The Saga of Charles Farley

(or, Is it illegal to be homeless!?!?)

By Michele Johnson

On April 27, Charles Farley, a 66-year-old recluse, was removed by sheriffs from the encampment under an Old Topanga Road bridge that he has called home for the last 11 years. The story came to the attention of the Messenger that same day when a man, known as Eve or the Raven, came to our door to report the event while Charles sat slumped nearby on the patio outside the Messenger office in the Center.

The story struck an all-too-familiar chord. Road Superintendent Mark Sanchez of Los Angeles County Public Works had ordered Farley's removal after receiving just one complaint from an anonymous neighbor. Sanchez once again gave the County party line--"Anytime we get a complaint from a citizen, we have to respond." According to Sanchez, the neighbor thought Farley's encampment was a "fire hazard," even though Farley says he never cooks, and Sanchez admits he found no evidence of a stove, though he did find "a pile of cigarette butts."

Twice before, Charles Farley has been thrown out of what he has called his home. In 1990, Sanchez came without warning, evicted Charles and removed what he estimates was $5,000 worth of his property.

As he wrote in a legal brief protesting the most recent eviction, the property removed then included "tools--some new and all useful--plus some 200 books including Richard Feynman's 'Lectures in Physics,' Linus Pauling's 'Nature of Chemical Bond,' the Oxford Bible given the Plaintiff by his mother around 1948; three slide rules, one of which he had learned on in 1943, another that belonged to his father; and 17 years of journals." At the time, Farley protested the confiscation of his property, and according to his friend, Topanga criminal lawyer Gregory Humphries, who has helped defend him pro bono over the years, that case went all the way to the Supreme Court which finally refused to hear it. And his property? "After searching for three years," Farley wrote, "Plaintiff raised Mr. Sanchez on the telephone, asking what had become of his property. 'That all went to the dump.'" All his efforts may not have been in vain though, because now the County does give warning before evicting the homeless from their campsites so they can try to remove their valuables.


This time the warning came for Charles on Friday, April 21, the day after his first motion for a temporary restraining order was denied by Judge Laurence Rubin in a ruling in his chambers, and before he could appeal that ruling. Charles was given both verbal and written warning, but he had no way to remove his things.

Then Charles met Eve hitchhiking on his birthday, the day before the eviction was to take place. Eve, a homeless advocate who fought with Greenpeace for homeless rights in England, heard his story and decided to help. Eve pulled together a party that rescued Farley's belongings just in the nick of time. "They came today prepared to take everything," Eve said. "We interceded to help him move his things."


Farley is a bent, grey-bearded, soft-spoken but remarkably eloquent man. He has lived for 26 years in Topanga, and except for five years when he was a caretaker, most of that time he's camped on the land or under the Old Topanga bridge, located where the Backbone trail crosses the road about a wuarter-mile from the Center. Though he says, "I'm somewhat of a hermit," Charles has made friends of several of his neighbors and of many of those who have picked him up hitchhiking over the years: "I meet some of the nicest people." Al Rollins, who owns land across from the bridge says of Charles, "He's a great guy. He never hurt anybody or anything."

Charles Farley's story is remarkable. He graduated from UCLA with a degree in Psychology in 1958. He then used his slide rules to become a licensed draftsman. For six years, he said, he worked as a draftsman until he became "tired of staring at the back of the man in front of me." And, he added, "I wanted to stay out of fluorescent lights." He believed living and working indoors was unhealthy. Also, he says, "I wanted to do my own art in the form of writing."

When he decided to drop out in 1974 he chose the Topanga area because "my son was in the Valley in his mother's house. I camped in the woods above Ventura Boulevard." First he lived in the hills in and around Topanga until "my skin started to go from exposure, so I moved under the bridge." He feeds himself with a Social Security stipend that he says only brings him up to "$3,000 below the poverty line."


His life under the bridge had been very low-key. He takes "no powder drug--I'm clean, if that's the term." He was a drinker, but has recently quit for his health. He claims he didn't even use the creekbed as his bathroom: "I walk to the potty and occasionally I can use a private rest room--I bathe in the sea, or I know where there's a garden hose I can use." As proof that he kept his encampment clean, he said, "I've had Ernie Fielding, the Health Inspector, on my case. He couldn't find anything."

His lawyer--long-time Topangan Greg Humphries--supports that: "We have our brain-storming sessions down there." He said, "He [Charles] kept it in pretty good order." Humphries, who has known Charles for years, counts him as a friend and has tremendous respect for him: "Charles has been my friend since I moved here."


Humphries spoke on Wednesday, May 3, the day that Charles appealed Judge Rubin's order in Judge Valerie Baker's court. "We were in court," Humphries sighed. "We lost. He [Charles] wrote a brief probably a thousand times better than my brief for the first hearing--I usually help him with these things. I do most of the typing." Humphries said Judge Baker refused to even hear the case, citing technicalities. "She exalted procedure over substance this morning," said Humphries. He and Farley argued that Farley had never really had a proper hearing, and that he lives on federal land under the bridge and is not trespassing on the bridge or the paved County right-of-way. Farley's brief reads, "Plaintiff questions whether a third-party trespass complaint from Roads, against one residing on stream banks administered by State Department of Fish and Game, can lie against him." Farley went on to claim that the eviction was doing him "irreparable harm." At this point the brief is heavy with Farley's pain, as he writes the following: "Among areas of emotional distress are: insomnia, urgency, distraction, lapses of caution and carefulness, difficulty with sequential achievement of multi-step procedures, vocalizing in public, high blood pressure with the dread sound of a steam locomotive ascending grade; frequent tearfulness; regression to earlier, simpler sentence composition; increased tobacco use; depression upon awakening one day nearer deprivation; deadline anxiety; worsened post-whiplash sequelae, with slumped involuted posture; recurrent images ("flashbacks") of previous armed daylight burglaries on the same scene; fidgetiness; and all else set aside while spending four-plus hours daily in law libraries, with commute and dining expenses."
The brief asked the court to grant him a temporary restraining order and set a hearing for a preliminary petition. "The County has a duty to prove trespass," said Humphries. "The [County's] responding papers prove the opposite."

