It’s nine o’clock on a blazingly sunny October morning in Echo Park.
A scruffy but fashionable group slowly gathers for breakfast around a table piled high with bagels. Not far away, two men put on boxing gloves and playfully begin to spar. Another is restringing a flamenco guitar on an old, cast-off sofa sitting on a grassy embankment. Any minute now, the socialists will arrive with their solar strips to charge everyone’s phones.
It’s another day in the life of an unlikely homeless community that has sprung up here—not on the outskirts of this trendy Eastside neighborhood, but right in its beating heart, the park itself. About 100 tents have popped up around the lake over the last 14 months—a city within a city. Open-flame cooking, which is banned by municipal code, is happening all over. There’s electricity being siphoned from city streetlights to power microwaves, personal sandwich grills, and other appliances. There’s a gas generator running a freezer and refrigerator inside one tent at the north end. Another tent along Glendale Boulevard is decorated with a full bedroom set.
When this homeless bivouac first popped up around Echo Park Lake last year, you might have expected the usual NIMBY backlash. But unlike just about everywhere else in L.A.—or the country—the opposite occurred. Many of the locals not only took the encampment in stride, they embraced it, welcoming their new outdoor neighbors with baked goods and camping supplies, treating it less like a blight and more like a “happening.” After all, there’s a lot of sympathy for the downtrodden among this indigo-blue liberal enclave, especially for those who appear as conspicuously young and attractive as this hipster army. In some ways, Echo Park has become the perfect microcosm of Los Angeles at this particular and very peculiar moment in the city’s history, an intersection of rampant homelessness, pandemic politics, class warfare, mass marketing, radical chic, and, when you scratch just below the surface, drug abuse, crime, and heartbreaking tragedy.
There’s Chris over there, frying eggs on a grill next to his gleaming surfboard. There’s Yom, the wiry Nigerian from Texas, watching TV beside the flower beds. And there’s that tall, strikingly handsome Black man, built like a basketball point guard, wearing a scruffy beard, a Basquiat print T-shirt, and a fedora. With his ripped torso and piercing green eyes, he could easily be imagined starring in a fragrance commercial. Which, in fact, he once did (for Lady Gaga’s Fame).
“We’re not the typical homeless,” says Davon Brown, 30, an ex-fashion model from Jamaica, New York, given to bizarre behavior and grandiose outbursts in which he compares himself to King David. Last year, Brown lost his home and then found a new one, outdoors, among Echo Park’s lotus blossoms and elderberry trees. “We’re not drug addicts and criminals.”
No, they’re not—at least most of them. Nor are they murderers. And yet something happened to that 18-year-old girl from San Diego who was found dead inside the camp in August. Brianna Moore, a one-time honor student, had traveled to L.A. over the summer to participate in the protests that were roiling the city. But after meeting up with some other young protesters, she ended up dead on her first night in Echo Park, her body found inside a tent beside the lily pond. There’s a shrine to her in the community garden by the water’s edge, surrounded by candles and photographs and flowers. Her death was blamed on an overdose. But like a lot of things about Echo Park, the true circumstances of her demise have never been fully explained.
The first few tents sprouted up in November 2019. Within a month, there were 30 of them strewn across the northwest corner of the park, across the street from the historic Angelus Temple. By January, there were 30 more.
There has been a small homeless population living quietly here for years, but the park’s newest denizens seemed different: younger and bolder than their predecessors. More permanent. At first, the locals didn’t know what to make of the growing procession, trading worried stories on Citizen, a popular security app, about homeless-related crime and drug use in the playground. But nobody filed any complaints until that December, when an 82-year-old woman living in a retirement home across the street from the park stepped on her balcony to enjoy the view and was greeted by the sight of a homeless man urinating on the grass.
Many of the nearby homeowners, though, seemed unbothered by the encampment. Indeed, a sizable slice of the area’s local taxpayers welcomed the homeless with open arms. At all hours of the day, streams of young women—many of them affluent, most of them white—turned up at the park’s makeshift kitchen, bearing loaves of bread, cakes, fresh fruits and vegetables, packaged meals, tubs of organic yogurt from Erewhon, bottles of Fresca, giant bags of ice and groceries and supplies. Compared to other nearby homeless settlements—like the one by the 101 freeway ramp—the growing Echo Park encampment, with its nighttime drum circles and festive air of social promiscuity, felt more like a campsite at a music festival.
“Frankly, I think they just like the party and have gotten on the bandwagon of ‘Let’s pitch a tent in Echo Park,’” says one neighboring homeowner. “I see groups of healthy young men down there kicking soccer balls, wearing Nike tennis shoes, jogging around the lake, riding bikes. They have cell phones. They have musical instruments. Some of the homeless people down there have cars. So there are various factions with various levels of need.”
