When police entered Los Angeles’ Echo Park on the night of March 25th, with the purpose of forcefully evicting the homeless community that had settled there, it was a fraught moment. It seemed as if the city had reached some sort of symbolic nadir in battling a host of related issues: homelessness, mental health, affordable housing, access to parks, equity, even NIMBYism. Curbed California correspondent Alissa Walker, who has covered this turf for the better part of the decade, reported that night from the scene, filing a terrific piece the following day: Last Night in Echo Park. Recently I reached out to Walker to talk about the mass eviction and what it means for the larger issues of homelessness and affordable housing in L.A.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
AW: Alissa Walker
That was an impressive, old-school piece of reporting. It was like there was a four-alarm fire in the neighborhood, and you were covering it in real time. That’s hard to do: to get it right, on a tight deadline, and still have it also possess some form and grace. Congratulations.
Thank you. It was emotional and exhausting.
I watched this event from 2,000 miles away on Instagram. And I thought, “Holy shit, what’s going on? This feels like a watershed event.” Did you have that sense?
Yes, for two reasons. I’ve been following developments in the park for years. This is the park that I go to with my family. It was closed for a long time, for this big renovation project, only six years ago. The Lake was drained. They made all these infrastructural improvements and tried to make it one of the jewels of the city park system. But we’ve also witnessed, at the same time, how much the neighborhood around was changing. A lot of the park was redesigned for those newcomers moving there. Echo Park has been a Latino community, working-class, for generations. It is now much whiter and much wealthier.
And suddenly they got a great park.
Exactly. That part of the narrative was always a bit disarming for me, as someone who had been here for a while, but was not a native. Because what we also started to see was how many people were falling into homelessness in these neighborhoods. It was clear that where you saw a lot of change happening, new housing being built, it wasn’t intended for people who already lived in the community. Sometimes the older housing stock was razed, and people were displaced from what was formerly affordable, perhaps even rent-controlled, buildings. I’ve met a lot of people in the neighborhood who are living in their cars or living in tents.
Were a lot of people who were living in the park former residents of the neighborhood?
I talked to a lot of people who did live in Echo Park, but also others who didn’t. The Lake was well-known as a safe place, where no one would be turned away unless they caused trouble. There was a real community there. Six months ago, I wrote about it in a story about Theo Henderson, who is an amazing journalist, a great activist, who is unhoused. And he does this podcast—We The Unhoused—and I had first connected with him, at the very beginning of Covid, reporting on a story about what the city was doing about the 60,000 people living outside.
Is that the official number?
Over 60,000 in the homeless count for L.A. County, with a majority unsheltered, the largest unsheltered population in the country. We didn’t do a homeless count in January this year because of the pandemic. So I assure you, that number is much higher. There are people who are still getting evicted, even though they’re not supposed to. A lot of people would like to paint the park as a dark place, full of scary, dangerous people. And that’s not to say this was some kind of utopia. There were people who died in that park. In fact, four unhoused people die every day in L.A. County. There were people who were violent, but that violence was committed against the people who were living in the park. It’s a dangerous time to be living outside, but even more so now: you’ve got a pandemic, and you’ve got a lot more people who are out there. And especially when you get moved around and spend the night next to somebody that you weren’t sleeping next to the night before. That creates conflicts sometimes. So that’s another good reason not to have a mass eviction like this at this time.
But the people living in the park had planted a garden. They had a communal kitchen. There was a wedding held in the park for members who lived there. Despite the many challenges, this was a real community. They had a lot of rules and had a lot of outreach into the surrounding neighborhoods.
There must have been a fair percentage of people who had been living in the park more or less permanently, some for as long as a year.
Definitely. Just prior to the pandemic, I would say the number of tents doubled. And over the last three months, I would say the number of tents doubled again. But this is not specific to Echo Park. You can see it everywhere you go in the city.
What was the precipitating event that made the city forcibly evict the homeless? The L.A. Times ran a story saying the city was clearing the park in advance of an event.
There’s a few theories. The Lotus Festival takes place in July, and there was talk about how we might actually have it in person this year. It was canceled last year. So the park supposedly needed to be cleaned. Theo Henderson’s theory was that the Covid tier had dropped from purple to red, which meant that a lot more things were permitted. If the city wanted to do something about the park, now was the time to do it, when it wouldn’t have to worry as much about CDC guidelines. I think there was tremendous pressure from the surrounding homeowners, who had sent these petitions around, met with their councilperson, Mitch O’Farrell, and applied political pressure.
That’s what happens when upper middle-class people move into a neighborhood. They know how to work the system, how to call their councilpersons, write letters, mount campaigns. But still this show of force was such an awful look for the city, and for Mayor Garcetti.
But so many are celebrating it. If you look on these social media platforms, Nextdoor and Facebook groups, there are people who are happy that this happened. They feel very emboldened that the police were able to do this, and they’re requesting similar actions in their communities. And this is where it gets scary, because we’ve had a lot of vigilantism against the unhoused community here in L.A. We’ve had tent camps that have been burned down. Neighbors call the police and concoct stories, as an excuse for displacing homeless people. And it’s not like the police need a reason here. I’m really concerned.
I think it’s terrifying, just because it happened in California, which is a progressive state. We’re in a dark place, as a country, if the city of L.A. is arresting people for being poor and homeless. That’s not good.