Judge Baker ruled she had no jurisdiction; that Farley, technically speaking, had had a hearing and that the matter was moot.


Humphries says they he and Charles plan no further legal action. Humphries was obviously distressed by the decision. "I like Charles. I think he's an interesting fellow, one of the most intelligent people I've ever met. He's a good man." And, he went on, "Part of it is the principle with him. He really is a very bright person, with a very attuned sense of justice." Humphries hopes that, "Maybe out of this something better might come." Right now, Charles Farley has a "temporary arrangement," living on the property of yet another man he met and befriended while hitchhiking. Though Humphries wasn't paid anything to help Charles, he'd do the same again. "He's a grateful client, and if he can help me in some way, he will." Then he chuckled. "Actually, he loaned me $10 for parking this morning." In the end, Humphries summed Charles up this way: "He's living by the beat of his own drum, and God bless him."



False Alarm Foils Firefighters

By Tony Morris

On Monday, May 1, an early morning fire destroyed a two-story house at 21275 1/2 Entrada. Jane Robbins, who had lived at the house for six years, was awakened by her landlord, David Carroll, and was able to escape from the fire which consumed the structure within minutes. Robbins, who had returned from a trip to Africa the day before, was asleep when the fire started. A preliminary investigation indicates the fire was started by a wall heater.


Los Angeles County Fire's response to the fire was delayed, as Station 69 had responded to a 911 call reporting a stabbing at 1572 Gunnison in Old Canyon. The 6:39 a.m. call from outside Topanga dispatched Engine 69, a rescue team and a unit from the Lost Hills Sheriff's station to the location. When the 6:59 a.m. call reporting a "structure fully involved" was received, Station 69's firefighters were in Old Canyon at the Gunnison Trail address where no stabbing victim was found.

At the Entrada fire scene, arriving at 7:11 a.m., Battalion Chief Ekeberg was in contact with the unit from Station 68 which had been dispatched from Parkway Calabasas. Station 68 arrived on scene at 7:14 a.m. In addition, Station 125's pump and ladder left Brent's Junction--Las Virgenes and the 101 freeway--at 7:01 a.m. Meanwhile, according to Station 69's Captain Mike Johnson, firefighters had difficulty locating the address on Gunnison Trail, as the signage on the street was not legible. When it was determined that the stabbing call was false, Unit 69 was re-directed to the Entrada fire.

Firefighters contained the fire to the two-story structure, and the property owner's substantial brush clearance prevented the fire from spreading.

A Sheriff's Department spokesman reported that the 911 stabbing call at the Gunnison Trail address was placed by a person living out of the Canyon who suffers from diminished mental capacity and has been known to have placed similar false 911 calls in the past. No charges will be filed against that individual.


Jane Robbins lost all her possessions in the fire except her address books. On her way back to Los Angeles from Africa, Robbins had stopped off in New York to visit her mother and was informed that the baggage weight allowance on her flight would limit carry-on items. She decided to mail her address books to Topanga where they were waiting to be delivered by the Post Office.

Robbins, an actress, writer and teacher at Loyola Marymount and the University of Judaism, teaches actors how to "face real-life situations." Robbins said that the fire had destroyed a collection of costumes, scripts and irreplaceable items. By Tuesday morning--a day after the fire--the shock of her loss had become all too real.

Pat Mac Neil, a Red Cross Volunteer, was at the scene within minutes to provide Robbins with assistance. Mac Neil said that the Red Cross can provide a number of crucial items for disaster victims such as clothing, money, temporary lodging, first month's rent, medications, prescription glasses and even tools or a computer allowance for those who need them in their employment.

Robbins is currently looking for house-sitting jobs to provide her with temporary lodging.





Subscription Drive Benefits School

Are you a subscriber to the premier source of Topanga news and views? If not, now's the time to come on board. Topanga Elementary School is sponsoring a Messenger subscription drive. Half the proceeds of each subscription sold will benefit TEP (Topanga Enrichment Program)--the school's booster club that pays for all the extras, from teacher's aides to art programs.

Subscription forms are available at the school or at the Messenger offices, or just write your check for $15 for one year's subscription or $26 for two years, and mail it to P. O. Box 1106, Topanga, CA 90290. Indicate on the form or check that you want a share to go to support TEP. But hurry, as the school year winds down, so does this offer.



20th Nutcracker Wants You!

This December will mark the 20th anniversary of the Topanga Nutcracker Ballet. Over the past two decades, hundreds of children and parents have worked countless hours to make the Nutcracker a great success. To mark the anniversary, Sherri Jason of Ballet for Topanga is inviting all her former student and parent performers to join in a gala reunion performance of the Nutcracker. Call Sherri at (310) 455-1081 for details.