S1: Ben Oreskes is a metro reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He covers housing and homelessness, which is the crisis eclipsing every other problem facing the city right now, except for maybe the pandemic, maybe homelessness.
S2: If you talk to some of my colleagues who worked at the L.A. Times 10, 20, 30 years, they say homelessness is now in every neighborhood. It’s not just by the beach in Venice, downtown by Skid Row. It’s sort of something that has spread into every neighborhood.
S1: People are sleeping beneath overpasses, in alleys, but also on sidewalks and in parks. A couple of years ago, the housing crisis came to roost in a park called Echo Park Lake, a gym in the neighborhood known as Echo Park.
S2: It’s sort of the center of public life in that neighborhood. It’s where people, you know, go and hang out with their friends and ride swan boats.
S1: It’s also the site of one of the most unique encampments of unauthorized people in L.A., Ben estimated eighty to one hundred people were living there on the flat side of the park, creating a stark split screen effect of haves and have nots.
S2: And it’s 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 al-attiya. And then on the west side of the park, which was called to me when I was doing the reporting, the homeless side, you you had rows and rows of tents.
S1: Last week, Ben got a scoop, the city would be closing the park to everyone and forcing out anybody living inside, only city officials wouldn’t say when it was happening.
S2: My sources told me that their fear was that protests would come and that the more time that they knew about it, the better they would be organized.
S1: Protesters did get organized. They gathered around the park. Right, and when the city did clear out Echo Park Lake last week, they did it at night, deploying a phalanx of police in helmets. Hundreds of protesters tried to push them back
S2: one night, a man’s arm was broken. The next night, over 150 people were arrested, including several of my colleagues, reporters in Los Angeles, one who works for the L.A. Times.
S1: Today on the show, how the city of L.A. took back a public park by forcing out the public. I’m Mary Wilson in for Mary Harris. This is what next? Keep listening. The latest numbers we have show that Los Angeles is home to more than 40000 uncaused people, 65000 if you counted everyone without a home in L.A. County. And based on what we know, the problem has just been exploding. The housing insecure population grew 15 percent from 20, 19 to 20, 20. So it makes sense that Ben’s colleagues at the L.A. Times have seen more and more people living on the streets. People are living wherever it feels survivable. For the folks who set up camp in Echo Park Lake, it was as good a spot as any and better than most.
S2: 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. If you think about it. 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 where activists and sort of services group kind of 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, and 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 clear in encampments and having these people run around the city, spreading the virus more potentially. And 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 continue to become this sort of rallying cry as well for activists who are saying, look at this alternative. This is people coming together and try to make a 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.
S1: Yeah, I think colleagues of yours were there to report a story and just saw like a knife fight, you know, pop up out of the blue.
S2: Right. It was 11 thirty on a Sunday morning. And one of my colleagues, Caroline Cole, who’s a photographer, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who’s been in war zones and other things, calls me and goes, Ben, there was a knife fight in the park after just shortly after I had left to captures the sort of arresting photo of two people going at it. And and I think there’s an important thing to to note here as well, which is that. 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 know, 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. And and so this. Commune like society that was held up as this ideal for a way for people to live had its flaws as well, and did frustrated residents in the area who saw their park being, in their words, degraded and and becoming unsafe for them. And I think. My view of it and the conclusion that my colleague Doug Smith and I who wrote that large story you referenced came to is that everyone’s conception of the park was a little flawed and a little based on their own biases. On a Sunday afternoon, you could sit in the park and enjoy a beer with your friends or buy a taco or go thrift shopping. But at the same token, at night and during the day, it could be unsafe. It wasn’t an ideal place to live. There were drug overdoses. There were these things that were unsafe for people around them and the residents of the park,
S1: the housed people living around the park made their discomfort known to their local city council member, a guy named Mitch O’Farrill. 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.
S2: 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 house 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 sort of 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.
S1: And by fix this, he means
S2: clean it up. And when I was reporting out the large story we did on this, 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,
S1: 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 Room Key.
S2: It was pretty successful. They. Put a massive infusion of focus and resources where they basically reserve rooms in this 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. But by the end of this exercise, they had gotten about one hundred and eighty 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 2000 of these rooms right now, maybe even less. Right now, I don’t know the exact numbers offhand, 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.
S1: I want to talk a little bit about why the cities stated reason for clearing out Echo Park Lake. The city’s line was, we’re not here to get rid of the encampment. That’s not why we’re closing the park and asking everybody to leave, forcing everybody out. We’re doing this to do park repairs, to do renovations. I saw a lot of people questioning that stated reason, that rationale. Do you question it?
S2: 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. But yes, it was bizarre and frustrating to many people who were both housed and housed.
S1: You told me about what Echo Park Lake looked like before it was cleared out. What does it look like now?
S2: So I was able to if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s sneaking across a police court and we’re talking my way across the police court. And I was able to get into the park on Friday for the day after it had closed and it was full of heavy, heavy machinery. On Friday, there were people in hazmat suits going through tents. They were definitely sort of preparing the park to be cleaned up.
S1: And people people aren’t able to go to the park right now for recreation. If there’s a fence around it, it’s closed for repairs to everybody, right? Exactly. And the people who were living there, you’ve reported many of them got into hotel rooms. Some of them didn’t didn’t like the restrictions that came with the hotel rooms, found other places to live, you know, on city property, right. On public property.
