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Echo Park Lake to reopen May 26, two months after forced removal of homeless campers

Overhead view of Echo Park and lakeside tents, with the downtown skyline in the distance
Tents of homeless people on the shore of Echo Park Lake on March 4, 2021, before it closed.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles city officials announced Wednesday that Echo Park Lake would reopen May 26 after the park was closed for repairs in the wake of the forced removal of a large homeless encampment.

When it opens again, the park will have been fenced and closed for two months. During that time, workers have trimmed trees, renovated the boat house and removed graffiti, among other improvements. The Department of Recreation and Parks had authorized $1.1 million for repairs.

Prior to the park’s sudden closure, a homeless encampment stretching along the lake’s west side grew to nearly 200 tents over the course of a year. The timing of the closure was kept secret by city officials until the last minute. After police issued a dispersal order, protests erupted and protesters, journalists and legal observers were detained. On one night of protests, authorities said 182 people were arrested for failing to disperse.

In the preceding weeks and months, outreach workers had been able to get more than 160 people living in the park into hotel rooms rented by the city under the Project Roomkey program and other forms of interim housing.

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“As time went on, conditions at the park became increasingly unsafe for everyone — park visitors and park dwellers,” City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell said in a press release touting the park’s reopening.

“Echo Park Lake is a shared public space, and unhoused people were existing in inhumane conditions.”

O’Farrell was harshly criticized by many homeless people and their advocates for his handling of the park’s closure. The encampment had grown to include a shared pantry, a garden, a measure of self-policing and basic sanitation. It also divided the Echo Park community and became a case study of the conflicts arising in neighborhoods across Los Angeles over the rights to public spaces and the competing interests of the housed and unhoused.

A Times analysis of Los Angeles Police Department records from earlier this year shows that crime increased in 2020, and that throughout last year homeless people were disproportionately the victims of crime at the park.

“The Echo Park community is compassionate and cares deeply about helping people experiencing homelessness receive the services that lead to stability and permanent housing,” O’Farrell said. “But what transpired at Echo Park Lake should not be acceptable to any of us.”

Once the park was closed, sanitation workers boxed and stored people’s possessions. They also removed 35 tons of trash, a city spokeswoman said.

It’s unclear how or if the city plans to keep people from sleeping in the park. A city ordinance prohibits overnight camping in a park, but throughout the pandemic rangers have refrained from ticketing people sleeping beside the lake.

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“When Echo Park Lake reopens, the city will ensure that it remains safe, clean, accessible and secure for all who wish to use this shared public space,” O’Farrell said, adding that there will now be security cameras in the park. “The community can count on that.”

An O’Farrell spokesman didn’t respond to follow-up questions concerning the enforcement of city ordinances in the park. Representatives for the L.A. Recreation and Parks Department, along with Mayor Eric Garcetti, didn’t immediately respond to similar queries.

O’Farrell was seen showing a group of people around the park on Wednesday morning. A woman who attended but declined to give her name said O’Farrell and his staff had given a tour to seniors living nearby.

At one point, O’Farrell stood before a camera crew alongside the lake. Security guards standing at a gate to the fenced park declined to allow a Times reporter to enter.

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Meanwhile Wednesday morning, several former residents of the Echo Park encampment gathered outside City Hall for a news conference held by a new group called Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing denouncing strict curfews and punitive rules at Project Roomkey sites.

“We’re not asking for the world,” said Leonard Averhart, also known as Phoenix, who was one of the unhoused people formerly living at Echo Park Lake. He went into a Project Roomkey hotel room when the park was fenced off.

“We’re just asking to be treated like adults.”

Averhart told the crowd outside City Hall that he hadn’t gotten a case manager and a staffer had barged in on him in the bathroom and challenged him to a fight.

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Others in the program complained that they had suffered harassment, were not given keys to their rooms, or were not allowed to have ordinary items such as cloth towels or utensils.

One woman said a friend in the Roomkey program had committed suicide because of isolation. The group is calling for the program to be overhauled and extended until all participants have permanent housing.

Closing Echo Park Lake “was a success for the politicians and a disaster for the people,” Averhart said.

Zarinah Williams, chair of the Echo Park Neighborhood Council, said she heard the news of the park’s reopening date on Twitter. She complained that it fit a pattern of O’Farrell not keeping his constituents in the loop.

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She said she worries that when the fence comes down, the park will become a place where homelessness will be criminalized more than before — where people with dirty clothes or dark skin are targeted by police for sitting too long.

“I worry about overpolicing and profiling taking place and that there’s a culture shift to removing people by force,” she said.

However, Delia Ibarra, a lawyer who has lived in Echo Park for more than 20 years, said she was excited for the park’s reopening and to be able to jog around the lake again. She stopped doing so as the encampment grew and the cleanliness of the park declined. She said she witnessed fights and other illegal activity in or near the park over the last year.

A photo of a knife fight between two unhoused people that appeared in The Times before the park closed resonated with her because, she said, it took place near where she used to run. It made her feel unsafe, and she stopped bringing her niece and nephew to visit the geese — even as she felt a great deal of sympathy for the homeless people who had pitched tents along the path around the lake.

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“We need to get these people permanent housing immediately. We also need more interim housing, but I don’t know that it should be in a public park with so many visitors,” she said. “There are people who walk here from the south side of the 101 Freeway who live in tiny apartments and they really need the park. I’m thinking about the two-bedroom apartments with two families in them. They need a place to come. They need a place their kids can come to play that’s safe and outside.”


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