Metropolis

L.A. Cleared One of Its Largest Homeless Encampments. Is It the Start of a Crackdown?

A man sets up a tent in the road in front of a line of police at night.
Police clashed with activists and defenders of an encampment in Los Angeles’ Echo Park Lake on March 24. Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty Images

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Homelessness is the crisis eclipsing just about every other problem in Los Angeles right now. The latest numbers show that the city is home to more than 40,000 homeless people—65,000 if you counted everyone without a home in L.A. County. And the problem has just been exploding. The housing-insecure population grew 15 percent from 2019 to 2020. “If you talk to some of my colleagues who’ve worked at the L.A. Times 10, 20, 30 years, they say homelessness is now in every neighborhood,” says Benjamin Oreskes, a metro reporter at the Times. “It’s not just by the beach in Venice, downtown by Skid Row. It’s something that has spread into every neighborhood.”

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People are sleeping beneath overpasses, in alleys, but also on sidewalks and in parks. The latest flashpoint in the crisis is a park called Echo Park Lake, a gem in the neighborhood that, until recently, held an encampment of 80 to 100 people—a split screen of haves and have-nots. “On a Saturday, you’d see people sitting with their friends on benches or on the grass, drinking beers or hanging out, people selling tacos or elote,” says Oreskes, “and then on the west side of the park … you had rows and rows of tents.” Last week, the city closed Echo Park Lake and sent police to force out everyone inside; the park is fenced off now and closed to everyone. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Oreskes about why the city took this extraordinary step, what it means for the future of L.A.’s response to homelessness, and what would really end the crisis.

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Benjamin Oreskes: I think it’s a good moment to stop and think about the rationale for why you go to a park. It’s actually sort of simple—what are the things we need most? Water. A bathroom. A flat space that is relatively nice. Community. A place to charge your phone. All of these things occurred in the park. And as the park’s population of homeless people grew, it became a place activists and services groups descended upon, so there was always food there. There was a community garden. All of these things contributed to making it a place that was much more attractive to homeless people than, say, an underpass.

And then the pandemic hits and the rules about clearing of encampments are sort of turned on their head. The CDC recommends that government should not disperse encampments for fear of more spread. Imagine an encampment as a pod. They didn’t want to be clearing encampments and having these people run around the city, spreading the virus more, potentially. That was a big fear. The city, which continued to do cleanups, really limited how much they enforce their rules about where you could pitch a tent and where you couldn’t. And so throughout last year, the encampment continued to grow and continued to become this sort of rallying cry as well for activists who are saying, “Look at this alternative. This is people coming together and trying to make the best of a bad situation.” And during this time, let’s be clear, it wasn’t perfect. When you talk to people there, it was still pretty dangerous. I think four people died over the last year in the park, mostly of overdoses. …

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And there was an uptick in crime. And for certain categories of crimes, things like aggravated assault and certain other property crimes, the victims were predominantly homeless, according to the LAPD. So it wasn’t this talking point that you hear from residents, “Oh, it’s unsafe for us to be there.” It was actually unsafe for the people in the park to be there as well, that they were sort of preying on each other. You hear from people who were living in the park that they never wanted to leave their bags alone. Things get stolen all the time. They run through bikes and wallets really fast. So this communelike society that was held up as this ideal for a way for people to live had its flaws as well. And it frustrated residents in the area who saw their park being, in their words, degraded and becoming unsafe for them. My view of it is that everyone’s conception of the park was a little flawed and a little based on their own biases.

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Mary Wilson: The housed people living around the park made their discomfort known to their local City Council member, Mitch O’Farrell. He found himself in a familiar position for L.A. officials: pitted between the people in little boxes on the hillside and the people in tents on the flat ground.

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With this issue, homelessness has two forms, almost, for politicians. There’s the constituent services angle of it, and then there’s the human plight angle of it. And it’s a tough needle to thread for people who want to help their housed neighbors feel like the streets are safe to walk on, but also how to help people who are living on the streets. So O’Farrell really pushes this line about how humane he has been. And throughout the fall, he would meet with homeowners and tell them, “I alone will fix this. No one else in the city can do this. I guarantee you the park will be reopened in the first quarter of the year.”

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And by “fix this” he means—

Clean it up. And when I was reporting, we saw very little evidence that that was happening. But what quickly emerged is behind the scenes, for months, he had been plotting a way to close the park and clean it up.

