Inside the Los Angeles highway houses: Sky-rocketing prices made them homeless – so they built a ramshackle city on the side of one of America’s busiest freeways

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Written By Maya Cantina
  • Homeless families said they have ‘no choice’ but to take up space next to dangerous freeways because they can’t find jobs
  • Some of the unhoused have taken creative measures to bring creature comforts to their shanty homes
  •  The freeway families said they ‘look out for one other’ and have built their own tiny community
  • Caesar Duarte didn’t flinch as an Amazon truck barreled down the busy 110 Freeway in Los Angeles, missing his makeshift home by just a few feet. 

    The only thing that stood between Duarte’s outdoor kitchen and speeding vehicles was a three-foot retaining wall and metal fencing. 

    The 44-year-old mechanic and house painter said he has learned to deal with the danger and noise since he erected his homestead by the freeway about four years ago.

    ‘It doesn’t bother me, and also I have no choice,’ Duarte told DailyMail.com. ‘Everything is too expensive. Rent is too expensive, and right now it’s hard to find jobs. 

    ‘We are struggling like everyone here. We don’t have any problems with anyone and we don’t make problems with anyone. The neighbors, we take care of one another.’

    Dozens of homeless families are living along a stretch of the Arroyo Seco canyon next to the 110 Freeway near Highland Park in Los Angeles County

    Duarte, a 44-year old mechanic, said he has worked hard since he immigrated from his native Guatemala after his mother was murdered. He left to escape gangs and the violence around him

    Duarte says all of the families who live by the freeway look out for one another and try to keep their areas clean. He claims he and his neighbors recently kicked out some drug users living in tents

    Duarte's shack, which consists of strips of plywood and bamboo cemented together, has withstood the elements and rush hour traffic.

    Duarte’s shack, which consists of strips of plywood and bamboo cemented together, has withstood the elements and rush hour traffic. 

    Duarte said he and his wife try to live a normal life as possible, keeping their own home as clean as they can

    Duarte is among dozens of homeless families living along a stretch of the Arroyo Seco canyon next to the 110 Freeway near Highland Park in Los Angeles County. 

    A bike path runs parallel to the freeway and has a open view of the shacks and tents erected by the unhoused.

    Although encampments by LA freeways are nothing new, Duarte’s next door neighbor made waves last week after footage of his souped-up shack with an almost picturesque aluminum façade and a white picket fence drew ire across the country.

    Many also were incensed the occupant of the ramshackle house tapped into the city’s electric lines and has been able to live rent-free when the median price for homes in the area goes for around $1.2 million.

    ‘They have a really nice setup there, but why can’t they pay like everyone else,’ said one Highland Park resident named Erik, who spoke to DailyMail.com. 

    ‘I’m trying to make money collecting cans, hustling and making money however I can and staying with my family. It’s ridiculous for them to live rent-free and use our electricity for free. 

    He continued: ‘It’s not right, and it’s not fair.’

    Sitting in his 300-square-feet shack, Duarte defended his decision to squat by the dangerous roadway.

    The 44-year old mechanic said he has worked hard since he immigrated from his native Guatemala after his mother was murdered. He left to escape gangs and the violence around him.

    Duarte said he was renting a room from his boss for years, but when his employer died, it became harder to find regular jobs and a place to stay.

    Pictured here are all the art and hardware supplies used by the communities to construct their homes

    An estimated 171,000 people are homeless in California, which amounts to roughly 30% of all of the homeless people in the U.S., according to the Associated Press

    Although encampments by LA freeways are nothing new, Duarte’s next door neighbor made waves last week after footage of his souped-up shack with an almost picturesque aluminum façade and a white picket fence drew ire across the country

    Homeless families living by dangerous freeways have continued to multiply, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic

    Pictured here: Alejandro installed a white picket fence and artificial green turf on one side of his makeshift yard

    The communities even made make-shift shelves for their pots and pans and home supplies 

    The creative residents used a tree to hold clothes hangers and secure their bike as well as luggage and other belongings 

    He finally decided to erect his own home by the freeway about four years ago, using any discarded materials he could find. 

    His shack, which consists of strips of plywood and bamboo cemented together, has withstood the elements and rush hour traffic. 

    Duarte and his wife also somehow manage to scale the steep riverbed wall with a metal door, which serves as their main security into their cramped bedroom. 

    Duarte’s next door neighbor, Alejandro, managed to make his shack a bit more homey.

    Alejandro installed a white picket fence and artificial green turf on one side of his makeshift yard. The creative neighbor also used a yellowish-beige aluminum siding to construct the front of the shack.

    He secured a tiny deck with piles of decorative stones and added lamps and twinkle lights to set the mood.

    Two fire extinguishers were also prominently placed on the yard as the home is powered by electricity pirated from a nearby freeway light pole.

    On Friday, someone inside the home was watching television. 

    Duarte said he was surprised at the amount of attention his little shanty neighborhood has received recently. 

    Onlookers, many using the bike path, stopped by to take pictures of the makeshift homes by the freeway. They wave at Duarte, who waved back at the strangers.