“The population of homeless people at the lake is different,” agrees Mitch O’Farrell, the L.A. city councilman representing Echo Park, who has the unenviable task of balancing his constituents’ liberal idealism with the more pragmatic challenge of keeping the park from being destroyed. He believes that many of Echo Park’s new homeless are free spirits who are homeless by choice, preferring to live on their own terms outdoors rather than accept the city’s offer of temporary shelter. “They are resistant to the standard ways of doing things,” he says. And, O’Farrell adds, they believe that as long as they stay in the park, connected to one another, they have power.
In this, they may be right. And they aren’t the only ones who’ve come to that conclusion. Early last fall, activists from the group Street Watch L.A., a media-
savvy offshoot of the Democratic Socialists of America, began showing up at the park, handing out “know your rights” flyers, charging cell phones, and otherwise agitating on behalf of the lake’s new residents. Last January, for instance, when city work crews arrived at the park for a regularly scheduled cleanup, Street Watch put the call out to social activists, who turned up in droves, locked arms, and blocked the trucks from entering. That showdown turned out to be a media triumph for the camp as well as for Street Watch, furthering the narrative that Echo Park was becoming a homeless Eden and a center of progressive activism. Dramatic images of young, Black homeless men led the noon broadcast of CBS Los Angeles. “Homeless people taking on L.A. city officials,” gushed anchor Sandra Mitchell at the top of the hour. “The city has been planning to shut down a large encampment in Echo Park, but the people who live there say they’re going to fight to stay.”
Following a tense, hours-long standoff, the city backed down. A few hours after sunrise, a sad convoy of maintenance trucks slowly withdrew from the park without tossing a single tent. Jed Parriott, one of Street Watch’s self-appointed spokesmen, took to the cameras to crow about the group’s unexpected victory. “We need to be really telling these property owners, ‘Sorry, you’re going to have to tough this out,’” Parriott proclaimed in an interview with KABC-TV News. “I’m sorry that you don’t like that you have to see this, that you have to see poverty. You’re going to have to see it right now until we get permanent housing for everybody.” The reporter interviewing him failed to note that Parriott, a 39-year-old white guy with a head of blond curls, wasn’t a resident of Echo Park (he owns a home in Silver Lake) or that he’d arrived at the protest in a BMW X5 or that his father was a producer on Grey’s Anatomy.
No matter. Many of the property owners Parriott was trolling on TV were no doubt cheering him on. Indeed, by February, support for the encampment had grown so fierce, dissenters were all but shouted down at a community meeting held in a local church, during which representatives of the “unhoused” community met with “housed” people to discuss problems arising from the encampment. Business owners and residents, unhappy about hundreds of homeless people squatting in their park, were roundly jeered by the noisier faction in favor of the camp. Things turned ugly.
“I’ll say there was not a lot of mutual respect,” recalls one of the panelists, Reverend Canon Frank Dalton, provost at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, where the event took place. “The folks that were having trouble weren’t heard. The other side had an agenda, and they were there to make a point—to draw attention to the inadequate response of the city to the unhoused population by taking a stand in the park.” Afterward, on the social network platform Nextdoor, one of the opponents of the encampment was denounced as “a rich bitch” and threatened with violence.
Concerned about reprisals, most of the anti-campers insist on anonymity. Jeff Giles, a 65-year-old physical therapist who has lived in a condo overlooking the park for more than 32 years, is one of the few who is willing to go public with his reservations. But he says his opposition has made him something of a neighborhood pariah. One elderly neighbor whom Giles has known for decades stopped talking to him after he spoke out at a community meeting. Like many other home owners in his middle-class neighborhood, Giles sank most of his savings into his mortgage, and he worries about the impact that the encampment will have on his life-long investment. But his neighbor was unmoved by his concerns. She told Giles that her commitment to the homeless is so absolute that if the value of her own condo drops, she’d consider it her contribution to the cause.
While most of the camp’s opponents have shunned media attention, Echo Park’s telegenic homeless leaders have savvily courted it. A day before the fractious forum at the church, Brown, the former model, was arrested and charged with “battery on a peace officer” after he and a half-dozen others scuffled with city workers who were attempting to clear the couches, mattresses, and outdoor grills that had proliferated in the park. As video of the incident went viral, the local head of the National Lawyers Guild took the case, and Brown became a media cause celébrè, the subject of a flurry of positive news stories. The fame that had eluded him as a model, he was now earning as “a champion of rights for the homeless people of Los Angeles,” as Brown’s publicist describes him. That’s right, his publicist.
