Los Angeles, CA

Was the Homeless Sweep of Echo Park a Model for Other Communities?

Carolyn V. Murray

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Until a few weeks ago, Echo Park had become home to over two hundred homeless individuals. It was finally cleared out of all tents and homeless residents in late March to great protest, anxiety, and controversy.

One of L.A.’s great assets

I lived in Los Feliz for fifteen years and it was only in the last five of those years that I discovered nearby Echo Park. Yes, it was one of those “discoveries” that hundreds of thousands of people were already aware of. But it was news to me – I’m always a little behind the curve when it comes to the city’s big attractions. And I was thrilled to add such a beautiful, public space to my nearby options. It quickly was added to my short wish list of neighborhoods to move to as soon as I could afford a larger apartment.

I think I first came across the park through my mother’s annual visits to L.A. We went twice to the Lotus Festival and we enjoyed it so much that we vowed to time her future visits to be in sync with that festival, whenever we could. It triple-tied with Huntington Gardens and Disneyland as her favorite local attraction.

I wasn’t the only one enchanted by this park. Over the years, it had become a popular film location, dating back to Charlie Chaplin and the silent film era. Even pre-pandemic, there were still a few productions filmed every month in the park.

That was then…

I left L.A. about six years ago. Just a few weeks before I left, I saw a small tent encampment pop up at the corner of Vermont and Sunset. I was, of course, aware of downtown’s Skid Row and had seen the homeless in Santa Monica and Venice on many occasions. But even when I saw those homeless individuals at the beach, their residences remained out of sight. I certainly never saw an encampment in any of the neighborhoods I lived in, worked in, or drove through.

If you live in Los Angeles, you’ve already witnessed the explosion of these encampments first hand. A friend of mine who still lives in my old Los Feliz neighborhood said that tents had sprung up right across the street from her apartment complex. She also recalls at least one person being chased by a knife-wielding homeless individual.

It’s a scenario that played out all over the Greater L.A. area, intensified by the pandemic. Police were ordered to allow encampments to stay where they were, rather than risk spreading the virus by moving people. This resulted in large tent communities establishing themselves across the city, knowing that they wouldn’t have to pack up and move. Loss of employment and evictions increased the number of homeless. Inmates being released out of prisons to avoid the virus also played a role.

So, what was Echo Park like for the people encamped there?

It wasn’t Shangri La, but for many, it represented the most secure haven they’d had in a long time. There were toilet and shower facilities. Activists and community groups would stop by regularly with food supplies. There were shared kitchens, a community garden, trash cleanup, and a sense of community and safety that most encampment residents had thought they’d never find again. They were unhoused but didn’t feel “homeless,” because the park and their new community had become a reliable home for them.

Their removal from the park on March 24th was distressing to encampment residents and their supportive neighbors and activists alike. Even though city officials had spent several weeks arranging for hotel and emergency housing (and claims they were able to offer housing to every single individual in the park), the official final notice only gave residents 24 hours to clear out and came as a painful shock. The presence of 400 police officers (many, if not all, dressed in riot gear) added to the unnecessarily violent feel of the evacuation.

The temporary housing was also criticized for having so many restrictions that residents often had a hard time complying with – no pets, only two bags of belongings, restricted hours inside the facility, or a curfew regarding time out of the facility. Most of all, the emotional solace of their park community was torn apart.

But after the smoke cleared…

When other neighborhoods in Los Angeles saw that the Echo Park tent encampment had been completed removed, many started clamoring for the same operations to be undertaken on the encampments in their own neighborhoods. Although homeless advocates decried the abrupt, heavy-handed nature they felt had characterized the sweep of Echo Park, others saw it as a model of how to clean up the multitude of homeless camps that have sprung up in commercial and residential neighborhoods throughout this past pandemic year.

Venice Beach was up next. In early April, the handball courts (which had long been a popular recreational resource) were filled with the belongings of homeless residents, as well as garbage and rats. Homeless squatters were given notice and all items were cleared out by bulldozer in a single day. They will be pressure-washed, disinfected, painted, and restored to public recreational use.

Brutal, but necessary?

There are no easy solutions. As much as residents loved staying at Echo Park, it was not an entirely safe place to be. There were knife assaults. There were sexual assaults. So while it was a step up from most other homeless locations, it still left too many people vulnerable to danger. This could not have remained a homeless community indefinitely – although we can certainly question the manner in which the transition occurred.

When homeless people are removed from one spot, they don’t disappear in a puff of smoke. They are homeless somewhere else – in another neighborhood where they are also not wanted.

Or they wind up in a wasteland like downtown L.A.’s Skid Row – a sad, residential nightmare of violence, drug addiction, and hopelessness. (There are plans in motion to put the entire population of Skid Row in safe, emergency shelter – it’s hard to conceive, but wouldn’t we all love to see it happen.)

What’s ahead for other homeless encampments?

Was there an alternative to the clearing of Echo Park? The timing could certainly have been more optimal. The building of a tiny house village (one of many planned for the L.A. area) that will house 75-100 people, is in progress, next to the AutoZone on Alvarado. A separate emergency shelter for 100 people is also going up near Echo Park. They will both be ready in a few months. Restrooms, security, and caseworkers will be provided for both facilities. And certainly, in the tiny house village, the new residents will be able to replicate some of that former stability and comfort of being surrounded by familiar community.

So, why couldn’t clearing out the encampment have waited until these facilities were completed? That’s a question that other communities should do their best to answer as these neighborhood sweeps move forward.

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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