LOS ANGELES — To persuade her to give up her tent and move off Aetna Street in Van Nuys, city workers promised La Donna Harrell a clean bed and a hot shower. 

What You Need To Know

  • As of Aug. 18, 148 out of 1,531 Inside Safe participants have found permanent housing, according to the most recent data from the City Administrative Officer
  • 193 have left the program, most going back to the streets
  • More than 1,000 people remain in hotel rooms leased by the city
  • Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass says participants can stay indefinitely  

But her first week in Mayor Karen Bass’s Inside Safe program did not get off to a good start. 

“My bed that was supposed to be clean was filled with bedbugs,” Harrell said outside her truck parked on Aetna Street. 

The mayor’s office told Spectrum News when they hear about an issue such as bedbugs, the participant is moved and the hotel manager is notified, but the incident left Harrell with a $200 vet bill and deep suspicions of Inside Safe. 

“It’s unsustainable, it’s demeaning, and it’s just not how things should be run,” Harrell said. 

The same program feels like a lifeline for Anthony McLaurin, who fell into homelessness nine months ago after an eviction. 

“I did all I could to not to sleep on the street. I tried my best, but the sun went down on me,” McLaurin said.

Researchers at the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy have been tracking the Aetna Street encampment for months, documenting relationships and bonds within the roughly 40 member encampment. Earlier this month, the researchers issued an open letter to Bass, concerned about the community’s displacement by Inside Safe and subsequent police response to enforce a camping ban.

Professor Ananya Roy worries that without a path to permanent housing, Inside Safe participants will eventually end up back on the street. 

“Our concern about the repeated displacement is that people end up more precarious that before,” Roy said. “If, as a city, we are really serious about housing people, these games that are being played with people’s lives… makes it much more difficult to ever bring people inside on a permanent basis.”

Roy helped compile a report on the city’s response to the encampment at Echo Park Lake in 2021 that found a year after the sweep, only 17 out of 180 people had found permanent housing. Most had fallen back into homelessness. 

Roy said the city owes Aetna’s community assurances it will do better. 

“But despite earlier demands by the Aetna community, nothing was given to them in writing,” Roy said.  

Nonetheless, McLaurin remains hopeful, believing he has everything he needs to get back on his feet and pursue a career in music. 

“My future is going to be amazing because I took the chance to challenge myself on believing in it,” he said. 

Now that Inside Safe is complete, tents are regularly swept at Aetna Street, with police arriving days after Spectrum News interviewed Harrell. 

“Just offer me low-income (housing),” Harrell said. “I don’t need to lose liberties for not affording housing in California.”

Harrell said despite her rocky experience, she’s staying in the program for now. Unsure of just how long she’ll be inside safe.