A day after advocates for the homeless protested the heavy police presence overseeing installation of a high fence around Echo Park Lake, authorities followed through with a planned clearing of the encampment.
LOS ANGELES (CN) — Hundreds of advocates for the homeless protested outside Los Angeles’ Echo Park Lake on Thursday as a massive police presence presided over a city-sanctioned clearing of a houseless community.
Jerome Davis, 50, has been sleeping in the homeless camp for over a week. The camp provided food, access to social workers, showers, a community garden and a relatively safe place to sleep.
As city workers cleared the park on a cold evening, Davis stood without his jacket, his tent and other belongings that were locked behind a police-guarded fence lining the public park.
“They said I could leave to get some food,” Davis, who has been homeless for over 20 years, said in an interview with Courthouse News. “No one told me I couldn’t come back to get my things. I just want my jacket.”
Without his belongings and unsure where he would sleep Thursday night, Davis embodies the aftermath that advocates feared would come from a rushed clearing of the park: confusion, lack of access to promised city services and further harm.
Los Angeles officials said Thursday the park had been mostly cleared and at least 200 of the homeless community’s inhabitants were either placed in winter shelters, moved into hotel rooms temporarily or offered a “transitional” housing unit that provides health services.
In a state where more than 161,000 people are sleeping on the street on any given night, Los Angeles is at the forefront of the housing and homelessness crisis.
The challenges associated with getting tens of thousands of people off the street — where an estimated four houseless people die each day — and into housing have only compounded during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last year, homelessness countywide increased by 13% over the prior year, rising to more than 66,000 people living on the street in a region where an estimated 150 people fall into homelessness each day.
The city and county have faced lawsuits over their actions on homelessness and were recently ordered by a federal judge to ramp up temporary and permanent housing options.
The county is far from its goal of housing 10,000 homeless people in hotel rooms subsidized through the state-sponsored Project Roomkey.
As of Monday, 1,700 rooms in the program were occupied and just under 3,000 rooms were “under contract,” according to county data.
For years, LA authorities have ordered controversial “sweeps” of encampments while claiming homeless people are being offered temporary housing and shelter beds.
LA City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who represents the district Echo Park is located in, repeated that claim Thursday, saying in a statement that at least 120 have been offered “transitional housing” this month.
O’Farrell said the so-called “sweep” of the Echo Park encampment is a necessary prerequisite for a nearly $500,000 renovation that will supposedly clean and revamp the park.
“Everyone who visits Echo Park Lake, including people experiencing homelessness, are at great risk in this dangerous environment, and we have identified housing solutions for everyone who has consistently lodged there since January,” O’Farrell said.
O’Farrell’s office also said the park has become “very dangerous” for all residents, adding that a string of reported deaths, drug use and violence have made the park inaccessible.
Echo Park residents refuted that narrative and joined the protests Thursday.
Kate Linnell, a 20-year resident of Echo Park told Courthouse News she was joining the protests in solidarity with homeless people who she says have suffered more than most during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The state needs to do the right thing: to look at this as though it’s happening to them,” Linnell said. “They’re here because the park is safe. It’s so much safer than being under a freeway.”
Linnell, who lives steps away from the park and has dropped off food and clothes donations to the camp in the past, said the city should have worked with organizations to provide direct support to camp residents.
Advocates for the homeless say Thursday’s police-led sweep amounts to criminalization of people who are poor, or living with mental illness or addiction, or fleeing trauma, or all of those.
A statement by the Echo Park Tent Community shared online said residents have faced near constant harassment for months by police.
“The biggest pandemic in years actually turned out to be a blessing for us,” the statement said. “Without the constant LAPD and city harassment uprooting our lives we’ve been able to grow.”
On Wednesday night, hundreds of officers descended onto the park as city crews began installing thousands of feet of high fencing.
Amid the chaos, confusion reigned over whether homeless people still sleeping in the park behind the newly erected fencing would be allowed to stay.
LA Police Department Chief Michel Moore provided some clarity, saying in a tweet that people already camping in the park could stay until the official clearing operation Thursday.
“Our people remain in the area around Echo Park tonight as fencing is installed,” Moore tweeted Wednesday. “Those already inside the park in tents will be allowed to remain overnight. No one else may enter.”
Moore repeated the city’s message that temporary housing options are being offered to every resident of the camp and that they all received 24-hour notice to clear the park before a final sweep.
Police shut down streets leading to the park Wednesday night and provided confusing directions to protesters seeking to comply with orders to disperse before mass arrests were made.
An LAPD spokesperson said one woman was arrested, cited and later released Wednesday after police said she failed to comply with an order to disperse.
For protesters, the police presence was an unwelcomed escalation of an issue they say should be addressed directly by city health and housing agencies.
The department said in a statement Thursday two officers documented their use of force against protesters but that no injuries to demonstrators or officers were reported.
“The department continues to be committed to supporting our social service partners and elected officials in being the lead in providing shelter and services for those persons experiencing homelessness,” the spokesperson said.
As police were pressing further into the crowd of protesters Wednesday evening, LA City Council member Nithya Raman posted a tweet critical of the planned sweep.
Raman said the clearing of the camp would damage the potential for a collaborative effort by the city and organizations to house every resident there.
“We can make that effort together,” Raman tweeted. “But a mass eviction tonight, during a still-ongoing pandemic, would throw the opportunity away.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines during the Covid-19 pandemic recommend that authorities leave encampments intact if housing is not immediately available and to improve sanitation facilities in the interim.
“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the guideline said. “This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
After reading the CDC recommendations on her phone Thursday, Linnell said keeping the camp intact and supported with services should’ve been at the center of the city’s strategy.
“We should be supporting people who are already experiencing so much strife in their lives,” Linnell said. “Clearing this camp during a pandemic is criminal.”
On Friday morning, the two remaining residents of the camp were arrested by LAPD after refusing the city’s housing offers, the department said in a statement, which added that over 180 protesters and legal observers with the National Lawyers Guild were arrested.
A number of journalists were arrested or briefly detained by police Thursday evening while they were reporting on the protests, including James Queally, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times; Kate Cagle of Spectrum News; and Jonathan Peltz and Kate Gallagher of Knock LA.
The LAPD statement said two officers sustained minor injuries and that Councilman O’Farrell’s office was vandalized. Officers also documented at least 10 uses of “less lethal” ammunition against protesters.
“The department continues to be committed to supporting our social service partners and elected officials in providing effective shelter and services for those persons experiencing homelessness,” the statement said. “Echo Park remains closed to the public as sanitation crews begin clean-up operations.”
LA City Council member Mike Bonin tweeted his disapproval of the city’s actions, saying the clearing of Echo Park’s homeless community should’ve played out differently.
“A neighborhood in lockdown. Hundreds of cops in riot gear. Reporters being zip-tied and detained. Protesters being kettled and arrested. This is a disgrace and it did not have to happen,” Bonin said on Twitter Friday. “It’s a shameful day for Los Angeles.”