Hundreds of advocates for the homeless gathered at Echo Park Lake Wednesday to protest plans by the city to clear the park of a large homeless encampment and close it for what’s being described as repair work.
Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s communications director, Tony Arranaga, told City News Service the city is closing the park to repair more than $500,000 in damage.
Arranaga would not confirm the date of the closure, but the Los Angeles Times reported the encampment of homeless at the park will be cleared by Thursday and fences would be installed to keep the park closed for renovations.
About four dozen homeless people are still living in the park, although as many as 100 were believed to be residing there earlier this year, with some already relocated by the city through various housing programs.
Those who gathered Wednesday morning blasted the city for efforts to force the homeless out of an area that has grown into a supportive community. In the midst of the tents alongside the lake, a large sign read, “We refuse to be swept into dark corners.”
One advocate told KNX Newradio that people living in the park “got hit worse by the pandemic, by the situations of life,” and did not deserve to be swept out without alternatives. Although the city has said housing would be found, those gathered Wednesday morning had their doubts, with one saying there was “no guarantee” the city would find “somewhere safe” for people to live.
Many carried signs with slogans such as “Services not sweeps” and “House keys, not handcuffs.”
Homeless advocates have also argued that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against clearing encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic, because it could “cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
O’Farrell told reporters during an unrelated news conference Tuesday that the city will follow all U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines when preparing the park for the renovation work, and efforts are being made to find housing for everyone who has been living there since January.
He did not provide details about what type of housing would be provided or when it would happen, but said the city previously housed more than 100 of the park’s residents. According to O’Farrell’s office, the city is working to identify rooms and beds through Project Roomkey, Project Homekey and shelters.
Participants in Wednesday’s protest gathered at the park, then marched to O’Farrell’s district office. There were no reports of any disturbances or arrests.
The group plans to hold a 24-hour vigil “to seek citywide cooperation and support in coming days to stop the shutdown of L.A.’s largest self-run homeless haven.”
The park’s community — which has created a vegetable garden, working showers and a kitchen — has been praised by activists as a self-run, diverse community of housed and unhoused residents of the neighborhood.
“Echo Park Lake, situated on Tongva Land, has been a haven of this community since its development and should remain a free and accessible place for members of this community who need it for solace, leisure or survival,” Zarinah Williams, president of the Echo Park Neighborhood Council, said in a statement to City News Service. “We do not feel that $500,000 in restorative landscaping is a priority endeavor given layered consequences of displacement and criminalization of our residents.”
Several people called into Tuesday’s City Council meeting to speak about the move to close the park.
“I applaud the efforts of (the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority) to place folks into (Project Roomkey) sites, but as we all know, eligibility for the program is limited,” said Sachin Medhekar, organizing committee member for the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition. “I’m urging you to not displace the over 100 folks that reside at the lake, especially during this ongoing pandemic and to instead focus on connecting folks with a variety of services and housing options they deserve.”
A woman who identified herself as a resident of the Echo Park neighborhood said she supported the clearing of the park and closure for renovations.
“I personally have not visited the park in over a year because it doesn’t feel sanitary or safe,” she said. “I also worry that the $45 million investment the city made to rehabilitate the park is being wasted.”