    ‘It’s usually tranquil here,’ he said. ‘No one bothers us usually and we keep to ourselves.’   

    Duarte said he was surprised at the amount of attention his little shanty neighborhood has received recently

    The state spent $24 billion to tackle homelessness over the past five years, but a recent audit showed only two programs - converting hotel and motel rooms into housing and housing assistance - were the only two deemed 'likely cost-effective'

    The state spent $24 billion to tackle homelessness over the past five years, but a recent audit showed only two programs – converting hotel and motel rooms into housing and housing assistance – were the only two deemed ‘likely cost-effective’

    An estimated 171,000 people are homeless in California, which amounts to roughly 30% of all of the homeless people in the U.S., according to the Associated Press.

    The state spent $24 billion to tackle homelessness over the past five years, but a recent audit showed only two programs – converting hotel and motel rooms into housing and housing assistance – were the only two deemed ‘likely cost-effective.’

    ‘California is facing a concerning paradox: despite an exorbitant amount of dollars spent, the state’s homeless population is not slowing down,’ Republican state Sen. Roger Niello said in a statement. ‘These audit results are a wake-up call for a shift toward solutions that prioritize self-sufficiency and cost effectiveness.’

    While many take advantage of assistance offered to them, some who are unhoused refuse to live indoors if it means having to abide certain rules.  

    Duarte said he and his wife had a chance to live at one of the nearby tiny home communities, which is funded by the City of LA. 

    However, the mechanic said they opted not to take the offer.

    ‘Those tiny homes are build like a prison,’ Duarte said. ‘They have to know when you come and go, who visits you. It’s even worse than a prison. We would rather stay out here by the freeway.’

    DailyMail.com reached out to LA Mayor Karen Bass’ office for comment concerning the freeway shanty houses, but her office has yet to respond.

    During her State of the City address last week, Bass urged the city’s rich and famous residents to step up and contribute to her LA4LA campaign with the goal to buy more buildings for the unhoused.

    Meanwhile, homeless families living by dangerous freeways have continued to multiply, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic.

    About a mile south from Duarte’s home, a woman named Margarita was seen tidying up her freeway shanty house just before the Friday rush hour traffic.

    Margarita told DailyMail.com she lost her apartment after she could no longer pay the $1,000 per month rent after she injured her back and lost her housekeeping job. 

    She met and moved in with a man who lived in the shack. After two years, they have made several improvements to their home, including an air conditioner and a storage unit for fresh water.

    Margarita, her husband and their four dogs live comfortably in the cement-thatched shack, which also includes side yards with an herb garden and a flourishing banana tree. 

    Their dogs even have their own dog house with a door.

    Margarita, a native of Mexico, said she became a citizen years ago, but struggles to get any funding for her disability.

    ‘What my husband makes in construction every day is not enough and I’m injured, so we can’t live in a better place right now,’ she told DailyMail.com. 

    Nelly Falcon, 48, said she decided to live in a tent by the freeway after her RV was towed two months ago.

    Falcon said she worked as a insurance agent, but she became homeless during the pandemic.

    She said she was evicted from her Pasadena apartment when her $1,900 rent ballooned to $2,500. 

    Falcon said she has reached out to the LA Homeless Authority, but no one has come by to help her. 

    ‘I was an insurance broker, believe it or not,’ she said. ‘This is the first time I’ve been in this situation. I still have my broker’s license active, but it’s hard to work when I work on commission and I can’t even pay my phone.

    When they need to use the bathroom, they go to a nearby park to use the public restroom

    When they need to use the bathroom, they go to a nearby park to use the public restroom

    'Those tiny homes are build like a prison,' Duarte said. 'They have to know when you come and go, who visits you. It's even worse than a prison. We would rather stay out here by the freeway'

    ‘Those tiny homes are build like a prison,’ Duarte said. ‘They have to know when you come and go, who visits you. It’s even worse than a prison. We would rather stay out here by the freeway’

    While many take advantage of assistance offered to them, some who are unhoused refuse to live indoors if it means having to abide certain rules

    While many take advantage of assistance offered to them, some who are unhoused refuse to live indoors if it means having to abide certain rules

    ‘It’s very depressing and I’m always afraid for my safety. I’m waiting for someone to help me with housing, but the only people who come here sometimes are volunteers with food.’ 

    Since she is unemployed right now, Falcon said her four dogs keep her company and safe from robbers.  

    Duarte says all of the families who live by the freeway look out for one another and try to keep their areas clean. He claims he and his neighbors recently kicked out some drug users living in tents.

    He said he and his wife try to live a normal life as possible, keeping their own home as clean as they can. 

    The couple even constructed a shower area and a place where they are able to boil water for hot baths. Just three steps from their shower is their stove and kitchen area where they make their meals.

    When they need to use the bathroom, they go to a nearby park to use the public restroom. 

    ‘People who complain we live here don’t understand,’ he said. ‘We are people just like them. 

    ‘If God wants, He can destroy this entire place. God is the only one who can make us leave.’

    ᴀʀᴛɪᴄʟᴇ ꜱᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ

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