Authorities on Wednesday night moved to close down a homeless encampment in Echo Park that has become a highly charged test of city leaders’ struggle to balance constituents’ demands for clean streets and public spaces with the ever-growing tragedy of people who have no homes.
Scores of police moved into the area, where they were met by more than 200 protesters who oppose the sweep. The Los Angeles Police Department repeatedly told protesters to leave, and by early Thursday morning, the crowd had dwindled and the protest had mostly wound down.
Just before 10 p.m., park rangers, flanked by LAPD officers, began taping notices of closure onto trees and light poles on the east side of the park, where homeless people have been camping throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The signs said the park closes Thursday and gave notice that all personal property must be removed from the park, “including, but not limited to, tents, chairs, tables, backpacks, bags, and personal items…”
City contractors protected by LAPD officers unloaded fence from flatbed trucks. Flood lights helped guide their work as they pounded the panels of fence into the ground. Once it was up, the workers unfurled green fabric and hung it along the fence.
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said homeless residents inside the park will be allowed to stay there overnight but that no one else can enter. The encampment residents must leave within 24 hours, he added.
Some protesters saw that statement as a victory. “We won the night,” one organizer shouted.
“I live here and I consider tonight a victory,” added one resident of the camp.
Police just before 10:30 gave a dispersal order to the crowd through a loudspeaker from a white truck, officially declaring an “unlawful assembly.”
There were some clashes, with police seen shoving some protesters and some bottles and other objects thrown at officers. Police tried to push protesters back from the park but they refused to move.
At one point, a line of police officers in riot gear moved slowly along Glendale Boulevard at the edge of the lake, telling protesters to “Clear the area!”
The protesters, a mix of homeless people and activists who have taken up their cause, refused to budge, and chanted back: “Whose park? Our park!”
The crowd then began chanting, “Why are you in riot gear? I don’t see no riot here!”
By 12:30 a.m., the number of protesters had dwindled to about 40, watched over by several hundred police.
Some residents of the encampment were saying they would not leave. But others decided it was time to go.
Edward Juarez dismantled a tent on the east side of the park as dozens of officers massed across the street. Park rangers, accompanied by police, taped signs to trees that said Juarez and others who lived in the park had to clear out by 10:30 pm Thursday.
Juarez, who has lived in the park since August, said the tent belonged to a friend who’d been placed last week at a hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Juarez, a professional photographer who said he lost his livelihood when the pandemic shut down concerts and other nightlife events he worked, said he planned to stay the night somewhere else, maybe on Alvarado Street or at a friend’s house.
“I just want to get out of here, it’s getting crazy,” he said, nodding toward the officers wearing helmets and carrying batons across the street.
Juarez said police officers came to the park last week and said the city planned to clear the park, although they didn’t tell him when the sweep would happen.
“It’s what it is,” he said. “What else are you going to do?”
Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell said the LAPD “was asked to support community safety efforts during installation of the fencing to assist in the rehabilitation of Echo Park. Department personnel are deployed in that area so that those efforts can begin in a safe and unimpeded manner.”
He added that homeless services providers would be back in the park Thursday to “work with the park’s unhoused residents to offer shelter and services to anyone who wants and needs the assistance.”
The SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition late Wednesday demanded the closure be postponed so residents “have the necessary time to meaningfully connect with service providers who are working tirelessly to serve them.”
As protests erupted on the west side of the park, senior officials with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority moved through the parks dimly lit and dead quiet eastern part. They sought out the 30-50 homeless people they estimate remain here.
They found one couple who jumped at the opportunity to go to a downtown hotel and quickly called them a Lyft.
“Let’s meet at their tent. We have to figure out what to do with their stuff,” LAHSA executive director Heidi Marston said to one of her colleagues as they waited for them to depart.
Marston was angry with how the park’s closure had been rolled out and communicated to homeless people. They need time and ample warning before something like this could take place, she said.
“It’s about setting expectations, being clear And giving them options,” Marston said. That wasn’t possible here, she said. The couple they got to a hotel were the only people who wanted to go tonight. She hoped more would go Thursday.
“If you’re gonna close the park be clear. It doesn’t mean we need take people by surprise,” she said.“It facilitates fear, chaos and it breaks the trust we built. It seems like it didn’t need to happen this way.”
The LAPD issued a statement urging “calm and cooperation as the installation of fencing in support of the Echo Park rehabilitation effort continues. Unfortunately officers have received projectiles and refusals from individuals blocking streets in the area.”
The department denied claims from some that officers used tear gas. “There is NO tear gas being used,” the department said on Twitter. None was evident.
While other large homeless encampments have been shut down with less fanfare, the future of the one at Echo Park is emerging as a flashpoint in the city’s struggle with homelessness.
Unlike in some previous sweeps, when the city has temporarily displaced homeless people to clean up an area, it is trying to move people from Echo Park permanently. To do that humanely, it is offering shelter through Project Roomkey, a state program that has reserved thousands of hotel rooms for homeless people.
Some residents of the camp have agreed to go. But others are vowing to stay and resist eviction. They argue that the park, nestled in a small canyon with a breathtaking view of the downtown skyline, has been elevated by the homeless residents and their allies as a place of beauty that gives those living there the dignity and safety they could not find on sidewalks and under freeways.
Park residents and their advocates, who held a protest Wednesday morning, argue that they have turned the encampment into a model, with a pantry, a garden and some effort among residents to coordinate cleaning.
