Unhoused Sweeps Become Flashpoint – The Hollywood Reporter

“Stop the sweeps! Stop the sweeps! Stop the sweeps!”

On March 17, a group of protesters chanted at downtown LA’s James K. Hahn City Hall East complex, holding handwritten signs reading “Stop War on the Poor” and “Encampment Eviction Kills.” Then a director called cut on this scene from Freeform’s drama Good Trouble, about 20-somethings who live in the neighborhood. As the performers relaxed, a real-life homelessness activist bounded forward, speaking through a megaphone. “All right, hey, hey y’all, I’ve got to let you all know the irony of this,” he said, revealing his own “Services Not Sweeps” shirt through an unbuttoned jacket and contending that the production’s shoot had triggered a clearance of the unhoused hours earlier. “Do you guys realize the complicity of you all?”

Activists claim Good Trouble‘s shoot — videos from the incident quickly drew heated attention online — is just one example of Hollywood productions’ increasing friction with unhoused residents. A 2020 report by news site Knock LA reported that Apple TV+’s Truth Be Told had displaced more than 75 unhoused people, also near City Hall East; Endeavor Content, which produces the show, rejects the report. The following spring, a local Fox station reported on claims that the 2021 Oscars at Union Station had displaced unhoused individuals. (City Councilmember Kevin de León, whose district includes the station, denied they’d been forced to relocate.)

Downtown Los Angeles has for a century served as the entertainment industry’s go-to urban backlot, and its 54-block Skid Row, which began in the late 19th century, has complicated it. Yet as the number of shoot days in the LA area has seen a recent uptick and the region’s homelessness crisis persists (according to LA County’s last homelessness count, in January 2020, more than 66,000 individuals lived on the streets, in shelters and in vehicles) , critics claim productions are triggering city crackdowns. Meanwhile, crewmembers say they’re just trying to go about their permitted business amid a tricky terrain. Tea Good Trouble incident became a flashpoint of a larger civic conflict without end, one in which workaday Hollywood finds itself at the center.

“There are sweeps happening for filming all the time,” according to Kristina Meshelski, a member of Street Watch LA. Her organization contends that Section 41.18 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code — which bars individuals from sitting, lying, sleeping or keeping personal belongings in a way that could impede activity with a city permit that takes place in the public right-of-way — can allow the displacement of unhoused individuals for the purpose of filming when a production has a filming permit, but that even when Section 41.18 wasn’t the law, sweeps for the purposes of shooting have been “a constant.”

Meshelski says that, in some cases, a production deliberately attempts to clear an area, while in others, the city more broadly moves people out of specific areas for the benefit of production. “The most important thing is for the industry to take responsibility for their role in what the city is doing with sweeps,” she says.

Joanna Johnson, Good Trouble‘s executive producer, tweeted March 18 that her production had been unfairly maligned. “We had nothing to do with this planned sweep,” she wrote. “We never move anyone so we can film, we let the unhoused community know a week in advance when we are filming.”

Pete Brown, communications director for Councilmember de León, within whose district the incident took place, says there were two events occurring around City Hall East on March 17. The first was a “housing operation” (entailing a clearance of an encampment) at Toriumi Plaza, about two blocks away, which according to Brown extended to the City Hall East area and included offers for housing. The second was a regularly scheduled Thursday power-washing (known as a “Care+ Cleanup”), which requires unhoused individuals to move and relocate their possessions, and which he says happened to take place in that area on that day. Brown says filming had “absolutely nothing to do” with what occurred. Brown says de León, who’s running for mayor and was appointed chair of the City Council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee in November 2021, and his office are not currently enforcing 41.18.

Activists insist the Toriumi Plaza clearance was separate from the sweep in question, which occurred along Main Street. “This was next to the production vehicles for the shoot,” says Devon Tsuno, a member of J-Town Action and Solidarity, who spotted LAPD officers guarding a roped-off area while city sanitation employees removed materials from the tents of two people living on the sidewalk in adjacent setups, including an elderly disabled woman. Tsuno, one of two eyewitnesses to the incident whom The Hollywood Reporter spoke with, adds that by his count more than two dozen unhoused individuals living in the immediate area were affected.

