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Echo Park Lake Displacement

Homeless residents of Echo Park confront Los Angeles police officers moving in to remove people living at the Echo Park Lake homeless encampment in Los Angeles late Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

TO: City Council, City of Los Angeles (CD 1: Gil Cedillo, CD 2: Paul Krekorian, CD 3: Bob Blumenfield, CD 4: Nithya Raman, CD 5: Paul Koretz, CD 6: Nury Martinez, CD 7: Monica Rodriguez, CD 8: Marqueece Harris-Dawson, CD 9: Curren D. Price Jr., CD 10: Mark Ridley-Thomas, CD 11: Mike Bonin, CD 12: John Lee, CD 13: Mitch O’Farrell, CD 14: Kevin de León, CD 15: Joe Buscaino)

Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles

Heidi Marston, Executive Director, LAHSA

FROM: The undersigned faculty, UCLA, USC, UCI, Occidental College

We write to express our grave and urgent concerns about the recent displacement of the homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake. Many of you have either been actively involved in such displacement or supported it through your silent acquiescence. Especially troubling is the Mayor’s statement, suggesting that such displacement serves as a useful precedent and template. As reported by the LA Times on March 27, 2021 “Mayor Eric Garcetti framed the effort as a success, calling it “the largest housing transition of an encampment ever in the city’s history.””

As experts in the fields of urban planning, social work, history, law, public policy, and public health, we strongly disagree with this declaration of success and instead highlight the far-reaching damage wrought by such displacement.

The Echo Park Lake displacement took place in violation of COVID-19 guidelines issued by the CDC for encampments. These call for the provision of sanitation services in encampments and warn against their clearance. On March 29, 2021, the CDC once again issued a temporary halt in all evictions, noting the endangerment of public health through evictions. The Echo Park Lake displacement took place in violation of UN standards and protocols for adequate housing. These prohibit the forced eviction of encampments and informal settlements. Indeed, Leilani Farha, former UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, stated on March 27, 2021: “Echo Park is an example of what happens when govts [sic] don’t understand homeless encampments as human rights claims and homeless people as human rights defenders.”

It was eviction at gunpoint, one that entailed the invasion and closure of the park by a militarized police force and led to “uncertainty, fear, anger” for the homeless residents of Echo Park Lake.

As has been the case more broadly with encampment sweeps in LA, the homeless residents of Echo Park Lake lost invaluable and irreplaceable personal items, including vital documents necessary for access to jobs and social services. It is worth noting that, in April 2020, US District Judge Fischer ruled for a group of unhoused individuals and the community organization, Ktown for All, who filed a lawsuit (Janet Garcia et al. v. City of Los Angeles) challenging the constitutionality of such sweeps and the enabling municipal ordinance, LAMC 56.11.

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, who engineered the Echo Park Lake displacement “under a veil of secrecy,” denying reports by the LA Times that park closure was imminent, claimed in a set of tweets on March 27, 2021, that 209 people experiencing homelessness were placed in “transitional shelter with supportive services.” He, and several of you, have justified the displacement on the basis of such placements. This justification requires careful scrutiny.

First, placements into interim shelter must not be equated with housing people. Without a clear path to permanent housing, such temporary housing serves as yet one more stop in the endless cycle of displacement. Many of the Echo Park Lake placements were made to Project Roomkey hotels and motels, in locations as distant as Palmdale. But, as testimonies by Project Roomkey residents have demonstrated, such shelter is governed by strict curfews and prison-like conditions, requiring those experiencing homelessness to trade their autonomy and dignity for a bed. Further, as the scandal about the city’s neglect to submit FEMA paperwork for Project Roomkey reimbursements has shown, there seems to be neither a plan to transition people from Project Roomkey to permanent housing nor even serious intent to utilize Project Roomkey as a robust form of temporary housing. As of March 22, 2021, Project Roomkey Tracker showed that there were 48,038 unsheltered people in LA County, with 15,000 promised rooms via Project Roomkey, and only 2,261 rooms under contract and even fewer rooms – 1,724 occupied. While Project Homekey might eventually create a more stable housing option, it is miniscule in scope and therefore negligible, especially in the face of growing housing need in Los Angeles. For a glimpse of how people experience this dehumanizing system, read the account of Diana Doo who spoke to journalist Aaron Schrank on March 25, 2021, shortly before the police invasion of Echo Park Lake.

