, cars and RVs — some in working condition, others not. All but completely abandoned, this is the last stop for those who have nowhere else to go.

But not for much longer. Come January, airport officials will close off at least 40% of Manchester Square to begin construction.

Bloom is “absolutely confident” he will be gone by then. He hopes to resettle in London and revive his career as a musician.

“I’m not the type of person that waits until the guillotine drops,” he said.

Others are far less certain.

1. Campers and tents line 95th Street in Manchester Square; 2. Tom Sigler won’t accept housing unless his cat Stormy finds housing too; 3. Tattered tents line 94th Street; 4. Public health workers distributed Hepatitis A vaccines in October; 5. Tammy Johnson has left Manchester Square after finding affordable housing in Santa Monica; 6. David Bloom is working with LAX homeless outreach specialist Christina Miller. Photos by Ted Soqui

City officials have long been making big plans for Manchester Square.

Los Angeles World Airports, the municipal agency that runs LAX, has been buying up homes here since 1999. Most property owners have already accepted buyout offers from LAWA, which has paid out $117 million to date. In August the L.A. City Council triggered eminent domain proceedings for a few dozen holdouts, prompting additional departures.

“We have had 32 of the 36 remaining properties sold voluntarily to LAWA,” said Mark Waier, director of communications for LAWA’s $6-billion Landside Access Modernization Program.

The heart of the project is its Automated People Move, an elevated two-mile railway circuit that will connect the future Aviation / 96th Street light rail station with LAX passenger terminals to the west and a new rental car facility and parking areas to be built on top of what’s now Manchester Square.

But LAX also has plans for the homeless there right now.

Last year airport officials hired homeless outreach specialist Christina Miller to connect Manchester Square’s homeless residents with social services and help them find temporary shelter on the way to permanent supportive housing.

In collaboration with the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority, People for Assisting the Homeless, the Venice-based St. Joseph Center and various other public or nonprofit agencies, they’ve made a sizeable dent.

At the beginning of the year, LAHSA’s annual Homeless Count found 400 homeless people in Manchester Square — making it the largest homeless encampment in West Los Angeles.
Miller says there are now about 150 homeless people congregated around 94th and 95th streets.

“Since the inception of the Manchester Square Task Force in January 2016, 35 people that we know of have entered permanent housing,” Miller said in October while making her rounds at Manchester Square. “We are sure there could be more people who found their way to a housing solution not captured in this number, as not everyone comes back to tell us they are no longer living on the streets.”

At the time, Miller said 27 others had viable housing placement plans and she expected them to find housing soon.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes Westchester, said LAWA’s efforts have produced results.

“LAWA has done a phenomenal job of getting people into housing. Throughout my entire district, this is the best and most successful outreach effort that has been conducted,” Bonin said.

Prior to Miller coming on board, outreach teams were only visiting Manchester Square on a part-time basis.

“There was never that consistent surge of outreach until July. Since then, we’ve seen a lot of synergy. There’s definitely a new sense of urgency out here and an understanding among many of the folks here, now is my time [to get housing],” Miller said.

Pressed for a response on what will happen to those still without housing in January, “We’ll continue the process of getting folks into housing,” Miller pledged. “Absolutely.”

Discarded bicycle parts and other debris often appear during the day as the homeless of Manchester Square come and go. Bloom is one of the more popular residents, as evidenced by the number of people who pay a visit to his tent during a three-hour visit in October.

Holly Davidson, who lives on 95th Street, often stops by to catch up with Bloom and have a smoke before going to work at LAX Airport Cleaners on the Westchester-Inglewood border.

A slim 30-year-old with brown hair and purple highlights, she has lived at Manchester Square for three years. Davidson fled her home in 2014 due to domestic violence and began camping next to the 405 Freeway before winding up here. She refers to her living situation as “structurally challenged,” not “homeless.”

Davidson has non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer. She discontinued treatment after a having a heart attack while undergoing chemotherapy, but says marijuana helps to ease the pain.

“I’m not showing any symptoms lately,” she said.

PATH is helping Davidson and her boyfriend find housing, but unlike Bloom she isn’t very confident about leaving Manchester Square.

“We’ll probably be here until the end,” she said. “I might even end up back along the freeway. … I’m not sure.”

PATH Regional Outreach Director Haley Fuselier ranks Davidson’s case among the more heart-wrenching tales she’s heard over the two years her teams have been working Manchester Square.

“The hardest for me to hear are the medical issues that have gone unattended for so long,” Fuselier said.

There was a man who said he felt “like his guts were falling out” on a regular basis.

“It turns out that he had a hernia, and there’s treatment for that. So he’s been out here for some time, quite alarmed with something that’s minor surgery,” Fuselier lamented.

Shortly after Gov. Jerry Brown declared the hepatitis A epidemic a state of emergency in October, the L.A. County Department of Public Health came to Manchester Square to administer vaccines and distribute literature on how to prevent contracting the virus.

Representatives from St. Joseph Center, homeless employment services organization Chrysalis and the county social services workers also frequent Manchester Square. Various Girl Scout troops and the Rotary Club of Inglewood bring food from time to time. The Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa hands out hygiene kits with new socks, toothpaste, soap and lotion once a month. Lava Mae, a nonprofit that operates mobile showers and hygiene facilities, visits Manchester Square twice a week, providing as many as 30 showers a visit, said Miller.

