On 24 March last year, hundreds of police officers descended on Los Angeles’ Echo Park Lake to evict the community of unhoused residents that had swelled there during the pandemic.
After police arrested protesters opposing the evictions and cleared the encampment at the popular city park, the local councilman pushing for the sweep said his office had found “housing solutions” for roughly 200 of the displaced residents, calling it the “single largest housing event in the history of the city”.
One year later, however, government records tell a different story: out of 183 unhoused people who were removed from the park and tracked by the county’s homelessness agency, just 17 are confirmed to be in longer term housing. Nearly 50 are in temporary shelter waiting for stable housing. The rest either returned to the streets or disappeared from the county’s tracking systems.
LA’s failure to get permanent housing for the vast majority of unhoused people forced out of the park is documented in a new report by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles who obtained housing data and shared their findings with the Guardian.
Their analysis, co-authored by former park residents, concluded that although some displaced residents were eager to get indoors, the temporary shelters they initially landed in had strict regulations that stripped people of basic freedoms and caused many to leave or be kicked out. People who lasted in the temporary programs said they’ve been unable to transition to long-term housing as officials had promised, the researchers found. Ultimately, one year after the eviction, many were back on the streets, often living in worse conditions than they did before.
The report’s findings come as cities across California are increasingly cracking down on tent encampments in response to complaints from voters frustrated with the state’s seemingly intractable homelessness crisis. LA has banned camping at hundreds of locations in recent months, even though more than half a million residents lack access to affordable housing. Sacramento’s mayor has proposed obligating unhoused people to accept the shelter offered to them, which would pave the way for sweeps of people who decline. And the California governor is pushing for a court system to force some unhoused people into treatment.
“They didn’t give us what they said they would, and I’m outside still,” said Victor Monarque, 35, who lived at Echo Park and says he has been unable to get permanent housing or stable shelter since the encampment’s closure.
This month, he slept in a van, he said. “The city shuts these encampments down because people don’t like how they look,” he added. “But this is a public park that should be for everybody, and they should’ve just left these fucking people alone.”
‘I felt safe at Echo Park’
Like other encampments across LA, the unhoused community at Echo Park, a 29-acre (11 hectare) city park near downtown known for its majestic fountain and swan boats, grew significantly during the pandemic as sweeps were paused.
“I felt safe at Echo Park,” said Queen, 33, who lived at the park and became a prominent community organizer. The park had been part of her life for decades. Queen, whom the Guardian is identifying by her nickname, was born in Mexico and came to the neighborhood as a baby. Her mother worked as a street vendor selling corn. “Growing up here, the park meant freedom to me. It was the one time we were allowed to be children, to play.”
Queen said she became unhoused after facing large medical expenses from a car accident in 2019. She felt protected at the Echo Park encampment, she said, which had hundreds of campers and had a community kitchen and garden, a job program, and showers. The park regularly drew volunteers who dropped off hygiene supplies, meals and other resources.
Life at the camp brought the hardships that come with sleeping outside, including conflicts, struggles with mental illness and addiction. But to Queen and others, the site provided safety and resources hard to find elsewhere.
“We had a community, and people looked after each other,” said Cesar Segura, 32, also known as Wall Street, who lived at the park and is Queen’s fiancee.
Hundreds evicted, few in permanent housing
City officials, led by the district councilman, Mitch O’Farrell, moved to close the park and the encampment in March 2021. They pointed to complaints by neighborhood groups of unsanitary conditions, reports of violence, overdoses and several deaths in the encampment and the need for repairs and upgrades to the children’s play area and other facilities in the park.
In the weeks after the encampment eviction, which LAPD spent more than $2m to enforce, O’Farrell, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, and other officials declared the operation a success, saying they had taken a “compassionate” approach and the city had offered housing “placements” to all residents.
O’Farrell initially claimed that more than 200 people were moved into shelter. Data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services authority (Lahsa), the lead county agency responsible for coordinating housing and services, and reviewed by UCLA, showed, however, that the actual number of people served was lower and that for many, the placements were fleeting or nonexistent.