Mark Horvath, founder of the homelessness education nonprofit Invisible People (and a former TV distribution executive who has himself experienced homelessness), says he spoke with Good Trouble writers in January after they asked how they could use their work to help unhoused people. He has since publicly defended Good Trouble. Horvath tells THR he suggested that the show’s writers pen a storyline about sweeps. “Sweeps are awful. The city must stop displacing people,” he says. “Good Trouble, from my experience, is a TV production that’s using their influence to fight against sweeps.”

Industry pros have developed different approaches to address the challenges of working in areas with unhoused people. One seasoned location manager who asked to remain anonymous says, “What I’ve tried to do is offer something to the people we’re trying to displace — food or vouchers or gift cards. We’re not allowed to give cash anymore.” It was their understanding that 41.18 could be enforced, but “we try to use the humanitarian way.”

Tim Ballou, CEO at Film This!, which assists productions with location filming and permitting in Southern California, says film production staff engage directly with the unhoused on the majority of locations that he permits in downtown LA and Hollywood. “Gift cards are handed out as compensation for moving. Production then pressure-washes the area and cleans up the trash,” Ballou explains in an email. He also describes a process by which a production or agent working on its behalf can contact the LAPD to assist with encampments that a production hopes to relocate. Ballou says he has been told that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority handles outreach “to ask unhoused community members [to] voluntarily move from the location. LAPD doesn’t hand out citations or forcibly move anyone that doesn’t want to move.”

FilmLA, the nonprofit office that grants permits and is contracted with the city, refers requests by productions for outreach to homeless individuals in a permitted production zone to the LAPD Film Unit for follow-up by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Spokesman Philip Sokoloski notes that this process “comes with no guarantees,” adding: “Having a backup location may be necessary.”

LAHSA and the LAPD tell THR they don’t ask or force people to move for film productions, and the Bureau of Sanitation notes in a statement that its role is strictly to remove trash and unsupervised personal belongings for storage.

More than a decade ago, location manager Kokayi Ampah worked on The Soloist, the 2009 Joe Wright film based on the true story of musician Nathaniel Ayers, a former Julliard student who became homeless and lived in downtown LA The film shot both on LA’s Skid Row and on a fake Skid Row that the production constructed on Anderson Street, across the LA River from the Arts District. Ampah, who is now retired, said the production worked with organizations serving the unhoused like LA CAN and The Midnight Mission and brought in extras who had been previously unhoused or were referred by homeless agencies. When The Soloist did shoot overnight on Winston Street on Skid Row, which Ampah says did not have a permanent encampment, the production handed out pamphlets three to four days in advance and “there was no police involved.” He compared his community-minded method to getting involved with a homeowners’ association in Hancock Park. “You’ve got to do that, wherever you’re going,” he says. (As for handing out gift cards, food vouchers or cash, he says, “That wasn’t something that we really did at that point.”)

According to Ballou, these approaches might be obscure even to key creatives who work on a production: “If the location manager does their job, a producer, AD, director would never know there was an issue to begin with,” he writes. The Location Managers Guild International declined to comment.

Street Watch member Theo Henderson, who hosts the podcast We the Unhoused and who filmed the March 17 clearance that activists attribute to Good Trouble, believes unhoused individuals should be offered work by productions using the streets and sidewalks where they live. He adds, “Because of the layers that they [film production] have, it allows them some plausible deniability of what is going on.” (UCLA’s Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy published a report on March 23 detailing a planned “cleaning” operation at an Echo Park Lake encampment in Jan. 2020 that authorities claimed was set in motion by a filming permit; in response, the chagrined entertainment firm behind the project wrote to civic entities noting that the unhoused residents would “in no way impact our filming activities” and did “not need them to move, nor are we asking any of the city authorities to remove them.”)

On March 23, Good Trouble aired a scene from an ongoing homelessness arc. A journalist interviews Luca, an unhoused man portrayed by Booboo Stewart (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), about the Kafkaesque paperwork challenges he faces in securing employment. As Luca explains his predicament, revealing his hopes (“I would like to get indoors, you know?”) and dreams (“I actually really want to be a dancer”), the pair walk near the 110 freeway. Soon they arrive at the sidewalk encampment Luca calls home, discovering that city workers have begun to clear it. He panics. “Please,” Luca tells a police officer, “you’re throwing away my life.”

Good Trouble got itself into trouble with some of those it wanted to support — despite good intentions. Horvath notes, “As homelessness grows, it’s going to continue to be something that movie sets have to deal with. So my hope is this will start a conversation.”

A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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