“Plotting” because the city was trying to avoid looking like the big bad wolf to people living in Echo Park Lake. City workers went around offering them free hotel rooms under a new federally supported program called Project Roomkey.

It was pretty successful. They put a massive infusion of focus and resources—they basically reserve rooms in one of these hotels downtown that they’re renting for homeless people and say, anyone who’s at the park, they get a room if they want it.

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But by the end of this exercise, they had gotten about 180 people into some form of shelter. There is something problematic about that that you heard from activists: They used resources that were ostensibly for the most needy, the people most vulnerable to the virus, and rather than prioritizing them by the people’s need, they were being prioritized by a location, at the behest of who? Housed voters. We only have about 2,000 of these rooms right now, maybe even less. And they were prioritizing them for people who are in a park that people were mad about being full of tents. So that was sort of the impetus for this.

The city’s line was we’re not here to get rid of the encampment—we’re doing this to do park repairs, to do renovations. I saw a lot of people questioning that. Do you?

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We’re still in the middle of a pandemic where we’re telling people to stay home, and we’re telling everyone, if you go out, just go to the park. So to close a park at this moment in time does feel curious. I have had no reason to believe that they’re not going to do this repair and renovation work. But I’ve also not gotten a clear answer about why it needed to happen right now. It was bizarre and frustrating to many people who were both housed and unhoused.

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Many of the people who were living there got into hotel rooms. Some of them didn’t like the restrictions that came with the hotel rooms, found other places to live on city property, on public property—

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The streets. Many people went back to the streets.

My understanding is that Echo Park is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. It’s also populated by people whose conception of themselves is pretty left—“we are a Bernie neighborhood.” And so I saw statements from Mitch O’Farrell where he’s talking about the encampment, but he’s talking to people who live in houses in his district, saying things like, “We’re going to get these people who are in the camp transitional housing.” But he’s saying in no uncertain terms these people will be moved out.

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I mean, that’s the story of L.A. politics. There’s no Trump in our world. There’s no person ideologically who inhabits that space. And that was a huge part of this. But for residents, you always hear this: “I’m a lifelong Democrat. I voted for every Democrat on the ticket since 19-blah-blah-blah. But I want these encampments cleared.”

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I think homelessness skews our conception of left and right quite rapidly. And one of the consequences of what played out last week was a feeling of pressure that was put on other elected officials to do something similar in their neighborhood.

You’ve reported that there’s a suspicion that what happened in Echo Park Lake could be used as a playbook in other parts of the city—because this is not the only encampment. There are many of these all over the city.

Exactly. I’m looking at an email in my inbox right now with the headline “Venice Stakeholders Association calls for Echo Park strategy for Venice Beach,” the idea being that this is something they—housed residents, stakeholders across the city—want to see played out in their neighborhood. And there are reasons why that could happen and there are reasons why it can’t. But it is putting pressure on council members, elected officials across the board, to explain themselves and show why or why not that can be the case, because people want their sidewalks cleaned up and they want to see this playbook again. And it’s also a problem because they used resources that they have very little of and concentrated them in a single space for one reason and one reason only: They wanted to close the park. So they can’t do that everywhere because they don’t have enough of those resources to do it everywhere. Not to mention the fact that that’s not a logical or efficient way to prioritize how to help homeless people.

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Your colleague Emily Alpert Reyes came on this podcast about a year ago, and she said voters are very frustrated because they have approved tax increases at the city and county level to pay for more affordable housing, to pay for more social services, and those remedies are just moving too slowly to curb the unhoused population. So when the problem is at such a scale, there are very few easy choices left—whatever you do is going to make someone upset. And it looks like, based on what we saw last week, the battles are just going to become increasingly ferocious. I don’t see how anything can de-escalate the situation right now.

We need hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing, and that will only just sort of get us to equilibrium. The pandemic has sort of been a godsend, obviously not in the widespread death that has occurred, but in terms of the resources that have been made available for homeless response and housing affordability. Both the state and the city and the feds have put lots of resources into buying buildings to quickly transition them into interim housing that would eventually become permanent housing for people. We’re seeing resources being brought to bear in a way that we’ve never before.

We know what works. We know that getting people off the streets has to do with getting them into housing. And more resources being brought to the situation is the first place to start. We’re hearing about this Biden infrastructure plan that will have hundreds of billions of dollars for housing—that money will help. But unless we can get at the dynamics of affordability, I think we continue to see these fights over public spaces.

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