In the aftermath of the ill-fated raid, L.A. park rangers made a few half-hearted attempts to clear the park, but none were successful. Since then, O’Farrell has come under fire from both sides in the battle. Not long ago he agreed to keep bathrooms open all night, with security, which provoked the wrath of the anti-campers. But the park residents have accused him of foot dragging, and not long ago he came under fire from an activist news site, which ungraciously brought up the councilman’s forgotten past as a cruise-line dancer. In early March, O’Farrell tried to negotiate a truce between the warring sides. The councilman had received hundreds of calls from constituents disturbed by the park’s growing homeless presence. But his options were constrained by a spate of federal court rulings that stipulated that homeless people could not be forced to leave public spaces unless they were provided adequate shelter elsewhere. Even so, after a lengthy search, O’Farrell managed to find the park dwellers an alternate place—at a nearby church—where they could all be housed together across the street from the park. Representatives of the park dwellers, though, demanded the installation of a medical facility and a storage space within a block of the proposed shelter, and negotiations broke down. The homeless refused to leave the park, and O’Farrell was out of ideas.
Then, in March, the pandemic arrived, and suddenly the city had bigger problems to deal with. As park rangers and other maintenance crews went into lockdown, the encampment fell into shambles. Sprinklers broke down, lawns became denuded, park signs and benches were defaced, and the rat population exploded. All the while, more and more tents kept popping up, extending the encampment’s reach. What started with a dozen tents in the northwest corner quickly expanded into a small metropolis of more than a hundred tents spread over the parkland surrounding half the lake. As locals quarantined inside their homes, with little to do but look out their windows, the park’s homeless residents were laying down roots. As COVID spread across the city, some local residents grew even more worried about the homeless, who seemed particularly vulnerable to the virus; others watched in despair as they saw the yoga area taken over and buckets filled with camp waste being emptied into the lake (which seven years ago had received a $45 million, two-year-long face-lift). “Not only is it a visual blight that is increasing by the day,” Giles says, “the noise never quits. There are fights, yelling, music almost around the clock. They have a full drum set with snares and bass drums. They also have an amplified guitar. I have heard ragged versions of Jimi Hendrix even during the day. It could actually be charming if it were conducted responsibly with some concern that people do have lives here, children trying to sleep, working from home, the right to quiet enjoyment of their homes. We are not evil because we have a roof over our heads.”
“It’s a high school popularity contest here,” says Laura. The fresh-faced, 27-year-old homeless woman is sitting on a hillside known to Echo Park campers as Hipster Beach. “The loner corner is at the far end,” she says, pointing south to an area where older homeless men keep to themselves in ragged tents. The popular kids—“thirty-year-old skaters who smoke weed and fuck bitches all day”—are in the middle. “See what I mean?” she giggles. “High school!”
In fact, the social pecking order of the camp is far more complex and mysterious. There appear to be three or four separate political entities that keep the trains running here. The public face of the encampment is made up of photogenic and quotable homeless activists like
Brown. Together with the socialist activists who have set up base here, Brown and other camera-friendly residents manage media relations for the park’s residents. But they enlisted the help of Jhon, a 42-year-old Little Rock native who zips around the park on a $900 Lectric XP bicycle. Jhon is the self-appointed camp superintendent. His job is to help decide who gets to stay and who has to go. Kooky eccentrics, grizzled drifters, people prone to cause trouble or attract the cops—these are banished to the outer regions of the lake or forced out of the park. Attractive, young, more together types score the more desirable locations on the narrow straightaway of the lakefront along Glendale beneath the weeping willows. But Jhon can be capricious in his rulings. When Dylan, a tattoo artist from North Carolina, flouted the camp rules limiting the size of tents with his multi-tent compound, Jhon looked the other way. “He said my tent was cool,” Dylan says.
Jhon, however, is not the camp muscle. That job belongs to a group of multi-ethnic ex-cons and other toughs with names like Gorilla, who occupy the northern heights of the park. They’re reputed to be occasionally brutal in their methods. One day, for example, a group of female volunteers from a nonprofit came to the park to hand out donations. But they hadn’t secured prior approval from the camp commandants, so one of the bruisers allegedly showed up with four associates, grabbed the donations, destroyed the volunteer tent, and expelled the visiting women from the park. Other camp residents say that late-night raids and attacks by the ex-cons are a fairly regular occurrence.
Of course, every society—even an egalitarian homeless paradise—requires an economy. The role of treasurer is filled by several entities, including Ground Game L.A., a liberal advocacy group that runs a GoFundMe page supporting “a vision of love and community” for the park. (It has raised $8,500 so far.) There’s also a CashApp account run by a 26-year-old former philosophy major named Ayman Ahmed who lives in a tepee with a “Bernie Sanders for President” sign in its mesh window. He uses the donations to pay park dwellers for performing tasks like picking up trash and cooking meals. In glossy, self-produced fundraising videos, he sounds almost evangelical about his mission. “COVID was a blessing in disguise,” he told Los Angeles. “The police harassment ceased, and that allowed us time to work on building community.”
