After occupying vacant homes owned by Caltrans in the Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno, some families have run into problems ranging from unhappy neighbors telling them to stop squatting to having their water shut off. 

One of these “reclaimers,” as they have come to be called, is Sandra Saucedo, who said she was excited when she first moved into her new “home” on March 18, glad to no longer be living in her car.

“It’s been really good to be off the streets,” said Saucedo who is currently living in a once-empty house on Sheffield Avenue with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. “I was getting really sick of having to sleep in my car.”

However, some longtime residents of this working class neighborhood bordering Alhambra are not happy with decisions made by Saucedo and a number of others to simply “move in” to empty homes in the area. One is Marie Salas, a 20-year Caltrans renter in El Sereno.

“These people are illegally squatting. They are breaking into homes,” said Salas. “They feel they are entitled to these homes. They have just taken advantage of the coronavirus situation.”

While Salas thinks her new neighbors need help, she believes that squatting in these homes creates problems for the community at large.

“I do not believe that people should be thrown out like old rags,” said Salas. “I believe they should be evicted but given resources for shelter. They should not be rewarded for illegal break-ins and assume they are going to get a home.”

Roberto Flores, a member of United Caltrans Tenants, said he sympathizes with “reclaimers” like Saucedo, who had her water turned off earlier this month. But it’s more of a problem concerning poor stewardship on the part of Caltrans, which seized more than 500 hundred homes in El Sereno, South Pasadena and Pasadena decades ago in order to build a road through those properties  to connect the 710 and 210 Freeways, a project which has since been scuttled. As a result, over the past few years Caltrans has been in the process of selling those homes, 163 of which remain vacant.

“The water has been shut off by the city [of Los Angeles] because of a Caltrans block. Caltrans is blocking water from coming into [this home],” said Flores.

“This is a special circumstance that requires people to shelter in place… We’re trying our best to get the governor’s office, the city, the legislators the senators to help us out with running water,” Flores said.

With shelter in place orders in effect, aimed at protecting people from COVID-19, “reclaimers” decided to occupy some of these vacant houses to protect themselves and their families from the killer virus. The movement was inspired by homeless Oakland mothers who took over empty homes in that city late last year.

“[Caltrans] spends hundreds of dollars boarding up these houses,” said Flores. “They should have just spent the money making the quick fixes that they needed and rented them out at the affordable rate. But Caltrans would rather have empty houses than tenants who will push them to do the right thing.”

Saucedo said she is hoping to have her two sons move in with her. She was living in her car while her sons stayed with their aunt and her daughter stayed with her grandparents.

She has been living in the vacant house for a month, which is now without water, saying police blocked an LA Department of Water and Power technician from turning it on. She has called and emailed Caltrans representatives for close to three weeks but has not received a response.

“I hate it. It’s terrible,” said Saucedo. “It really sucks because I can’t shower, there’s no running water so I have to use a bucket for everything. It’s really frustrating. In the beginning, I was really excited to be in a home and have shelter. I have to go a few houses down and fill the bucket so that I can flush the toilet and have water to wash my face, to do my dishes and do everything.”

While her spirit has wavered a bit, Saucedo still tries to stay positive so her children can have a home.

“There were times I became discouraged,” said Saucedo. “These were not the conditions I wanted to live in. This is a beautiful home but no utilities is not going to work at all. But I’m not discouraged because eventually, it will happen.”

Some “reclaimers,” such as Ruby Gordillo, were lucky enough to have water and other utilities left on in the home she is occupying.

“I have had no troubles with utilities,” said Gordillo. “My family and I moved in on March 18 and nothing has been disconnected since. All of the utilities are under my name.”

Gordillo made national news after hanging a white bedsheet on her front porch with “Shelter in the Storm” written on it in black sharpie. She has since removed the sheet in order to keep the peace with her neighbors.

“The majority of our neighbors support us either explicitly or by not saying anything,” said Gordillo. Those who say nothing are afraid of retaliation from Caltrans, she said.

However, just a few doors down from Gordillo’s new home, draped over Salas’ fences were several signs that read “Squatting is not the Answer” and “Squatters are Opportunists.”

Aside from the few neighbors such as Salas, who express their discontent with the situation every now and then, Gordillo said that living in her new home has been pretty uneventful.

“It’s been really nice living here,” said Gordillo as her children laughed and played inside. “We’re homebodies so we don’t mind staying inside. It’s been therapeutic.”

With the help of donations from strangers Gordillo has been able to furnish her home and stock her fridge. Even as the country sees people hoarding supplies, Gordillo fights the urge and only takes what she needs and passes it on to the next home.

“We’re building a community within,” Gordillo said referring to others who have reclaimed homes. “We are sharing supplies and everything. I take what I need and [give] it to the next people.”

Salas believes this kind of behavior sends the wrong message.

“It’s not fair for homeowners and renters who have signed applications and did it the right way. How would you feel if your parents’ home was taken by someone else? That is stealing.”