Benito Flores reclaimed his home in El Sereno in March 2020 along with other families and elders seeking shelter from the COVID-19 pandemic. As COVID-19 cases began to rise throughout Los Angeles County, the 59,000 people without permanent shelter began to look for a way to stay “safer-at-home” as per the dictates of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Reclaiming Our Homes has reclaimed vacant houses owned by the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) in an effort to provide shelter for the houseless when the state failed to intervene and provide the necessary accommodations during a public health crisis. While the Reclaimers have been able to take shelter from COVID-19, maintaining other basic necessities like water and power has been a challenge.
On June 15, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power sought to discontinue water and power service for Benito’s reclaimed home. A DWP employee was successful in shutting off the water supply but was unsuccessful in shutting off the power as Benito blocked off the access to the meter. Despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s orders that water and power service cannot be turned off due to nonpayment during the pandemic, the DWP employee was adamant about following his orders.
To assist Benito to keep his home, Reclaim Our Homes put out a call to their rapid response network to protect the reclaimers’ access to basic utilities. Approximately 60 people arrived to defend the home of Benito Flores, stationing themselves throughout the neighborhood. One reclaimer asked: “How are we going to deal with the warm weather with no running water and no electricity. We have kids, we have elders. … I’m not going to leave my kids without utilities, not today.”
Martha Escudero, another reclaimer, stated that it’s a shame that CalTrans and DWP would do this during a pandemic, to anyone, whether they be reclaimers or non-reclaimers. “Water is a necessary component of maintaining hygiene during the COVID-19 crisis and they shouldn’t be shutting it off — that’s inhumane.”
Unable to complete the original task, the DWP employee filed a complaint with his supervisor alleging that his life was threatened. In response, DWP security and law enforcement officers arrived to uphold the illegal orders to shut off the power to Benito’s house. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, we see how businesses and law enforcement are weaponized against the most vulnerable among our communities: Benito is at high risk to COVID-19 due to his age. Off camera, Benito was able to show proof of payment for the water and power bills, and was able to have this water service reinstated.
Benito addressed the crowd after the DWP crew left the scene, and the crowd celebrated with chants of “Water is Life” in both Spanish and English. About 10 members of the rapid response team remained while others returned to nearby homes, ready to mobilize in case the Department of Water and Power returned.
Under capitalism, many of our basic human needs are turned into commodities. Housing, water, and other basic necessities of life are withheld so that profit can take precedence over human lives. Ruby Gordillo, a reclaimer that has been there since the beginning, stated: “For us, people of color, housing is the only preventative care we have for COVID and a lot of us don’t even have that anymore. Stop being greedy, open up these houses, how many more lives do you need to have under your shoe. Stop fighting the people, let us live with dignity, with utilities, paying our bills.”
The overlapping crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and unemployment continue as a result of capitalism’s failure to provide for the basic needs of the people. As uprisings continue throughout the country, we continue to see communities protect and serve themselves against the interests of the ruling class.