IA makeshift wooden altar decorated with photos of people stands in the parking lot north of Los Angeles. Some are smiling, some are serious, but all were members of the Van Nuys homeless community and all died within the last six months.

“What we’re doing today is honoring our family who lived here, homeless and struggling, and now passed away,” Kookie, a community member, said during a memorial service Saturday.

“We all came here alone, but we ended up with family, we were very close,” Kookie continued. “It’s sad when someone leaves but you’re not promised tomorrow. And they are gone, but not forgotten.”

About 30 people attended the event to remember those who died and to draw attention to the city government’s failures in homelessness policies, which organizers said increased the number of homeless people who died.

Shocking data from the Los Angeles Medical Examiner showed that more than 2,000 homeless people died in Los Angeles in 2023, a nearly 300 percent increase since 2014.

A memorial in Van Nuys commemorates members of the local homeless community who have died in recent months

(Mike Bedigan/The Independent)

“Even though I don’t have a home, I have a homeless community, we care for each other, we all care for each other. We understand each other because we are all going through the same thing,” says another community member, Jelly The Independent.

Gone, but not forgotten

People remembered at the memorial included Anjileen “Green Eyes” Swan, Michael Flores, Gino, Terry Mason Kendrick, “Spicy” Mike Baldwin, Tony Goodwin, Big L and April.

The event marks exactly two months since Green Eyes passed away in her tent across the parking lot in the San Fernando Valley, and community members had fond memories to share.

“Green Eyes was special, may she rest in heaven,” Jelly said The Independent. “She was an extremely stubborn woman – she was set in her ways and there was no change. But she was also a lover. She didn’t put up with anything, but she still loved everyone.

“She was a cool, elegant woman and I enjoyed my time with her.”

Green Eyes was an integral part of the Van Nuys community, helping to feed others or organize clothing donations. Shortly before her death in January, she had received housing through a city program, but after returning from heart surgery in Las Vegas, she found she could no longer check in and returned to the streets.

Anjileen “Green Eyes” Swan was a valued member of the Van Nuys homeless community

(Carla Orendorff/Anthony Orendorff)

Those who knew her said she felt being evicted from her apartment due to health problems was an “injustice.”

“There is silence in the city and we blame individuals for their own deaths. What happened to Green Eyes should not have happened to anyone, and yet it happens again and again,” said Carla Orendorff, an unhoused community organizer.

Also on the altar was Flores, known to friends as Mike Flo. He was the subject of a previous investigation by The Independent in the housing conditions introduced by LA Mayor Karen Bass.

Flores had been living in a homeless camp at the Van Nuys bus station for at least three years when he was offered a spot in the mayor’s Inside Safe initiative to get people off the streets.

In September, Flores moved into the Palm Tree Inn, a run-down motel. At the end of November he died of a drug overdose. Orendorff says Inside Safe enforced “isolation policies” that meant those staying at the motels could not receive visitors, and that partially contributed to Flores’ death.

“Mike was cool, he was a really fun guy, very laid back and didn’t mind being messy or anything like that. “A really cool character, always full of laughs, and he could take a joke too,” Jelly said The Independent.

Michael Flores, known as “Mike Flo” to his friends, died in November 2023

(Carla Orendorff)

“Nobody ever had a problem with Mike Flo, nobody had anything bad to say about that guy.”

Tony Goodwin, who passed away three years ago, was another strong member of the Van Nuys community. Orendorff said he was “constantly targeted” by city authorities because he ran a food pantry out of his tent.

“He couldn’t bear the thought of anyone going hungry, so he had a pantry right outside his tent where anyone could come and get something to eat. And City Sanitation stated that this posed a threat to public health and safety,” she said The Independent.

“Every week they would come and throw away all the food he had collected in his pantry. For us, this was an injustice that ultimately took its toll. Tony died of a heart attack on the sidewalk.”

People are thrown away like trash

Members of the Van Nuys community often criticize the enforcement of Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 41:18, which legally states that there shall be no “sitting, lying, or sleeping, or… storage, use, maintenance, or…” placing of personal property in the public right of way.”

However, a 2021 change to the ordinance states that no one can be found violating the law “unless and until” the city council designates the specific areas for enforcement, or until 14 calendar days after official signage is posted, to point out such areas.

Van Nuys: Los Angeles homeless community pays tribute to dead ‘family members’

Members of the Van Nuys homeless community say authorities are still taking a “guerrilla” approach to clearing the encampments.

“If anyone actually sees what’s going on, it’s horrible and unnecessary,” Jelly says The Independent. “The city’s sanitation facilities really aren’t doing their job, they’re supposed to clean up the trash, and they’re not doing that. They come and deliberately throw away our things.

“They are not doing their job, they are here to harass and harass us. They want to get there early so they can throw away all of our belongings just to discourage us.”

Last month, after the severe storms in California, The Independent spoke with Whitney, a homeless woman living in the Van Nuys area. The day after the interview, Whitney’s camp was evacuated in an unannounced eviction. A metal fence was erected around the site.

“These events of expelling and banning people from public spaces and cordoning them off have caused so much distrust and pain and are just one contributing factor to people losing their lives,” Orendorff said.

“We have seen it time and time again and the impact on our community has been severe. It’s almost like a message is being sent.”

The Independent has reached out to the LA Mayor’s Office, City Sanitation and Council District 6, seeking comment on the concerns of members of the Van Nuys homeless community.

“We just want to be treated equally”

Van Nuys homeless community members Kookie (left) and Jelly (right) speak at a memorial service for their friends

(Anthony Orendorff)

Community members shared The Independent Saturday’s memorial service is about remembering their friends and “family” as people, in contrast to society’s stereotypical perception of homeless people as drug addicts or violent.

“They think they are better than us, they don’t want to sit next to us. We’re not about hurting people, you know, we just wanted to be treated equally,” Kookie says.

“Nobody knows the story that got us here, what got us to this point. Everyone has a story, everyone has their own shoes to walk in.”

And, Kookie says, people experiencing homelessness want the same thing as everyone else: a safe, comfortable life and a chance for things to get better. “It’s sad,” she said, “Since I’ve lived here, we’ve lost a lot of people because of whatever situation…overdose, homelessness.” Now those people are no longer here – they didn’t have a chance to know what it was like “It feels like having a home or an apartment or seeing everyone develop.”

It’s a feeling Jelly shares. “Living out here has humbled me in many ways [taught me] To be more accepting of people and their problems and struggles because we all have them,” she says.

“Until you meet us… [to meet us] is to love ourselves, we are not what everyone makes us. We have good support, there are really great people out here.”

Community organizer Carla Orendorff speaks at a memorial event in Van Nuys

(Anthony Orendorff)

At the memorial service, donated clothing, hygiene and medical supplies and other useful items were placed on a trestle table next to the flower-decorated altar. A local retailer has also commissioned a portable pizza oven.

“Our event makes it clear that without community there is no life,” said Orendorff The Independent.

“The fact that three people who are a valued part of this community have passed away within the last three months… It is not an easy story to tell. But it’s an important story to tell.”

But despite the ongoing grief, community members remained resilient.

“I’m still going to fight for us, I’m still going to go forward and fight,” Kookie said. “You get fired up and then something always knocks you down, you know? You just have to shake yourself off and move on.”

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