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Editorial: If L.A. wants homeless people out of Echo Park Lake, then give them housing

Tents are set up at an Echo Park homeless encampment.
Tents sit at a homeless encampment in Echo Park in January 2020.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Nestled in a sprawl of greenery, Echo Park Lake has become one of the city’s largest homeless encampments — testing whether a popular public park could be divided between daytime visitors strolling and swan boating and all-night campers making their homes in dozens of tents. Make that scores of tents — at its peak, there were 174 in the encampment.

Although all parks in Los Angeles have nighttime curfews and rules against camping, city authorities — understandably — did not enforce those rules last year in Echo Park as a pandemic raged and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned against moving homeless people. According to the CDC, such displacement increased their risk of getting COVID-19 unless the city could offer something safer than group shelter.

But lately, the park has become the battleground pitting advocates for homeless people, who point out that there isn’t enough shelter and housing for the city’s estimated 41,000 homeless residents, against community residents fed up with the trash and the loss of park space. Other community residents, including the president of the Echo Park Neighborhood Council, are frustrated that the city hasn’t done enough to help house the homeless people who sought refuge in the park.

L.A. City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, whose district includes the lake, has been promising for weeks that he would find interim housing for the tent dwellers, then close the park to everyone for repairs. In a recent interview with The Times, he did not say specifically what would happen to people who refused to leave the park. Meanwhile, city officials have been loath to say when exactly the park will be closed, fearing a confrontation with protesters who support letting homeless people stay — and who recently have been gathering in the park in numbers far larger than the homeless people there.

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Some of the protesters accuse the city of simply moving the homeless people out without regard to their safety, but the opposite appears to be the case. Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority outreach workers have been working in the park for weeks, trying to get people into a downtown hotel in the Project Roomkey program the city has been running for about a year. Some are being moved into a hotel that the city has bought through the Project Homekey program. Others are being offered vouchers to cover the cost of a motel room. All of these are temporary solutions — but, yes, they are preferable to a permanent tent on the grass at Echo Park Lake.

The lack of transparency, particularly on the part of O’Farrell, has only made this situation more charged. Everyone — tent dwellers, advocates and residents — should know when the park is about to be closed for weeks. The perception that the city is trying to do something in secret has led the advocates to assume the worst.

In fact, about 108 people from the Echo Park encampment have been placed in interim housing so far. Although some homeless people remain, the massive push to shelter the campers at the lake is remarkable and welcome.

Now the city appears poised to clear and close Echo Lake Park. But it should not do so until every single homeless person there has been offered a safe, individual space — preferably in a hotel room or a motel room. That doesn’t mean an offer for a bed in a group shelter. And that definitely doesn’t mean forcing someone to a sidewalk or underpass somewhere. That’s not an offer. That’s being shooed away.

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Chances are good that some people will refuse the interim housing that’s offered, and then will be forced to leave the park. The park isn’t a campground and shouldn’t be one. But with the pandemic still raging, this is hardly an ideal time to move anyone from one outdoor location to another. At least there’s been an effort to deliver COVID-19 vaccinations to the tent dwellers.

This entire situation is a grim reminder that homelessness is an extraordinarily complicated issue. The need for permanent housing and for counseling is desperate in this city and county. And if Los Angeles doesn’t get a grip on it soon, other people will find more spots in the city’s grassy parks.


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