“This park could have easily been MacArthur [Park] or skid row, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t. That was because of us — not you,” one longtime resident, Ayman Ahmed, told O’Farrell. The 20-something Ahmed has become an unofficial spokesman for the encampment.
But the camp has drawn the ire of neighbors. And some city leaders argue they are not simply pushing people out but are offering them better accommodations.
“You define a sweep as moving someone indoors to a safe, clean environment where they will be provided free, healthy meals, receive medical care and a path to wellness, then you can call it what you want,” O’Farrell said later in the day. “Because this is what we are doing for everyone who has been there over the last several weeks or months.”
As the encampment grew last year to nearly 200 tents and covered nearly half the park, many residents of the surrounding hillsides demanded that O’Farrell do something about an intrusion of trash, drug use and crime in their neighborhood, which he represents.
O’Farrell has long said he would close the park and repair any damage, but he resisted requests to publicly commit to a timetable.
While outreach workers have been telling people in the park for weeks that they would eventually have to leave, the decision to act this week remained a tight secret until it leaked through unidentified sources to The Times and activists supporting the homeless encampments. The activists said O’Farrell hoped to keep the date quiet to avoid a backlash and that he obtained an opinion from City Attorney Mike Feuer that only 24 hours’ notice would be required to enforce the 10:30 p.m. park curfew.
Feuer’s office said it provided advice but would not say what the advice was.
The campers and their advocates began a vigil Wednesday, anticipating that police would arrive at night or early in the morning to begin ticketing.
For the second consecutive day, volunteers from groups like Streetwatch and workers from nonprofits such as Urban Alchemy and PATH circulated in the park, recruiting campers to get on shuttle buses making the short trip downtown to three hotels at undisclosed locations.
Somewhat complicating matters on Wednesday, outreach workers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority were not allowed to enter the park.
“It’s for the safety of our teams. We’re worried about the protests,” said a LAHSA spokesman, Christopher Lee.
Leaders among those who declined the shelter said they expected from 20 to 50 people to defend what they believe is their right to live in the public park.
As tension over the expected sweep built during the week, Mayor Eric Garcetti took a back seat to the councilman from his former district, issuing a statement Tuesday that he was working with O’Farrell to ensure all people in the park are offered appropriate housing or shelter and are “given the opportunity to claim or store their property.”
More than 150 homeless people and activists massed in the park by 7 a.m. Wednesday to castigate the planned closure. Homeless people have been camping in the park since late 2019, but their numbers have grown substantially during the pandemic.
Since news of the park closure broke, O’Farrell’s office has been flooded with angry calls and emails. In the park, encampment residents mingled with the community and decried the city’s response to homelessness writ large.
The group marched to O’Farrell’s district office on Sunset Boulevard, a block away, where Ahmed argued that since parks are on public land, they should be used for the public good. He criticized the secrecy that accompanied the planned closure and informed people they’d be staying the night.
“Whoever can be here, please sleep over,” he said. “We need to tell Mitch this has got to stop.”
Once the speakers were finished, the group marched back to the park and planned to paper it with signs as they waited for the authorities to arrive.
The city is offering to move people from the encampment to hotel rooms it is renting temporarily under a state program, Project Roomkey. Ahmed spoke of it in dark terms, claiming without evidence that it was lining the pockets of elected officials and wasn’t helping people who need it the most. He said the closure of the park would only add to the problems of the people who have been staying there.
Ahmad Chapman, a spokesman for the homeless services agency, said that on Monday and Tuesday, outreach workers from the organization moved 44 people from the lake into hotels.
Throughout the morning Wednesday, buses ferried people to a downtown hotel, ultimately taking another 15 to 20 former park residents.
Homeless services workers have quietly expressed frustration about the speed and secrecy of the cleanup and closure plan. They have said it makes it harder to help their clients.
Several people phoned into a City Council meeting Wednesday to rail against the closure plan, including protesters dialing in from the Echo Park demonstration.
“Mitch, if you continue down this path, to sweep and displace unhoused residents of Echo Park Lake, there’s going to be an escalation that you are not prepared for,” warned Ricci Sergienko of the activist group People’s City Council, which has repeatedly staged protests outside the homes of council members.
Ahmed urged O’Farrell to work with the residents, arguing that they had worked to throw away trash and clean the area.
At the end of the meeting, O’Farrell complained that there had been “a concentrated and coordinated effort” to spread disinformation and disrupt efforts to get people into housing. The councilman said there had been months of effort to build relationships with people living in the park and get them into housing, ahead of “the temporary and necessary closure of the park facility so crews can begin extensive repairs.”
He denounced the idea that the encampment was somehow utopian or “commune-like,” citing a phrase in one Times article. “The park has, in fact, devolved into a dangerous, chaotic environment for all users,” O’Farrell said, noting that there had been four deaths there.
Some of those at the park welcomed the prospect of a hotel room.
Slumped on the sidewalk on a street just north of the park, Clifford French, who had been staying in the park for four months, said he was excited to get a room. After arriving from Nevada and riding the buses and walking the streets for a week, he came to the lake after a friend told him it was a safe place to stay.
The 41-year-old said homelessness quickly becomes about surviving rather than thriving. The simple acts of keeping clean and staying fed consumed his time. French looked forward to a bed and being able to take a shower. He hoped the stability might give him the chance to look for a job or sign up for benefits. But still he wondered about the people who weren’t lucky enough to get a room.
“The park was a nice place to stay. I loved the sun, the fountain and the people,” he said. “It’s hard to know where these people will go.”
Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes, Dakota Smith and Richard Winton contributed to this report.