But the whole elaborate social structure of the camp came close to collapsing one Sunday evening in August, when a terrible discovery was made in a small, white-and-maroon tent on the west side of the park. That’s where the body of Brianna Moore was found by passersby. According to her autopsy, Moore died from a cocaine and fentanyl overdose. But while the authorities say they don’t suspect foul play, almost no one believes she died alone.
Some people in the camp say she disappeared into the white-and-maroon tent and wasn’t seen alive again. Others say she spent the night partying in a large, green-and-beige tent with part of a clique of street-tough white boys who went by names like Speedy and Ghost. Several homeless people in the park suspect that her body was moved from one tent to the other after she died. Nobody can offer a reasonable explanation for why it took up to three days for anybody to notice that she was dead.
Like a lot of Echo Park’s young homeless, Moore arrived in L.A. as a protester, joining the thousands who marched during the nationwide demonstrations over George Floyd’s death. (Many bankrolled their trips to L.A. with their $1,200 government stimulus checks.) “I raised her to be fair to everyone and make sure everyone has a say or a chance,” Moore’s father, Duncan Moore, told KNSD. And, indeed, her future did seem bright—she had offers of admission to elite colleges like MIT, Princeton, and Brown—despite a history
of emotional problems. (She’d been admitted for a brief stay at a San Diego psychiatric hospital in June 2020.) But at some point during the marches, Moore fell in with some young men who were camping in Echo Park, and they invited her back. By the time she arrived, she had already gone through something of a radical transformation; her long chestnut hair had been shorn into a buzz cut.
What sort of experience she had with drugs before arriving in Echo Park is unknown. But narcotics are not hard to find in the encampment. The ground is littered with discarded squares of silver foil with telltale burnt smudges. “There is an overabundance of fentanyl in the park,” notes Bobby, a 43-year-old skater who has lived by the lake since March. “There’s nowhere to get a job. Nothing else to do.”
Also unknown: the identity of the people that brought Moore to the park. No one can say whether they were partying with Moore on the night of her death, if they moved her body from one tent to another, and what happened to them afterward. Members of that particular group have since disappeared from the park. One rumor circulating the camp is that the ex-cons and others who police the lake murdered the supposed malefactors. Others say they simply beat them up and kicked them out of the park.
Those questions aside, Moore’s overdose threw Echo Park into crisis. There had been other fatalities at the camp—a 51-year-old man died in June, a 30-year-old in October—but Moore’s young age and the fact that she was a visitor, not a homeless resident, made the tragedy all the more sensational. Suddenly, the camp’s carefully crafted image as a peaceful bastion of social equality was in jeopardy.
In reaction, camp organizers turned to spin control. A new community garden was planted on the very spot where the medical examiners found Moore’s body, and a shrine was erected, with a photo of Moore beaming like a saint over the potted marigolds and lavender. Other parts of the encampment were also spruced up with new structures like a wood-frame kitchen.
The death wasn’t the only recent bad publicity to blemish the encamptment—there’s been a recent spate of crime including a shooting that grazed Brown’s leg and put him in the hospital—but Moore’s death was definitely a turning point. It also had an impact outside the encampment, among the neighbors surrounding the park. It emboldened the opposition, giving them ammunition that not even the fiercest pro-campers could shout down.
“When they took the body away, they left this poor woman’s tent and belongings there,” says Giles. “I called the city council to see who is responsible. To me, there was no dignity. There were even dogs pulling through all her stuff. And it was days before that was removed. So these have been disturbing events to us who live here.”
Shortly after Moore’s death, Giles began holding virtual meetings with other anti-campers, and in September, he launched a group called Friends of Echo Park Lake. “We refuse to stand by as a city-sanctioned slum takes our parkland away from the public,” he wrote in an appeal to his neighbors. “The green heart of our neighborhood must be restored, free of tents and encampments and risks to public health and safety, so that our park may once again be a source of pride for all Angelenos.” In November, Giles’s group also sent a letter to O’Farrell as well as Mayor Garcetti, demanding action be taken against the encampment. It was signed by several popular local businesses, an affluent local developer, and the organizers of the annual Echo Park Rising festival. Most recently, there’s even been talk in the group about filing a lawsuit against the city for its failure to act against the camp.
For the moment, however, the tents will stay where they are. And the view from Hipster Beach across Echo Park Lake is as serene as ever, as photogenic homeless people kick around a ball and lounge on discarded furniture, waiting for the socialists with the solar strips to recharge their fading cell phones.
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