The city will say they didn’t arrest anybody besides Ayman Ahmed and David Busch-Lilly; they were the last two residents in the park. But here’s the choice people were given: If you lived in the park, you had to accept an offer of shelter, which was for most temporary. We have this Project Roomkey program, I wrote about it a year ago, that puts people in hotel rooms. They’ve been scaling it down and holding meetings about how to phase it out right now, even though it’s 100% reimbursed by FEMA. The city said they were going to get 15,000 rooms at the beginning of the pandemic. They never had more than 4,000. And now we’re down to 2,000. So, in a way, that program never really happened, and it was only temporary to begin with.
So you can choose temporary lodging, which means you can’t pick what neighborhood you’re in, you have to be in your room at seven o’clock at night, you don’t actually have a key to your room, and you can’t take your pets. For a lot of people, they were in the park precisely because they had pets. So you could either accept that offer or stay in the park that night. If you choose to remain in the park, you’re fenced in, literally, and have to walk out with all of your stuff in the morning to this parade of cops on both sides of you, who are making sure that you don’t have weapons or something else in your bag. And if you accept shelter, you can only take two bags of belongings with you. If you balk at that offer, the city responds, “OK, you didn’t accept our offer, you can’t come back to the park, go away.” Those aren’t options.
Homelessness is not an L.A.-specific problem, but it seems pretty acute there. What are the larger issues? Why is it so severe ?
The California part of this goes back to Ronald Reagan. When he was governor, he wiped out the mental-health system in this state, and then, of course, became president. So we lost the chance, or maybe the desire, to care for people who might not even have the ability to house themselves. We don’t have any kind of support system for that. The second part of this is housing production, or lack of it. Reports say that L.A. County, in particular, needs to build over half a million affordable—truly affordable—units to make up for the fact that we have not built enough housing for all these years. That doesn’t mean affordable for middle-class people. It has to be affordable for people living at the poverty line. It has to be something that people could actually move into when they’re making minimum wage in L.A. County.
Which is $12 an hour?
Actually, it’s $15 for companies with more than 26 employees. We have raised the minimum wage. Still, housing for someone making that much virtually does not exist. It takes years to get projects done. We have two different programs in L.A. that were meant to make up for the fact that the state and the federal housing systems have failed us. We passed two ballot measures, Measures H and HHH, which were intended to build 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing and beef up our outreach infrastructure, the service providers who make those one-on-one connections to get people into housing. The first HHH building was finished in 2020. So we had one finished building after three years, for a measure that was passed in 2016. And now they say: because the cost of building housing has gone up so much, we’re not going to hit 10,000 units. It might be closer to 8,000, but that number goes down every day.
Either way, it’s a drop in the bucket.
Yes! At the same time, the city has spent a lot of money on these Bridge Home shelters. There’s about 20 now across the city, but reports from people who stay in them are not very good: there’s a lot of rules, you can’t bring a lot of belongings in, and after a while you get kicked out, because if you can’t be placed in permanent supportive housing or another situation, well … your time runs out. What I hear a lot of people say is, “It’s called Bridge Home shelter, but really it’s a bridge to nowhere,” because there’s nowhere at the end of the other side of this temporary solution. And the city has spent so much money on that, while ignoring Project Roomkey, which could have taken over hotels during the pandemic using emergency powers. That sounds like a better solution, at least for the past year.
Now the city is trying to buy hotels and apartment buildings outright. But, again, we could have been doing that from the beginning, instead of trying to build 10,000 units from the ground up. None of the right moves were made four years ago, and now we’re really stuck because the city has no money, and we have more people in need. And we still can’t get four- or five-story housing developments built in a lot of neighborhoods, because residents think they’re too big. Because the wealthy neighborhoods, the wealthy white neighborhoods, don’t want “tall” buildings in their neighborhoods. Or lower-income people.
It almost feels like the city wants to willfully wish them out of existence. But where do they think they’ll go?
That is the question. Two days later I walked around the lake, and there were still a bunch of people who were fenced out, telling me: “I have nowhere to go.” “I have no good options here.” “I have more than two bags of stuff.” “I have my dog.” “I have my car.” There was no real plan here, and the fact that it was done in secret is very troubling. There’s always been a real trust issue, because every time the city sends in the service providers, they also send in the cops. That’s part of the deal. And the advocates that I’ve talked to—groups like Street Watch LA, Ktown for All, SELAH, who are really keeping people alive on the streets right now, protecting people, feeding people, bringing them water—they have worked so hard to pressure the city, asking, “Please don’t bring the cops when you do clean ups. Give us our own set of trash cans. Let us help clean these communities together.”
This mass eviction disrupted the relationships that a lot of housing advocates and service providers had spent years creating. The city completely blew it up. And now there’s a complete loss of trust. The idea that cops could be phased out of homeless outreach has completely evaporated. They’ve ruined so many years of work and progress by advocates, who have tried diligently to chip away at the problem and create a more humane approach.
Homelessness is really a political problem. The only thing that can fix it is a government committed to solving the problem. But those are political acts, and there has to be political will. That seems in short supply right now.
Yes. And what the city of L.A. will tell you is that they’ve housed more people than ever. And that is true. They are putting more people into permanent living situations than they ever have before. The problem is, they’re not doing enough to prevent people from losing their homes in the first place. We have an eviction moratorium right now. We have this rental assistance program, which basically gives landlords 80% of the pre-pandemic rent, but some of them don’t want to accept it. So we have all of these programs, but they’re way too late. And once the pandemic ends, once the emergency order ends, I don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t have nearly enough in place to make sure that more people don’t fall into homelessness, and we’re still not building enough new housing, by any definition, to ensure that people will have places to live. This isn’t limited to L.A. County either. Places like San Bernardino County or the Inland Empire are struggling with the same issues, without the backing of a wealthy city, or a very famous mayor trying to solve the problem.
All photos by Matty Neikrug unless otherwise noted.