From the May-June 2021 issue of News & Letters
Los Angeles—On March 24, around 200 activists protested against a surprise eviction of the tent encampment in Echo Park, with just a one-day warning from Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s office. That evening, around 40 police cars surrounded the park, and police in riot gear pressured the tented folks to pack their stuff.
Buses were sent in to take people to hotels and motels which had, since March 2020, been contracted with the city to provide temporary beds for displaced individuals. Many resisted leaving their tents, and were allowed to stay until the next morning, as fencing was put up all around the park. Helicopters circled overhead, two at a time, for 36 hours.
On March 25, 182 protesters and even reporters and lawyers were arrested for unlawful assembly and failure to disperse. Some of the houseless individuals who still refused to leave were also arrested.
There is antagonism between houseless people and the families and businesses close to them, here in Los Angeles. The real culprits are more powerful. For poor communities to scapegoat even poorer people is the way that the 1% keep us fighting for space and resources while they throw us bones.
About five years ago the tents started settling along the west side of the artificial lake in Echo Park. For a while the locals did not complain much. Those within the tent community took measures to regulate behaviors and to delegate chores, cleaning responsibilities and food preparation. A fully equipped kitchen tent was built, in wood and canvas with a stove, barbecue and refrigerator. Sofas were set up, and flower and vegetable gardens were planted neatly next to some tents.
MUTUAL AID IN THE PARK
Many people pooled their resources to share food, provided useful information to each other, and protected tent neighbors from aggressors—during the past year there have been four deaths in the tent community, by overdose or murder. People who had acted destructively were sometimes banned.
Most residents of the surrounding community in online debates took sides either for the homeless or for the local housed residents. Only a few voices spoke up to support both housed residents and tented individuals, and to demand that our taxes be used more effectively to assist mentally ill and addicted people to access better housing and mental health services.
Among the houseless there were clearly people with disabling addictions and emotional challenges, but others had fallen on hard times due to economic hardship. The number of tents had grown from around 10 in 2019 to around 40 and about 200 people, as the pandemic progressed—in spite of various temporary (and extremely regulated and restrictive) housing offerings by the city.
Most of the residents in the immediate area are first or second-generation immigrant families from Central America and Mexico, and often live in cramped quarters, so the park has been an essential space for social get-togethers and exercise. As a result of the growing population of houseless people at the park, many local residents had stopped going there.
My favorite time to walk at the park had been dusk, but the pathway had become dark due to people pulling the wires of street lamps to power their heaters, refrigerators, crockpots and phone chargers. So I had stopped walking within the park boundaries.
A young mother who used to meet me with her son at the play area has refused to spend time there. I was told that the park bathrooms were now used regularly for sexual encounters and drug use, even during the day.
During daytime walks last year I twice saw packs of rats in the tent area. Lately I have seen a decrease in wild birds, and I worry about the condition of the water habitat for frogs, turtles, fish, and waterfowl.
SKYROCKETING HOUSING COSTS IN LA
There are at least 40,000 homeless people currently in Los Angeles County as housing costs have gone sky high. As a mental health worker at a program assisting the unhoused, and having personal friends who are, or have been, houseless, I am acutely aware of the many emotional, financial, and systemic barriers affecting people without homes.
In 2016 the City of LA, by a public vote, earmarked up to $1.2 billion to develop permanent as well as temporary housing for struggling people. Very little permanent housing has been built. Temporary housing involves strict curfews, some case management and counseling, and requires clients to improve their conditions and become independently housed within a few months. These short-term solutions are insignificant in the face of increasing poverty and health problems throughout society.