UCLA’s review of the data indicated that:
Lahsa tracked 183 people who were living at the park, although advocates say the actual number of residents was higher.
As of 9 February, the agency has lost track of 97 of the 183 people it monitored.
Of those 97 people, 15 never received initial placements, and 29 left programs after less than a month.
Out of the remaining people 15 were confirmed to have returned to homelessness; 48 are in temporary shelter programs waiting for housing placements and six have left the county programs for other settings such as jails or hospitals.
Just 17 people are confirmed to be living in some form of longer term housing.
The UCLA researchers could locate only four people in housing, two of whom are Queen and Segura. The couple said they were only able to secure an apartment because Queen got hired at a housing nonprofit group after her activism at the encampment. Six people have died, the researchers found.
“The few times we’ve seen success is when people get housing through their own community networks,” said Ananya Roy, director of the UCLA Luskin Institute. When sweeps are the driving force of policy, outreach efforts are doomed to fail, she argued.
Annie Powers, co-author of the report, said their research led them to conclude it doesn’t really matter to the city of LA what happens to its unhoused population, as long as they are not camping: “It’s about eliminating people from public space much more than it is about ‘housing’,” they said.
“So many people just fall out of the system entirely,” they said. “It’s a systematic disappearance of people.”
Back outside: ‘Starting over’
The reasons behind LA’s failure to land unhoused people into permanent housing are multifold and complex.
The majority of Echo Park campers who were placed ended up at facilities run through Project Roomkey, a state program launched at the start of the pandemic to get motel rooms for unhoused people and overseen by Lahsa in LA. Although residents said they were initially thrilled to have a private room indoors, once they entered, they found strict rules and curfews controlling when they could come and go, and regulations banning visitors, which isolated them from their communities and families. The rules made it hard for people to get back on their feet and continue their jobs or find work, leading some to get kicked out while others chose to return to the streets.
Some who have lasted at Roomkey and subsequently received housing vouchers, which partially subsidize rents for very low-income people, said they were unable to find landlords that will take them.
Donald Smith, a 37-year-old veteran, became unhoused after losing his job at a restaurant at the start of the pandemic. He moved to Echo Park because he had friends there and said it felt safer than any other encampment.
When outreach workers offered him a spot at Project Roomkey before the shutdown, he quickly accepted and jumped in a bus: “I was extremely excited. I left everything I had in my tent there because I was just glad to be off the street, with a roof over my head and electricity.”
But at his site, the LA Grand Hotel, which was run by the Salvation Army, staff frequently searched his belongings, which he said was frustrating. Rules requiring him to be in his room for check-ins three times a day interfered with his food service job. Though it felt like a “glamorized jail”, he said, he stayed in the program for more than a year because he believed it would lead to a voucher for long-term housing. Earlier this month, however, he was kicked out, he said, after he missed a check-in and staff found mushrooms in his room that he had been growing from spores he bought online. He said he had previously gotten in trouble for having cannabis, which he uses to help with PTSD.
Smith is now back outside, camping with two unhoused friends inside a makeshift structure in a vacant lot, about a mile from downtown.
“This is the worst shit that ever happened to me,” he said. “I thought I was never going to have to be homeless again after I moved in to Project Roomkey.” On a recent windy afternoon, he pointed to ashes from a fire that had recently broke out next to their camping spot, while his friends tried to secure their tarp structure blowing in the strong winds.
Since Smith left Roomkey and is no longer in contact with Lahsa, he has approached another nonprofit organization to try to get a voucher: “I’m starting all over again.” The Salvation Army, declined to comment on his account.
Gustavo Otzoy, 55, who lived at the lake and is now part of the research collective behind the report, said that he agreed to leave the park because of the promise of a Roomkey spot. But after he left, he was told there were no immediate openings: “They wanted to get me out of the park, and I took their deal. They lied to me, and it really devastated me.”