S2: The streets of many, many people went back to the streets. Obviously will be hard to say exactly how many did or didn’t. You know, the population of the park was a moving number. You know, this is a transient population in the sense that they come and go. They sleep one place one night, another place another night. But many people did get into the hotel rooms. But I can tell you, I watched several people at the end of, you know, in the hours before the closure occurred, you know, roll their stuff out and head to the streets.
S1: After the break, how the evacuation of Echo Park Lake created a new model for dealing with encampments to the satisfaction of some and the dismay of others. Another interesting piece of this story is the neighborhood, this is all happening in Echo Park. My understanding is that it’s a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. It’s also populated by people whose conception of themselves is we’re pretty left here. We are a Bernie neighborhood. And so I saw statements from Mitch O’Farrill where he’s talking about the encampment in his statements, but he’s talking to people who live in houses in his district. And he’s 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.
S2: I mean, that’s the sort of story of L.A. politics. We’re not dealing with people who are. There’s no Trump in our world, there’s no there’s no person ideologically who inhabits that space, and that was a huge part of this. But for residents, you know, you always hear this. I’m a lifelong Democrat. I voted for every Democrat on the ticket since nineteen, blah, blah, blah, but. I want these encampments cleared. I mean, I think homelessness skews our conception of left and right quite, 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.
S1: You’ve reported that there’s this sense or maybe it’s more of a suspicion that what happened in Echo Park Lake could be used as a playbook in other parts of the city. Right. Because this is not the only encampment. This is not there are there are many of these all over the city.
S2: Exactly. And, you know, I’m looking at an email in my inbox right now with the headline VENIS Stakeholders Association calls for Echo Park Strategy for Venice Beach. The idea being that. This is something they want to see House 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. But it is putting pressure on council members, elected officials across the board to kind of 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. And that will always hold them back from doing this. Not to mention the fact that. That’s not a logical or efficient way to prioritize how to help homeless people,
S1: I would imagine that people are immensely conflicted about this situation and people who would have considered themselves to be more on the side of activists are finding that their patience is wearing thin. I’m curious if you’ve seen. Politicians, people who are on the record with some of those internal conflicts, like I’m curious if you’ve seen them change their tone about how they address encampments in their districts.
S2: Yes, absolutely. I want to tell you really quickly about one person named Jeff Giles. He’s not an elected official, but he lives in an apartment near Echo Park. And he was one of the people we sort of quoted in our early stories about this before the the closure happened. And Jeff started a group called Friends of Echo Park Lake and naively thought he could just kind of put his views about how the condition of the park had kind of been degraded out into the world. And he was roundly criticized by activists who read his address into the record of city council meetings and relentlessly criticized him for being inhumane. And when I interviewed Jeff, along with my colleague Doug, he acknowledged his his sort of naive view of this issue, that it was simple. We could give them some housing and it could be fixed. And for Jeff, he recognized there’s a lot more to this and a lot more complicated dynamics at work in terms of how to best help these people. And it made him much more sympathetic to their plight. It also made him much more hopeless for the city’s ability to deal with this problem. In fact, he predicted that the the condition of the park would only get worse. He was wrong on that front. But I think there’s something really instructive to learn from his kind of progression of views on this, where he recognized going into a shelter sucks for many people. You can’t necessarily be in there with your partner, you know, any other number of kind of unique dynamics like that. So I think you see a kind of movement for many people like Jeff who suddenly engaged with this issue and go, whoa, this is a lot more complicated than I thought it was. And it maybe moves them more to hopelessness than than they would have liked to have been. I think you’re also seeing a growing impatience from residents across the city that I think will sort of guide or define how our elections go over the next year, where I think the biggest conversation will be about how to make the sidewalks cleaner and how to help people. As for the politicians, there’s definitely a lot more discussion about ways in which they can humanely move encampments and do right by the people who are living in them.
S1: You know how people talk about late stage capitalism? I don’t actually I haven’t gone to school on that term, so I apologize to any socialist Democrats in the audience. But I think of L.A. as kind of late stage unaffordability. Your your colleague, Emily Alpert Reyes, she she came on this podcast about a year ago and she was talking about the homelessness crisis. And she said, you know, voters here 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 unauthorized population. So when the problem is at such a scale, there are very few easy choices left that, you know, 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 there’s any I don’t see how anything can deescalate the situation right now.
S2: 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 interm 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, which is the first place to start, I think, you know, we’re hearing about this fight, an 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 and bonuses.
S1: Thank you so much. Thank you. Ben Oreskes is a metro reporter covering homelessness and housing for the Los Angeles Times. That’s the show What Next is made by the best producers in the business, Daniel Hewitt, Lena Schwartz, Carmel, Dilshad Davis land. I am Mary Wilson, filling in for Mary Harris. If you have questions, comments, concerns, if you want to remind me that you’re not the socialist Democrats of America, you’re actually the democratic socialist of America. I am regretfully on Twitter at Mary Wilson. Tomorrow in the feed, Lizzie O’Leary will be hosting what next TV. They’re going to get into vaccine passports. Are they ethical? Are they advisable? Will they allow us to use Instagram filters in our photos? Two of these three questions answered tomorrow. Thanks for listening.