Activists, Homeless Stage Protest Against Planned Clearing Of Echo Park

Taylor Martinez & City News Service

Hundreds of advocates for the homeless gathered at Echo Park Lake Wednesday to protest plans by the city to clear a large homeless encampment from the park and close the area for what’s being described as more than a half-million-dollars in repair work.

According to Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s office, the work will include repairs to damaged lighting and plumbing, removal of hazardous material and public safety improvements.

An exact closure date hasn’t been confirmed, with O’Farrell’s office stating only that “closure notices will be posted soon.” The Los Angeles Times reported the encampment of unhoused people at the park will be cleared by Thursday and fences will be installed to keep the park closed for renovations.

About four dozen homeless people are still living in the park, although as many as 100 were believed to be residing there earlier this year, with some already relocated by the city through various housing programs.

Those who gathered Wednesday morning blasted the city for efforts to force the homeless out of an area that has grown into a supportive community. In the midst of the tents alongside the lake, a large sign read, “We refuse to be swept into dark corners.”

One advocate told KNX Newsradio that people living in the park “got hit worse by the pandemic, by the situations of life,” and did not deserve to be swept out without alternatives. Although the city has said housing would be found, those gathered Wednesday morning had their doubts, with one saying there was “no guarantee” the city would find “somewhere safe” for people to live.

Many carried signs with slogans such as “Services not sweeps” and “House keys, not handcuffs.”

A resident of the park called into the City Council meeting Wednesday to tell council members that the park’s residents are “tired of basically being treated like we’re nobodies.”

“We’re tired of being treated like we’re less than human all because of a pandemic and the consequences of the pandemic has caused a couple of people to lose their houses,” she said.

She added that housing is a human right.

Homeless advocates have argued that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against clearing encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic, because it could “cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

O’Farrell told reporters during an unrelated news conference Tuesday that the city will follow all U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines when preparing the park for the renovation work, and efforts are being made to find housing for everyone who has been living there since January.

He did not provide details about what type of housing would be provided or when it would happen, but said the city previously housed more than 100 of the park’s residents. He said Wednesday morning that more than 120 people had now been moved into transitional housing, including Project Roomkey and Project Homekey sites.

“Our efforts to build relationships with the unhoused individuals at the Lake have been ongoing for months, taking much time, sensitivity and care. Our outreach workers must be able to continue engaging with the unhoused at the Lake — individuals who have asked for and want a safe, secure place to sleep each night,” O’Farrell said.

Participants in Wednesday’s protest gathered at the park, then marched to O’Farrell’s district office. There were no reports of any disturbances or arrests.

The group plans to hold a 24-hour vigil “to seek citywide cooperation and support in coming days to stop the shutdown of L.A.’s largest self-run homeless haven.”

The park’s homeless community — which includes a vegetable garden, working showers and a kitchen — has been praised by activists as a self-run, diverse community of housed and unhoused residents of the neighborhood.

“Echo Park Lake, situated on Tongva Land, has been a haven of this community since its development and should remain a free and accessible place for members of this community who need it for solace, leisure or survival,” Zarinah Williams, president of the Echo Park Neighborhood Council, said in a statement to City News Service. “We do not feel that $500,000 in restorative landscaping is a priority endeavor given layered consequences of displacement and criminalization of our residents.”

Several people called into Tuesday’s City Council meeting to speak about the move to close the park.

“I applaud the efforts of (the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority) to place folks into (Project Roomkey) sites, but as we all know, eligibility for the program is limited,” said Sachin Medhekar, organizing committee member for the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition. “I’m urging you to not displace the over 100 folks that reside at the lake, especially during this ongoing pandemic and to instead focus on connecting folks with a variety of services and housing options they deserve.”

A woman who identified herself as a resident of the Echo Park neighborhood said she supported the clearing of the park and closure for renovations.

“I personally have not visited the park in over a year because it doesn’t feel sanitary or safe,” she said. “I also worry that the $45 million investment the city made to rehabilitate the park is being wasted.”

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