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As prospect of Echo Park Lake closure looms, homeless people mull whether to stay or go

A homeless man tears down his tent
A homeless man tears down his tent before moving out of Echo Park on Tuesday. A possible removal of the homeless camp at the park has caused an urgency among the people living there.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

On Tuesday, homeless people in Echo Park were faced with a decision as an imminent city closure drew near.

The choice: Leave, or hunker down.

City officials have been planning to clear and fence the park and remove any belongings left behind by the homeless people who have populated it over the past year. The encampment has frustrated many surrounding residents. Authorities refused to confirm or deny rumors sweeping through the park that police would arrive in force either Wednesday or Thursday to cite or expel those who remained.

Early Tuesday, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority filled several shuttle busloads of those who decided to accept an offer of a room in a downtown hotel.

LAPD and protesters square off in Echo Park as an imminent city closure draws near.

But by afternoon the buses had stopped coming and dozens remained, some seemingly indifferent to the coming eviction and the more vocal saying they believe they have a right to live in the park and planned to defend it.

Organizers of the resisters said they were planning to consolidate their tents on the west side of the park and lock arms in defiance when told to leave.

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“It’s long past time that the county help get more of us off the sidewalks immediately, as quick as possible,” said park camper David Busch-Lilly. “I don’t think we need to have all the park. I would be happy to have up to half this park for us. We need more space in other parks in the city.”

David Busch-Lilly gets help moving out of his tent in Echo Park Tuesday.
David Busch-Lilly gets help moving out of his tent in Echo Park on Tuesday. He is on a hunger strike to protest the removal of homeless people.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Busch-Lilly, who is on the eighth day of a hunger strike, said he is prepared to be arrested and to come back after getting out of jail.

A group of encampment residents and activists from a network of groups have scheduled a rally at 7 a.m. Wednesday to gather support.

“For the past year or at least ever since COVID hit we’ve been left alone,” the group of encampment residents said in a written statement.

“We’ve gotten together as a community, unhoused with housed, and did things together outside the context of charity or pity. We did things together for the sake of doing things together, as one community not separated by labels.”

The city of Los Angeles plans to clear a large homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake on Thursday and close the park for renovations, sources told The Times.

At a news conference Tuesday morning, City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell was asked about a Times report that the park would be fenced and closed by Thursday. His response frustrated housed and unhoused residents alike.

“All CDC guidelines are being followed, and we’re actually housing everyone who has been there since January,” O’Farrell said. “It’ll close soon and notices will go up and then we’ll all know.”

A spokesman for O’Farrell didn’t respond to requests for comment about when the park would close.

Alex Comisar, deputy communications director for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said in a statement that the mayor was “working closely with Councilmember O’Farrell’s office to ensure that all unhoused Angelenos at Echo Park Lake are offered appropriate housing and shelter solutions and services through Project Roomkey and Homekey, and given the opportunity to claim or store their property.”

Projects Roomkey and Homekey are state initiatives to house homeless people, either temporarily in rented hotel rooms or more permanently in hotels that local governments purchase.

Comisar didn’t specify when the park would close. An LAHSA spokesperson told The Times that on Monday and Tuesday, outreach workers from the agency moved 44 people from the lake into hotels being rented by the city for homeless people.

A large homeless encampment on the banks of Echo Park Lake has emerged as a divisive flashpoint in Los Angeles’ crisis of how to treat the unhoused. Now the city is believed to be preparing to sweep the camp and close the surrounding park.

Nearby residents who have lost patience with the city’s response to the homeless camps called in to Tuesday’s City Council meeting to offer support for the plan to close the park. They argued that the growing encampment was dangerous and had made it impossible for others to enjoy the park.

“I just want to be able to use the park that my tax dollars paid for,” said Riley Montgomery, who posted an online petition calling to remove the tents. Activists from wealthier areas “have no right to dictate what happens in our working class community.”

Another woman praised O’Farrell for his efforts and said she was firmly in support of finding alternative housing for people camping along the lake. “Allowing a lawless encampment to flourish is not compassion,” she said.

A Times analysis of Los Angeles Police Department records shows that crime at the park increased in 2020 but that in certain categories homeless people were disproportionately the victims of crime.

A homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake has become a symbolically fraught case study of the rights to public spaces

Others at the meeting urged the councilman to cancel the upcoming closure of the park, complaining that little information had been shared with community members — most prominently the people in the encampment themselves.

“We need services and housing, not secrecy and displacement,” Echo Park Neighborhood Council member Sachin Medhekar said.

Many callers were incensed by the idea, arguing it would endanger vulnerable people during a pandemic. “What they need is housing. They don’t need you to sweep them out of the lake and then fence it off,” another caller said. “We’re putting up walls now? What are you, Trump? Disgusting.”

In a long written statement, the neighborhood council president, Zarinah Williams, noted that the lake is situated on what once was Tongva tribal land and should continue to be a place where the community goes for “solace, leisure and survival.”

A homeless woman is loaded into a bus headed for a hotel in Echo Park Tuesday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Williams said she didn’t believe spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix the park should be a priority and opposed criminalizing people living in the park.

“We are disappointed in Councilmember O’Farrell’s strategy and the office’s favoring of special interests over a collaborative and communicative partnership,” she said.

Department of Recreation and Parks documents show that the $600,000 in repairs being done to the park during its closure will include fixing bathrooms, street lamps and the playground, along with painting the boathouse and renovating the lake bridge.

Some tent dwellers who wanted to move into hotel rooms were still stranded Tuesday afternoon.

Maxine White, who occupied a tent emblazoned with an American flag, said she thought it would be stupid to protest the park closure.

“They’re coming here and saying here’s a place to live,” she said. “Why not take a chance?”

The 23-year-old said she came from Bakersfield when she was 17 and has been homeless on and off since. She came to Echo Park, she said, to get away from the homeless camp at 4th Street and Shatto Place.

“It’s time to grow up,” she said. “I don’t want to be out here doing the same stuff when I’m 40.”

She’ll have to wait at least one more day. The outreach workers guiding people to the shuttle buses did not call her name Tuesday.


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