Yesterday, hundreds of community members came out in Echo Park Lake to support unhoused individuals living in tents clustered in an area of the park. They turned out following reports that authorities planned to remove the encampment and close off the park to the public to complete a series of upgrades and repairs.
By nightfall, LAPD forces numbering in the hundreds showed up to push back the demonstrators and erect fencing, with plans to return on Thursday night to complete the sweep. Dramatic, smoke-filled images from last night’s confrontation between SWAT teams and residents have dominated the news and social media.
Here, we attempt to explain the situation, and what might happen next.
What is happening in Echo Park today?
After a night of unrest, residents who decided to stay in the park were enclosed within a fence and monitored by police. Around midnight, the LAPD announced the establishment of a “designated protest zone” and “media viewing area” to contain demonstrators and journalists at the scene.
Today, some have been escorted out and driven to Project Roomkey hotels to provide temporary shelter. Police have stated that on Thursday night, a final sweep will take place, removing any remaining residents, their belongings, and any remnants of the makeshift community that sprung up around the lake, such as a vegetable garden tended by park residents.
Residents were told that they and their belongings must be out of the area by 10:30 p.m., though LAPD Captain Rick Stabile stated today that there is “no hard timeline” for residents to remove their belongings. Ayman Ahmed, a resident of the encampment and organizer, tells LAist that, as of Thursday afternoon, about 10 people remained.
“My tent is still up,” Ahmed told LAist. “I’ve lost everything before. We had something beautiful out here, and the rug has been swept out from under us.”
Supporters of the unhoused residents are expected to remain on the scene tonight to protest the removal of the final individuals.
Who is calling for the removal of the encampment?
City Council member Mitch O’Farrell has been a prominent advocate for dispersing the camp, something he argues will provide better outcomes for the unhoused residents than continuing to live in the park.
“You define a sweep as moving someone indoors to a safe, clean environment where they will be provided free, healthy meals, receive medical care and a path to wellness, then you can call it what you want,” O’Farrell told the Los Angeles Times. “Because this is what we are doing for everyone who has been there over the last several weeks or months.”
Following the sweep, Echo Park Lake will remain fenced and closed to the public while some facilities upgrades and repairs are made. The duration of the closure has not been confirmed, but reports suggest it may be approximately four weeks.
Some who live in the neighborhood surrounding the park have also encouraged the removal. At a City Council meeting on Tuesday, several members of the public called in to express support for sweeping the park, the Times reports.
“We paid $45 million in taxpayer dollars to make this lake a place that everyone can enjoy,” neighborhood resident Riley Montgomery, founder of an online petition in favor of cleaning up the park, told ABC Los Angeles. “And now it’s a place that only a few select people can enjoy.”
Why would some unhoused people not want to participate in Project Roomkey?
Authorities have claimed that every person living in the encampment has been offered the opportunity to move into hotel rooms or temporary housing, while some have accepted that offer, others have declined those outreach attempts.
There can be a number of reasons why an unhoused person might want to stay in the encampment rather than move to the provided hotel. For one thing, the arrangements are temporary–and it’s not clear where the individuals would be able to go once their Project Roomkey time runs out.
A statement on the L.A. County website says that service providers hope to work with individuals during their hotel stay to find permanent housing solutions–but acknowledges that they aren’t possible in every situation. That could mean returning to life on the streets. And since individuals are able to take few of their personal possessions with them to the hotels, they might end up with less than they have now. Authorities say that belongings are stored in a facility downtown, but recovering those items can be very difficult.
Some are uncomfortable the restrictions placed on participation in Project Roomkey. Individuals staying in the rooms must be present for three check-ins every day, including midday and early evening, which can be difficult for those who have or are attempting to find work. Knock-LA documented at least one case of an individual who, even after checking in with a caseworker to explain a legitimate absence, found himself locked out of the hotel entirely.
Hotels can significantly restrict facilities available to Project Roomkey participants. According to Knock-LA’s reporting, one hotel bolted closed the patio doors of rooms being used for the program, and did not offer keys to the front door of the property. Another refused to allow Roomkey guests to park their cars at the hotel. Some participants have even said the rigidity and isolation reminds them of prison.
Are their safety concerns during the pandemic?
Guidance from the CDC discourages dispersing encampments amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Reasons include that outdoor encampments may actually make it easier for unhoused people to distance–and thus slow the spread of disease–compared to what is possible in shelters or other crowded indoor settings. The CDC also notes that clearing encampments is likely to disperse the individuals who lived there–effectively, a semi-self contained pod–into the community at large, potentially spreading COVID-19 to other encampments, shelters, or elsewhere.
Additionally, the agency says, moving people from an encampment where they have established a residence can make it more difficult for them to stay in contact with service providers, including healthcare providers, such as those taking on the already-difficult task of delivering vaccine to unhoused people.