Hundreds of housed and unhoused residents came together in Los Angeles on Wednesday to protest the planned clearing of a homeless community from Echo Park Lake.
After the city announced plans earlier this month to close off Echo Park for repairs — and thus to remove a yearlong community that homeless residents established there — hundreds of people rallied at the park early Wednesday to show their support for their unhoused neighbors.
On Wednesday evening, a heavy police presence descended on the park, and protesters linked arms to block them from the encampment. In the clashes, police arrested one woman. A man said an officer broke his arm with a baton. (A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department told HuffPost that it is “aware of the incident and looking into the matter.”)
Though the encampment was not cleared out Wednesday night, police closed remaining residents in with fencing surrounding the park, only allowing individuals out or escorting people in if they were removing belongings.
The tent community that grew over the past year during the coronavirus pandemic often had dozens of people living there, and residents had organized a garden, a pantry, showers and more. Housed allies provided other support, such as portable batteries to charge phones, said Kelvin Martinez, a member of the homelessness solidarity group Street Watch LA.
Only about a dozen or so residents remain in tents at the site. Many have been moved into transitional housing or shelters by the city, and others have chosen to leave to avoid an expected law enforcement sweep, Martinez said.
Now homeless residents and advocates are concerned about the city’s planned clearing of the camp Thursday night. A notice states that starting at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, “all personal property,” including tents and bags, “will be removed.”
Activists had planned a peaceful vigil Thursday evening outside Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office to protest the sweep. O’Farrell’s district includes Echo Park.
“To Mitch O’Farrell, our demand is simply this; please continue to leave us alone, or stand with us,” the Echo Park homeless community wrote in a statement earlier this week.
In the homeless community’s statement, the Echo Park residents wrote that they’d had “nothing but each other this past year and it’s honestly been a relief.”
“Without the constant LAPD and city harassment uprooting our lives we’ve been able to grow. To come together as a community, not just unhoused but housed as well and work together for the mutual aid and benefit of each other,” the community members wrote, urging O’Farrell to “ignore us as if we didn’t exist, much like you’ve been doing... or come out and stand with us.”
O’Farrell said more than 160 people who resided in the Echo Park Lake encampment had been moved into shelters or hotel rooms under the state’s Project Roomkey program, meant to provide non-congregate settings to temporarily house people during the pandemic.
Fellow City Councilmember Nithya Raman denounced the sweep, saying that “while I’ve been happy to see so many people from the lake being housed over the last few days, a forced and sudden eviction is not the way to move forward now.”
O’Farrell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
California has long faced an affordable housing crisis and has seen its rates of homelessness spike in recent years.
People experiencing homelessness are particularly at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, since living in congregate settings like shelters or encampments can make it difficult to socially distance. They also have more barriers to health care and report higher rates of health conditions, such as asthma and chronic bronchitis, placing them at greater risk for severe cases of COVID-19.
And people of color, who are disproportionately hospitalized and dying from the coronavirus, are also disproportionately represented among California’s homeless.
Martinez noted that “hotels and shelters are not gonna work for everybody” who is living in tent encampments and that people should not be “coerced into shelters.” Some people choose to live in tent communities because they may not feel safe in shelters. The hotel rooms also have curfews and other regulations that can leave people “feeling infantilized,” as he put it.
“It’s not that they don’t want services; it’s that they want some recognition that the community space they’ve been cultivating is one that has a lot of support,” Martinez said of the Echo Park tent community. “There’s a lot of stability people receive being in community, waking up next to neighbors who know your name.”
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