Second, as Diana Doo’s account demonstrates, the Echo Park Lake homeless encampment was a thriving community, with “a community garden, crowd-funded jobs program, and kitchen with free food.” In a city that has criminalized poverty, with numerous municipal ordinances that make it illegal to sleep in one’s car or to own personal property as a person experiencing homelessness, this encampment was a space of refuge, self-determination, and hope. That homeless encampments have become the only safe and reliable form of housing for many Angelenos is a matter for which you hold collective responsibility. It should not be this way, and yet it is, in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Under such circumstances, it behooves us all to understand the role of homeless encampments and why they are often preferable to forms of temporary and unsafe shelter. We draw your attention to this 2020 report, For the Crisis Yet to Come: Temporary Settlements in the Era of Evictions, authored by Hilary Malson and Gary Blasi, which summarizes the academic research on homeless encampments and reviews the history of such encampments in Los Angeles. Indeed, this report anticipates that with the growing crisis of housing precarity and evictions, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the city may have to adopt a policy of sanctioning self-organized encampments, and their use of public space, as a legitimate form of shelter.

Third, we view the displacement of the homeless residents of Echo Park Lake as a forced eviction. Indeed, it was eviction at gunpoint, one that entailed the invasion and closure of the park by a militarized police force and led to “uncertainty, fear, anger” for the homeless residents of Echo Park Lake. It was inevitable that the deployment of hundreds of police officers in riot gear would threaten public safety. One example of this is the mass arrests, including that of several journalists, on the night of March 26, 2021. After a year of racial justice uprisings that drew renewed attention to police violence and demanded a shift of public resources from policing to community well-being, Los Angeles was once again in the national headlines for a police riot. That some of you have sought to present housing justice advocates standing in vigil with the encampment as those instigating violence is a framing wholly contradicted by every media, ACLU, and National Lawyers Guild LA account of the events of March 25-26 at Echo Park Lake, accounts that are too numerous to present here. Indeed, it is your decisions that have irrevocably yoked housing to policing, shattering any modicum of trust that unhoused residents and low-income tenants might have had in city programs and shelters. It has now become clear that the City Council, Mayor’s Office, and LAHSA will deploy militarized policing to manage the crisis of housing precarity and homelessness in Los Angeles.

We reject such an approach as precedent and template. We, the undersigned, are just a fraction of the faculty at UCLA, USC, UCI, and Occidental College outraged by the Echo Park Lake displacement, but we hold specific expertise in matters ranging from housing policy to social services that are directly pertinent to this case. We urge you to recognize and redress the damage done to the Echo Park Lake homeless community through such displacement and to prevent the repetition of such harm elsewhere in the city. The Echo Park Lake displacement was ill-conceived, wrong, and it must not happen again.

Signatures

Ananya Roy—Professor, Urban Planning, Social Welfare, and Geography, UCLA The Meyer and Renee Luskin Chair in Inequality and Democracy Director, UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy PI, National Science Foundation Research Coordination Network on Housing Justice in Unequal Cities

Gary Blasi—Professor Emeritus, UCLA School of Law

Karen Umemoto, Ph.D.—Professor, Departments of Urban Planning and Asian American Studies Helen and Morgan Chu Chair, Asian American Studies Center University of California at Los Angeles

Chandra L. Ford, PhD, MPH, MLIS—Professor, Department of Community Health Sciences Founding Director, Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health Jonathan & Karin Fielding School of Public Health University of California at Los Angeles

Paavo Monkkonen—Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy Luskin School of Public Affairs University of California, Los Angeles

Hannah Appel—Associate Faculty Director, UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy Associate Professor, Anthropology and Global Studies, UCLA

Mark Vestal—Postdoctoral Scholar, Urban Planning, UCLA

Robin D. G. Kelley, PhD—Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History, University of California at Los Angeles

Lisa Schweitzer—Professor Urban Planning &Spatial Analysis Gender & Sexuality Studies University of Southern California

Kian Goh—Assistant Professor, Urban Planning, UCLA

Vinit Mukhija—Professor, Urban Planning, UCLA

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris—Professor, Urban Planning, UCLA Associate Dean, Luskin School of Public Affairs

Stephanie Pincetl—Professor Director California Center for Sustainable Communities Chair Environmental Sciences and Engineering Program Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA

V. Kelly Turner—Assistant Professor of Urban Planning, Luskin School of Public Affairs Associate Director of Urban Environment Research, Luskin Center for Innovation Faculty Affiliate, Institute on Environment and Sustainability University of California Los Angeles

Jon Wiener—Professor Emeritus of History University of California, Irvine

Noah Zatz—Professor of Law UCLA School of Law

David C. Sloane PhD—Professor Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis Price School of Public Policy University of Southern California

Martin Gilens—Chair, Department of Public Policy Professor of Public Policy, Political Science, and Social Welfare UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs

Philippe Bourgois—Professor of Anthropology and Director of Center for Social Medicine Department Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences/Semel Institute of Neuroscience University of California, Los Angeles

Amy E. Ritterbusch—Assistant Professor Department of Social Welfare UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs

Susanna Hecht—Professor, Urban Planning, UCLA

Eric Sheppard Alexander von Humboldt—Chair Regents Professor emeritus, University of Minnesota Former President, American Association of Geographers

Aslı Ü. Bâli—Faculty Director, Promise Institute for Human Rights Professor of International and Comparative Law School of Law University of California, Los Angeles

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