Fencing And Private Security: Echo Park Lake Has Reopened, With Some Big Changes
There are noticeable changes at Echo Park Lake as the 29 acres of green space reopened Wednesday.
It has been two months since the city erected fencing around the perimeter of the park and evicted a large homeless encampment. The Department of Recreation and Parks has conducted extensive repairs and maintenance work over the past several weeks.
New security cameras now cover every inch of the park and will be monitored by the city, according to City Council member Mitch O’Farrell’s office. Large signs with park rules are posted more prominently than previously.
According to an Echo Park resident who attended a neighborhood council meeting Tuesday night, a representative from O’Farrell’s office said a private security company is being contracted to partner with the Los Angeles Police Department to watch over the property.
The park will also retain the fence that was erected during the renovation, adding four gates that can be closed at night to make enforcing anti-camping laws easier. Echo Park Lake is officially open from 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., but park-goers have historically been able to take late-night strolls at all hours.
Shortly before the park re-opened, the general manager of the city's Department of Recreation & Parks, Michael Shull, said the fence is temporary — though he did not say how long it will remain in place.
"It's now going to serve the purpose of temporarily securing the park while people are returning, until we can gauge what level of involvement the public's going to have and what they want to do with fencing. But we have to have a community process around that."
Regarding the use of a private security firm, Shull said, "It's not unusual for us to use contracts to being in security officers," noting that the city has "a little over 30 park rangers for the entire city of L.A."
When asked what will happen if someone enters the park before closing and attempts to erect a tent, Shull said: "We're not here to arrest people, we don't want any of that. We're trying to make the rules known, that after 10:30 the park is closed. And in order for the public to continue to enjoy these parks, they're going to be asked to leave."
Addressing the city's dire situation with homelessness, Shull said: "We have some very difficult challenges ... We need to find every solution possible to get them housed ... and to keep our parks open and available to everybody, including the homeless. But there needs to be rules around that. I want this department to be part of the solution ... but we got to figure out ways that we do this to benefit everybody."
O’Farrell has said he’s proud of the work done by his office, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority crews and the nonprofit Urban Alchemy to offer shelter to residents of the lake in the months leading up to the March closure.
LAHSA says more than 160 people accepted temporary accommodations, mostly in Project Roomkey hotel rooms. “We had determination to solve a humanitarian problem,” O’Farrell said in an interview earlier this month.
Nancy Ochoa, a small business owner and lifelong resident of the Echo Park neighborhood, said she was glad to see the closure and believes protests were misplaced.
“The police presence was a necessary move that the city had to make — and it wasn't because of the encampment itself,” Ochoa said. “It was because of the activists who show up and rile people up.”
Ochoa said her brother once had to sleep in the park when he was struggling with drug addiction. But in recent years, the rising homelessness crisis led to permanent tents and structures taking up more public space. She hopes the city has a strategy to prohibit camping, or she fears, “It’s going to happen again and there’s just never going to be a solution."
Many unhoused people and advocates, however, say the police action to shut down the park was traumatizing and separated residents from their support network, making them more unsafe. Some also say the rooms on offer were a temporary fix that came with oppressive restrictions, such as a 7 p.m. curfew.
Jessica Mendez has lived in the Echo Park neighborhood for 30 years. She says she became unhoused in October and was forced to move out of her tent when police shut down the lake. She says the offer of a free Project Roomkey hotel room was misleading, because it came with too many restrictions, including the curfew.
“How am I supposed to make a living? How am I supposed to find a job and tell them, 'Hey, accommodate my schedule?'" Mendez said. “All these false promises.”
Mendez is part of a newly-formed group named Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing. Members shared their demands for more humane living conditions at shelters and city-run hotels at a press conference on the steps of L.A. City Hall last week and also reiterated their concerns at Echo Park Lake, about an hour after it reopened.
Residents of Project Roomkey facilities have described the sites as "prison-like." They complain they have little privacy (occupants don’t get a key to their rooms), basic supplies such as utensils are confiscated and residents suffer harassment from staff.
“To finally get a place of residence, and then I’m treated like I’m in jail, or kindergarten, it’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Leonard Averhart, who has been homeless for two years and also goes by the name Phoenix. “It’s discrimination. We are human beings.”
“I fear it’s going to happen again and there’s just never going to be a solution."
The group said in a statement that the city and service providers are acting as “a landlord failing to provide the basic habitability needs for their tenants.” Unhoused people may shuffle between a hotel room, a shelter and the streets in an unpredictable cycle.
Organizers are asking for the city to meet with them to discuss demands for reforms. They also want the city to extend Project Roomkey until permanent housing is available to residents, provide a contract with clear move in/move out dates in writing to tenants and require de-escalation training for staff.
O’Farrell dismisses the idea that the former Echo Park Lake residents were better off camping at the park. He points out that several people died of drug overdoses in the park last year and some homeless people were assaulted or scammed at the camp.
“This fantasy was promoted that this was somehow a commune society but it really wasn't,” O’Farrell said. “It was a takeover of a park.”
LAHSA has not responded to several requests from LAist for information about how many former Echo Park Lake residents are still in Project Roomkey.