Activists Blast City For Secretive And Heavy Handed Homeless Eviction At Echo Park Lake
Activists are criticizing city officials for giving little warning before a heavy-handed police operation shut down Echo Park Lake this week, followed by the eviction of those living at a longstanding homeless encampment there.
"For this to happen the way that it did, it was really shocking, and obviously the people who've been displaced are traumatized," said Albert Corado, an organizer with the People's City Council and NOlympics LA.
The CDC recommends not moving homeless encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the city began ramping up its efforts to get people living in tents in Echo Park into shelters this month, offering temporary hotel rooms through Project Roomkey and other options.
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
Early in the week, rumors were flying that the LAPD would soon conduct a sweep of the park, prompting hundreds of demonstrators to gather outside City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell's office on Wednesday, asking him to let the tent community stay.
Then on Wednesday night, the operation got underway: police squared off with protesters on one side of the lake, while Parks Department workers erected green fencing around the park. By Thursday morning, surrounding streets were closed, and the final dozen or so tent dwellers were given a 10:30 p.m. deadline to clear out their belongings.
O'Farrell said in a statement that the action was necessary to address repairs and maintenance of the park facility, including "electrical, lighting, plumbing, safety locks, restroom damage, irrigation and landscaping."
He also cited safety concerns related to the camp, saying drug use and assaults had contributed to a "dangerous environment."
Residents of the tent community on the north side of Echo Park Lake disagreed.
"This was our shelter. We created a community and a healing space here," said Ayman Ahmed, one of the unofficial spokespeople for a group called #EchoParkRiseUp.
O'Farrell was unavailable for an interview for this story.
PROTESTS AT THE PARK
As the deadline approached Thursday night, protesters and police faced off again on streets near the lake, and many people, including journalists, were detained.
The final two residents of the encampment, Ahmed and David Busch-Lilly, were arrested Friday morning, cited for loitering, and released.
Since early 2020, the encampment has sparked debate around city and county leaders' handling of the homelessness crisis.
"Homeless people often face an absolutist view that they're an eyesore, and that they should just go away," said Bishop John Harvey Taylor, who oversees the Episcopal Diocese of L.A. Its headquarters is across the street from the park. "That's an inhumane judgment."
Taylor said city leaders have been navigating competing pressures: some housed neighbors in Echo Park complained about the encampment, while supporters wanted a more hands-off approach, with services offered but not mandated.
Taylor questioned the tactics used to clear the park, particularly the lack of communication with tent residents and neighbors about when the closure would happen. But he praised work by the L.A. Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and Urban Alchemy, which worked inside the police lines to connect people with shelter.
"I felt that the city generally handled the matter with the appropriate amount of respect and care." Taylor said.
LAHSA said at least 180 people from the park accepted temporary shelter.
Ahmed dismissed the outreach as an insufficient band-aid on the problem.
"My friends who go to a shelter have to move from program to program every 3-6 months. We had stability here (in the park)," he said. "And when COVID ends, that (Project Roomkey) hotel wants to make money -- and everybody will be back out on that street."
Haley Rawson was one of hundreds of protesters who turned up on Wednesday and Thursday to show support for the tent community. She said being confronted by police in helmets pointing foam round launchers brought back painful memories.
"It was a lot of the same police activity and tactics that we saw last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests," Rawson said. "Tons of expensive riot gear and helicopters, police with their fingers on the triggers -- it's terrifying. We were trying to slow them down and bring awareness."
Rawson said she's become more politically aware over the past year, phone banking for Nithya Raman's successful city council campaign and supporting progressive groups like K-Town for All and Ground Game LA.
It's a surge of interest in local politics that Albert Corado, who is challenging Mitch O'Farrell in the 2022 election for Council District 13, is counting on. He became politically active after his sister, Mely Corado, was killed by the LAPD at the Silverlake Trader Joe's in 2018.
"The city council has fumbled its COVID-19 strategy, and now with the Echo Park situation, it's clear our elected representatives are shockingly out of touch," Corado said. "Nithya Raman is just the beginning. This has awakened a lot of people."
On Friday, Mayor Eric Garcetti defended the city's performance, saying he felt some of the protesters were ill-informed about how many people were still living at the lake after efforts to get most people into shelter. He also said the large police presence was necessary to prevent demonstrations from impeding those efforts.
"I love the activism," Garcetti said. "But ... to make sure that folks wouldn't surge in and prevent the housing operation that was happening and the ultimate closing to clean up the lake, that's why the police were there.''
This story has been updated to clarify that LAist/KPCC reached out to Mitch O'Farrell on Friday for an interview, and with additional comments from Ayman Ahmed.