Mulholland Drive's 'No Litter Zone,' Where a Homeless Man is the Solo Clean-Up Crew
Green signs announce that the stretch of Mulholland Drive between Laurel Canyon and Coldwater Canyon has been declared a "No Litter Zone," and for the most part, they're right. Considering the volume of traffic that passes through here, there is surprisingly little trash along this road.
Nanette Gonzales Trying to keep Mulholland Drive clean
That's because of Raul and Jackie.
Raul is bright, outspoken and vivacious. He's upbeat about his daily task of keeping this road clean. He's also homeless.
Spotting Raul on the side of the road with his rake and trash bag on a recent day, Jackie Hunsicker pulls her black Audi onto the shoulder. She's wearing pearls, and driving with her Norwich terrier on her lap. "Hi, Raul! Everything OK?"
"Yeah, it's great, Jackie!"
They chat about the health of her dog, Topper, who has recently recovered from an illness.
To say that Hunsicker, who lives in this neighborhood, is offended by litter is putting it mildly. City crews used to come through regularly to pick up strewn trash, she says. But over the last several years, budget cuts have scuttled such tertiary city services.
"It got so bad it was embarrassing -- it kind of looked like an underdeveloped country," Hunsicker says. She began picking up the litter herself. Then one day she saw Raul doing the same thing. "I pulled my car over, and I said, 'You just don't know how happy I am. You feel the same way, and you're doing something about it.' "
Actually, Raul was just out to pick up recyclables. But when Hunsicker proposed that he pick up the garbage, too, pledging that she would round up donations for his services, Raul figured he would give it a go.
Raul insistently describes himself not as a Mexican American but as "an American of Mexican descent," Asked about the trash, he cites patriotic pride. "I really love these hills. The tourists from all over come up here to look at the summit, and when they see trash, it's so embarrassing. We're the richest country, the most progressive -- we put a man on the moon, but we can't keep the roadsides clean?"
More than a year after their first meeting, Raul still takes the bus up to Mulholland Drive on a daily basis, and Hunsicker collects sporadic donations for Raul from neighbors and more regular donations from the Laurel Canyon Homeowners Association.
Raul leaves trash bagged and flagged on the roadside, just like members of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. Tom O'Rourke, a Realtor and canyon resident, hauls away the trash Raul sets out.
But Raul is the one doing the heavy lifting -- literally. "The initial cleanup was murder," he says.
After years of being ignored, the canyon was a mess, not just from cans and fast food wrappers tossed out of car windows but also from illegal dumping of construction debris, which happens a lot in the canyon.
"I could show you dump sites that would blow your mind," Raul says. "Let's say they knock out a driveway, and they're supposed to take that to the dump, but they take the crap and chuck it over the side of the hill and keep the money and spend it on cervezas." He describes hauling out multiple truckloads of concrete, plywood, even a 60-foot-by-11-foot piece of carpet that was partially buried in a hillside. "I pulled that thing out. It was humongous."
For a guy who says he technically shouldn't have been allowed to graduate from high school, Raul is startlingly well-informed about local politics. He rails against City Councilman Tom LaBonge for not cleaning up graffiti on a nearby guardrail, and against other city officials who don't support the canyon cleanup efforts.
He also goes on at length about his disgust over lenient immigration policies. "These Mexican dudes, they're coming here to work, they're unpatriotic. They're ingratos, you know, ingrates. The way they show their gratitude, they dump stuff everywhere.
"You heard about the Dream Act? Gil Cedillo is the author of that. You wanna hear some lunacy? Gil Cedillo authored a bill on the impounding of cars at DUI checkpoints -- he thinks that's not right.
"And there's another bill that was authored by Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, where, if you participate in student government and you're illegal, that makes you eligible for fee waivers and grants."
Raul says he became homeless when his drug-addicted brother locked him out of the family home after Raul reported him to his parole officer.
Raul used to do clerical work, in banks and at the post office. He was married and has a child. Then his marriage fell apart, and his mother died. When he lost his family, he lost his motivation. He stayed in homeless shelters for a night or two but couldn't stand the stench, or the ravings of the mentally ill.
He says he could get another paper-pushing job that pays the bills, "but I want to do some work that has meaning." Maybe the grassroots model he and Hunsicker have built will spread, he says. Maybe he could get a crew, start expanding their work all the way out to Malibu.
But until he sorts that out, Raul's cleanup work in the canyon gives him focus, and a sense of satisfaction. At the beginning of the day, there's a pile of litter. By the end of the day, the litter is gone.