Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, criticized Caltrans Wednesday for having people evicted from vacant homes the state agency owns in El Sereno as part of the abandoned 710 North Freeway Extension Project.

“The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has posed a severe threat to our communities for nearly a year now, but the pandemic is unrelenting and continues to surge across much of the country,” Waters said. “Cases are rising, the death toll is mounting and the United States is now experiencing record levels of hospitalizations related to COVID-19. As winter approaches and temperatures drop, hundreds of thousands of people are living on the streets with no place to go, no option to self-quarantine and little resources to protect themselves from this deadly virus.”

Caltrans representatives did not immediately return calls requesting comment.

In order to build the freeway, Caltrans acquired hundreds of parcels along the corridor in preparation for the extension, but many of the houses have become dilapidated due to a lack of proper maintenance and have been deemed uninhabitable.

Squatters were evicted and some were detained Thanksgiving morning by authorities after being removed from the Caltrans-owned homes. The people occupying the homes said they had “reclaimed” the residences as the state wasn’t using them.

A video posted on YouTube by the group Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community includes a message to Gov. Gavin Newsom telling him that families who had been living in their cars had moved into several of the homes, where they were “sheltering in place.”

Before 11 p.m. the night before Thanksgiving, officers formed a skirmish line along Sheffield Avenue as protesters stood nearby, some yelling at officers and some approaching the line before being pushed back.

Video posted online showed at least one California Highway Patrol team ramming open the door to one of the homes.

The CHP said last week that 62 people had been arrested over the two- day period, with 21 cited for trespassing and burglary, and 41 were cited and released for participating in an unlawful assembly.

Waters said it is “outrageous” that Caltrans owns vacant homes for any reason, but especially at a time when homelessness has reached record levels and people are in dire need of shelter.

Waters said the state Legislature must demand that the Caltrans-owned homes be rehabilitated and made available for struggling families.

“As public health and the economic conditions of households continue to deteriorate, and with federal and state eviction and foreclosure moratoria expiring at the end of this month, I am determined to pass a COVID-19 relief bill that provides extended and expanded eviction and foreclosure moratoria, emergency rental and homeowners assistance, funding for homeless services and financial aid to support our states and cities in this fight against the pandemic crisis,” Waters said.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de Leon introduced a motion that would direct the city to negotiate leases and eventually purchase vacant homes owned by Caltrans.

“It makes no sense that unhoused families in El Sereno are living in tents just a stone’s throw away from abandoned homes that, with repairs, could provide shelter and help alleviate the city’s homelessness crisis,” he said. “We must move quickly to return these parcels to the community and create a fair process by which El Sereno residents are prioritized for rehousing in these homes. As we work to reduce the number of people who live on our streets, every square inch of shelter counts.”

The 710 North Freeway Extension Project has been a community issue in El Sereno for decades, posing an existential threat to the health and well-being of the residents of the area, de Leon said.

The councilman said the parcels present a unique opportunity to provide long-term affordable housing and community amenities to the residents of El Sereno.

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