Volunteers with Street Watch LA paid for a hotel room for him the first week after the eviction, but he later ended up sleeping in another park, before finally getting into Roomkey. But at Roomkey, he said he was not allowed to keep his tools, which impeded his work as a handyman, and he hated how staff would enter his room without permission: “How come they call it Project Roomkey when they don’t even give you keys?” He eventually was kicked out of the program.
Some former Echo Park residents who are still in Roomkeysaid they are anxious to move on to permanent housing, a feeling that is exacerbated by their constant fear of getting kicked out of their current rooms: “The housing that they claim exists does not exist,” said Will Sens Jr, 45. In September of last year, he and other Roomkey residents got notices under their doors saying they would have to leave the program in 30 days – notices which were later rescinded. “It’s scary to not have any stability. They’ll kick people out for nothing, all the time. It’s horrible,” said Sens.
“Project Roomkey didn’t need to be this way,” said Hilary Malson, another UCLA researcher. “Evicting people from the community and sanctuary they built up to then put them into a carceral system, with hotels set up like detention centers, is just a staggering failure of state policy – you have them further traumatized, further violated, further displaced and evicted again and stripped of their rights.”
She noted that many unhoused people have experienced repeated forms of displacement – first evicted from their homes, then the park, then a county shelter program. When she can’t track down someone she has been interviewing, she’ll check the coroner’s records “just to give myself some reassurance that they’re alive”.
‘It’s a private park now’
Colleen Murphy, Lahsa’s associate director for unsheltered strategies, said Roomkey operators have tried to strike a balance between “creating a low-barrier environment, but also keeping the space safe”, adding that if people don’t last in temporary programs, Lahsa tries to find other ways to get them housed. “The challenge for our whole system is that getting people indoors is just the first step. We really need to get people into permanent spaces, because homes end homelessness. And our system has a shortage of permanent, affordable housing.”
Lahsa’s “best practices” for street encampments dictate that outreach workers have ample time to build relationships, Murphy added. The “very stressful” environment at Echo Park before the closure date likely resulted in people falling through the cracks, she said: “There was a lot of working happening without a lot of time. The more time we have to work with somebody, and doing that where it’s not under duress, you’re going to have better outcomes.”
She said it was possible some who disappeared from the county’s tracking were able to find a way out of homelessness. “But I don’t think anyone would point to Echo Park as something we’d want to repeat,” she added.
A spokesperson for O’Farrell defended the park closure in an 11 March email. “Our team works to use a comprehensive, compassionate approach – led by services and outreach – to get people experiencing homelessness into safe, secure, managed environments and on the path to wellness and stability”, Dan Halden said. “There is nothing compassionate about enabling human beings to live and die in squalor on city streets, sidewalks, public parks, and public spaces.”
Harrison Wollman, a spokesperson for Mayor Garcetti, said in an email the city still considered the operation a success, because it showed “we can transition whole encampments into shelter quickly and humanely”. But, he added, the data revealing a lack of housing placements “affirm a truth we’ve long known: that shelter does not end homelessness by itself. That’s why we must also continue investing in long-term solutions like permanent housing.”
City officials have since reopened Echo Park Lake, but put in place a large fence around the perimeter and other restrictions meant to prevent camping. “It feels like I’m looking at the Mona Lisa – the park is such a beauty and a wonder, but it’s not really there,” said Queen, noting that the street vendors can’t enter the park anymore. “It’s more like a ghost town. They took away the heart of the community … It’s like no one won. Yeah, you got no homeless there, but you got no people there either.”
“To me, it’s a private park now,” added Otzoy, who helped put up flyers last June calling for the fence to be taken down. In the process, he was arrested and pinned to the ground, accused of “vandalism”. His charges were eventually dismissed, but the arrest resulted in a new condition of parole from a previous case: He is banned from entering the park.
It used to be one of his favorite places, he said. Now he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return.