Lessons Learned From the Echo Park Saga

Carolyn V. Murray

Photo by Gerson Repreza on Unsplash

It has been a long two months, but Echo Park is finally reopened to the public

The homeless tent encampment at Echo Park was cleared out over two months ago, much to the anguish of most of its unhoused residents and their advocates; but much to the relief of most of the neighborhood residents. The park had become a cluttered and dangerous place to them and many no longer felt safe or comfortable using park facilities.

A large police force came on the night of March 24, 2021, and cleared out every park resident. In theory, all of the homeless living there should have been offered temporary housing in the weeks leading up to that evening, and it seems that at least 160 people actually were placed in hotel housing (out of over 200 homeless individuals.) A fence went up around the park that night and it was closed for the following two months for a major restoration project.

A long-awaited day, filled with mixed emotions

The May 26, 2021 reopening was a crowd-filled occasion and included mainstream media, YouTubers, Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who was continually surrounded by irate homeless advocates, and a Native American ceremony to bless the reopening of the park. The residents of the neighborhood were both relieved and exhilarated to have their park back, but some were also irritated by the presence of the former tent encampment residents who had stopped by for the opening – many of whom expressed their territorial devotion to the park and the inadequacy of the facilities they had been just been provided with.

There’s little to no chance that tent encampment could ever happen again – not in Echo Park. The park now has a fence around it with four entrances that will be locked every night at 10:30 p.m. (the park opens at 5 a.m.) There are also surveillance cameras covering the entire park, a private security company has been hired, and the police have already evicted a few individuals who tried to set up camp in the first few days. The two-month clean-up and repair process cost over a million dollars, involved the removal of thirty-five tons of garbage, including human waste, drug paraphernalia, and weapons. It’s not going to be allowed to happen again.

Urban parks are indispensable

Despite the inevitable clashes, the park sprang back to life. On opening day, the playground was once again filled with children. There was a long line of people waiting for swan boat rides ($11 per person.) There were also a few anglers who already had their fishing gear out – Echo Park Lake has historically been stocked with rainbow trout in the winter, catfish in the summer, as well as bass, bluegill, and carp.

In other words, Echo Park is back and not a moment too soon.

How important was Echo Park for the surrounding neighborhood?

It may not have been Central Park, but then again, it might as well have been. People who live outside California often think that Los Angelenos spend every spare moment at the beach. Maybe some people do, but if you live on the east side of town, then traffic and the cost and difficulty of beach parking can limit your time and enthusiasm for trips to the beach.

No, what East Side residents can take comfort in is the availability of Echo Park Lake and nearby Griffith Park and Observatory. Los Feliz was my home for seventeen years so I was right in the middle of these two parks. Griffith was my go-to park because it was the first that came to my attention and also because the steep climb to the top was a great calorie-burning alternative to paying for a pricey gym.

I quickly understood that I wasn’t the only one who used the Griffith Park hill as fitness equipment. Thousands of people marched up that hill every week for the exercise, the view, and that peaceful sensation of being enclosed by a cocoon of trees. (And that was only the section of the park close to me – Griffith Park’s 4,107 acres include “Children’s play area, including a merry-go-round and pony ride; lighted tennis courts; outdoor swimming pool; hiking and equestrian trails; Griffith Observatory; Los Angeles Zoo; Greek Theatre; golf; Travel Town; camping.”

Echo Park filled an entirely different need

Then in my final five years there, I discovered Echo Park, in the course of entertaining my mother on her yearly visits to L.A. We went to see the Lotus Festival two years in a row. The event itself was thoroughly entertaining, but I was also captivated by the park itself. At a more homey twenty-nine acres, it was still expansive and relaxing – we actually took a break in the middle of our eventful day at the festival, tucked our purses underneath us, and took a nap on the grass – it felt that safe.

I looked enviously at the houses on the park’s perimeter and immediately started scheming about a future home in this neighborhood. Griffith Park was wonderful but it also required ten minutes in my car and sometimes a lengthy search for scarce parking at peak hours. The thought of being within walking distance of Echo Park was a thrilling proposition.

European cities have their community plazas and piazzas. In the U.S. and in L.A. specifically, we need our public spaces. We need to be surrounded by nature. We need our urban parks.

What did we learn about housing the homeless?

One previous resident of the park was filled with a sense of loss for the community and autonomy she felt had been lost. “We needed a kitchen; we built a kitchen. We needed a shower; we built a shower. We needed a library; we built a library.” Now it’s easy to point out that the 160 people who accepted temporary shelter as they were moved out of the park now each have access to their own kitchen, shower, and are generally no more than a short bus ride from a library.

But this woman’s attachment to the encampment speaks to a longing for community and friendship and independence. These are psychological needs that really ought to be taken into account when finding housing for the homeless. For this woman, a high-rise hotel room might be extremely isolating – maybe one of the tiny house villages that are being planned, where residents have some responsibility for clean-up and maintenance – might give her the kind of home that works best for her.

We have to put more thought into homeless solutions

Another former encampment resident voiced a common complaint with the temporary shelter provided by the city. In her case, the 7 p.m. curfew undermined her ability to find a job and get back on her feet. She’s right. The jobs most readily available to a lot of the homeless are going to be fast food, restaurants, convenience stores, retail…all of which involve shift work and the most recent hires get the worst shifts – evening and overnight.

Other problems include sometimes only being allowed to bring two bags of their belongings with them. That same resident said the restrictions were reminiscent of both jail and kindergarten. This is a big reason why the homeless so often reject public housing assistance. It has to be made available in a way that protects their independence and their dignity.

Echo Park for everyone

That includes the homeless. As I mentioned earlier, they were there on opening day. Very few were under the illusion that an encampment could be re-established. They came for curiosity. They came for nostalgia. They came because everyone can benefit from the park.

The homeless cannot sleep here. But they can still spend their days at the park. Because for the unhoused, the days can be monotonous and long. Just like their more fortunate neighbors, they benefit from the peace, the greenery, the water, and the people-watching. With heightened surveillance, they can also enjoy a higher degree of safety.

We can only hope the day will come soon when they are safely and peacefully housed and can look around the park one day and say to themselves, “I used to live here.”

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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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