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City Hall's History of "Occupations" Includes Tents Outside and Sleeping Bags in Chambers

By Eric Richardson
Published: Friday, October 21, 2011, at 10:59AM
City Hall Shelters L.A. Times / UCLA Digital Library

Left: Homeless people sleep on the floor of City Hall's Council Chambers on January 22, 1987. Right: Workers erect a large tent next door to City Hall in December of 1984 for the first of two tent cities on the site.

The protesters of Occupy Los Angeles have been sleeping on the lawns outside City Hall for three weeks now, but so far the group's journeys into the building have mostly been confined to trips to give public comment at City Council meetings.

That wasn't the case in January of 1987, when for just a few days the floor of the Council chambers was opened up as a temporary homeless shelter.

The move, prompted by a cold front that dropped Downtown temperatures near freezing, was part of a multi-year advocacy effort that included homeless individuals sleeping in a tent city on the state building footprint across the street from City Hall, in the tunnels of the County's Civic Center complex and eventually in an Arts District campground that came to be known as the "Dust Bowl Hilton."

The tent city next door to City Hall came first, set up in December of 1984 by a coalition of agencies that called itself the Homeless Organizing Team. 250 people made a temporary home in and around a pair of large tents, set up both to provide a few weeks of shelter and to dramatize the plight of the homeless. Just as with today's protests, the action was also designed to get media attention.

When the site was shut down in early January, some former residents followed organizer Ted Hayes—who would go on to be a central figure in Los Angeles homeless advocacy—to a site at 6th and Gladys. There they set up a shantytown dubbed "Justiceville," but it was shut down in May of 1985 by officials over health and safety concerns.

Hayes and his Justiceville followers staged marches throughout Downtown and the city, and continued the struggle for a permanent site.

At the end of 1986, Hayes organized "Tent City II" across from City Hall, using a 5,000-square-foot circus tent that could sleep 200. Again, though, the site was only good for a few days.

City Hall's doors were opened on January 20, 1987, after four homeless individuals died of hypothermia over the course of a sudden cold front. Three days later, occupants were moved to an empty city-owned building in Little Tokyo.

None of these efforts, though, had the scale of the "Dust Bowl Hilton," a 12-acre campground on the site of Metro's present-day subway rail yard in the Arts District. 2,600 people passed through in the three months that the site was open. The urban campground had dust in the air, too little drainage and leaky showers. The last residents were moved out on September 25, 1987, when workers shut off the camp's water and started to clean up the acres of debris and cots left behind.

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