Activists, homeless protest against planned clearing of Echo Park Lake

People experiencing homelessness in Echo Park are holding their ground as recent news has circulated that the city might clear out and shut down the park for repairs.
ECHO PARK, LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Hundreds of advocates for the homeless gathered at Echo Park Lake Wednesday to protest plans by the city to clear a large homeless encampment from the park and close the area for what's being described as more than a half-million-dollars in repair work.

According to Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell's office, the city is closing the park to repair more than $500,000 in damage to lighting and plumbing, removal of hazardous material and public safety improvements.

An exact closure date hasn't been confirmed, with O'Farrell's office stating only that "closure notices will be posted soon.'' The Los Angeles Times reported the encampment of unhoused people at the park will be cleared by Thursday and fences will be installed to keep the park closed for renovations.

About four dozen homeless people are still living in the park, although as many as 100 were believed to be residing there earlier this year, with some already relocated by the city through various housing programs.

Massive homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake could be cleared out this week

Those who gathered Wednesday morning blasted the city for efforts to force the homeless out of an area that has grown into a supportive community. In the midst of the tents alongside the lake, a large sign read, "We refuse to be swept into dark corners.''

Many carried signs with slogans such as House keys, not handcuffs" and "Homeless doesn't mean worthless."

"If you close this park the way they're planning on doing, not only will you leave people without homes, that have nowhere else to go, that will not qualify for programs, that have already lost everything," one woman said. "If you see people homeless in this park, it's because these are the people that got hit worst by this pandemic, by the situations of life, by whatever happened."

A resident of the park called into the City Council meeting Wednesday to tell council members that the park's residents are "tired of basically being treated like we're nobodies.''

"We're tired of being treated like we're less than human all because of a pandemic and the consequences of the pandemic has caused a couple of people to lose their houses,'' she said.

She added that housing is a human right.

Homeless advocates have argued that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against clearing encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic, because it could "cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.''

O'Farrell told reporters during an unrelated news conference Tuesday that the city will follow all U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines when preparing the park for the renovation work, and efforts are being made to find housing for everyone who has been living there since January.

He did not provide details about what type of housing would be provided or when it would happen, but said the city previously housed more than 100 of the park's residents. He said Wednesday morning that more than 120 people had now been moved into transitional housing, including Project Roomkey and Project Homekey sites.

"Our efforts to build relationships with the unhoused individuals at the Lake have been ongoing for months, taking much time, sensitivity and care. Our outreach workers must be able to continue engaging with the unhoused at the Lake -- individuals who have asked for and want a safe, secure place to sleep each night,'' O'Farrell said.

Participants in Wednesday's protest gathered at the park, then marched to O'Farrell's district office. There were no reports of any disturbances or arrests.

The group plans to hold a 24-hour vigil "to seek citywide cooperation and support in coming days to stop the shutdown of L.A.'s largest self-run homeless haven.''

O'Farrell's office released the following statement, in part:

"We have partnered with LAHSA and its service partners to identify rooms under Project RoomKey, Project Homekey, as well as shelter beds, and in recent weeks we have placed more than 100 people living at the lake into safe housing and shelter. Those efforts are ongoing."

The park's community -- which has created a vegetable garden, working showers and a kitchen -- has been praised by activists as a self-run, diverse community of housed and unhoused residents of the neighborhood.

"Echo Park Lake, situated on Tongva Land, has been a haven of this community since its development and should remain a free and accessible place for members of this community who need it for solace, leisure or survival,'' Zarinah Williams, president of the Echo Park Neighborhood Council, said in a statement to City News Service. "We do not feel that $500,000 in restorative landscaping is a priority endeavor given layered consequences of displacement and criminalization of our residents.''

Several people called into Tuesday's City Council meeting to speak about the move to close the park.

"I applaud the efforts of (the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority) to place folks into (Project Roomkey) sites, but as we all know, eligibility for the program is limited,'' said Sachin Medhekar, organizing committee member for the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition. "I'm urging you to not displace the over 100 folks that reside at the lake, especially during this ongoing pandemic and to instead focus on connecting folks with a variety of services and housing options they deserve.''

David Busch-Lilly has been homeless for 20 years and lives in the park.

"I've slept on the streets for the last 10 years in Venice, until the last seven months here and it felt like a retreat," said Busch-Lilly.

Programs like Project Roomkey and Project Homekey are not an option that many people living in the park want to accept.

"These hotel rooms last three to six months, and then they tell you you're gonna go to a congregate shelter where you're gonna be separated from your partner, your pets, your possessions," said Busch-Lilly.

Riley Montgomery has lived in Echo Park for eight years.

"People decided that Echo Park was the safest place to set up an encampment and they set up an encampment here, and it grew and grew and it made it so unsafe for residents to live here," said Montgomery.

He created a petition on petition.org calling on O'Farrell to house those experiencing homelessness and restore the park. It has more than 4,000 signatures.

"We paid $45 million in taxpayer dollars to make this lake a place that everyone can enjoy. And now it's a place that only a few select people can enjoy," said Montgomery.

A woman who identified herself as a resident of the Echo Park neighborhood said she supported the clearing of the park and closure for renovations.

"I personally have not visited the park in over a year because it doesn't feel sanitary or safe,'' she said. "I also worry that the $45 million investment the city made to rehabilitate the park is being wasted.''



City News Service contributed to this report.
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