Tom Sigler grew up in Torrance, served in the U.S. Marine Corps and worked as a mechanic before becoming homeless in 2008. He and girlfriend Denise Taylor were living in a house owned by Taylor’s mother, but were forced to leave after her mother died.

“We went from place to place to place, living on the streets a few years, just trying to survive,” explained Sigler, 59, who at one point recycled cans and bottles to pay for food and an occasional motel room. “I was digging through trashcans, looking for anything, just to make money.”

When Taylor became pregnant in 2011, Sigler found paying work in Phoenix. In 2014 the couple reunited in Los Angeles, this time with a camper van. But they lost custody of their daughter, who was taken into foster care. Sigler found work again, but that door closed when his employer died . He said police officers told him to go to Manchester Square after rousting him from a tent in Lomita.

PATH is working with Sigler and Taylor to find them permanent housing.

“I’ve got to do something with my life. I don’t want to die out here,” he said. “I’m optimistic that I’ll find housing.”

Sigler hopes to tap into resources for veterans but has encountered roadblocks because he did not have an honorable discharge.

Another hitch: Sigler has four cats and does not want to part with them. He won’t accept housing unless he can find homes for them, too.

“They’re my companions. They help me keep my sanity,” Sigler said. “I can’t abandon them.”

Tammy Johnson, 54, is one of the lucky ones. She’s something of a celebrity in Manchester Square because she “got out,” meaning she found housing.

Johnson was homeless for three years before finding permanent supportive housing in Santa Monica. She was bicycling up 94th Street and saying goodbyes to her former neighbors when Bloom waved her over for a chat.

“It’s by the beach,” Johnson gushed of her new home. “I’m looking forward to living by the beach and drinking piña coladas,” she added with a laugh.

A 67-year-old man who goes by Nathan (he said there were issues with using his last name) spent seven years in a camper at Manchester Square. He had previously lived in an apartment near Manchester Avenue and 85th Street in Westchester, so he was already familiar with the area.

A self-described “handyman who can fix anything,” the Tennessee native lost that apartment after clients cut back on his services during the recession.

“I was one of the first people there,” he said. “I’m lucky that I had that camper.”

PATH established contact with Nathan about two years ago, and last month he moved into an apartment in the San Fernando Valley — “a brand new place with brand new furniture, thanks to PATH,” he said.

Asked why it took two years to find housing for Nathan, Miller said each case is unique.

“There are many variables to the amount of time it takes for someone to obtain housing and, unfortunately, there is no typical amount of time this process takes,” she said. “Barriers to obtaining housing can range from criminal background, lack of income, seniors requiring a bottom-floor unit due to medical issues and past evictions. This is true countywide for essentially all homeless populations, Manchester Square included.”

Nathan recalled life in Manchester Square as peaceful — at least until more and more people started showing up.

“It was beautiful.  It was like living in a park. Nobody bothered me,” he recalled. But among the newcomers, “a lot of them were taking drugs, and they’d be yelling and screaming all night.”

Miller said that the longer a person is homeless, the harder it usually is to get them housed.

“It is no easy feat to create a trusting relationship with someone who has unfortunately been living on the street for years and help them feel hopeful about life after Manchester Square, but this is exactly what outreach teams aim to do every day they are out there,” she said.

Nathan feels fortunate that he got out in time.

“There’s no place to park a camper in Los Angeles anymore. If PATH hadn’t found me this apartment, I would have had to leave the state,” he said. “If I hadn’t gotten out of there, I would have gone crazy.”

Bloom shares a different take on Manchester Square. He’s heard tales of rape and assault, but he’s unsure whether those stories have any truth to them.

“There are nice people here. They’re just trying to make it, like everyone else,” he said. “People look at us like we’re in a zoo.”

Davidson said workers with the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation confiscated a number of her possessions — suitcases, a $300 tent and a 5,000-watt gas generator they claimed was refuse — during a maintenance sweep several months ago.

“They just said everything was trash. They didn’t even open the suitcases to see what was in them,” she said, her voice rising with anger at the memory. “They even took my boyfriend’s tools, which is how he makes his living.”

The generator had supplied power to several tents. Davidson suspects that city officials were sending a message: Don’t get too comfortable at Manchester Square.

“They want us out of here,” she said.

David Bloom and his daughter Tatiana visit outside his tent on 94th Street
Photo by Ted Soqui

Davidson and Bloom have relatives in Los Angeles, but both have chosen not to ask them for help for reasons they declined to share.

“I have a one-year-old daughter who lives with an older sister in Orange County. It’s a much better living situation for her there than it is here,” Davidson said.

“It’s really sad to hear how some people are disconnected from their families because of substance abuse, or just embarrassment,” said PATH’s Fuselier. “That’s one of the things that my team and I are focused on:  You don’t have to be perfect to call your family and friends if you’re going in the right direction.”

For Bloom, who said he lost his savings and creditworthiness to identity theft before the recession, salvation can feel close at hand yet still so far away. He lived in a motor home until 2014; while parked in Hollywood, a speeding car crashed into it and made the vehicle unlivable. That’s when he discovered Manchester Square.

“I heard nobody bothered you over here,” he recalled.

As the clock ticks closer to January, Bloom’s plan is to reinstate his passport and reignite his music career overseas. When he dreams, he’s on a plane to London. And in those brief moments, Manchester Square is but a distant memory.

“It’s not where you drop in life,” he concluded. “It’s how you get up.”