Protesters detained by LAPD near Echo Park homeless encampment

A protestor is pushed back by LAPD officers on Sunset Blvd.
A protestor is pushed back by LAPD officers on Sunset Blvd. as authorities evict homeless from an encampment in Echo Park. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

A homeless encampment that took over a large swath of Echo Park for more than a year appeared on the brink of extinction Thursday as city officials fenced off the area and police prepared to remove the relatively few remaining campers, some of whom insisted on their right to live in the park.

Scores of Los Angeles police officers surrounded the park Thursday evening, and about a dozen homeless people remained inside the fence.

Los Angeles Times reporter James Queally was briefly detained by police as he was covering a protest near the park. After inquiries by Times editors and the news organization’s attorney, Queally was released.

Numerous protesters were also detained by police.

Protestors board an LAPD bus after being arrested in Echo Park Thursday night.
Protestors board an LAPD bus after being arrested in Echo Park Thursday night. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

City officials have offered homeless people who had been staying in the park a room in one of several downtown hotels, which most accepted. Some, however, chafed at the rules imposed at the hotels and said they preferred the freedom of being outdoors.

Just after 9 p.m. Thursday, law enforcement officers circled the park, shining flashlights inside the fenced-in area, saying over a bullhorn that the park would soon close.

By 10:45 p.m., park rangers and police officers with flashlights were going from tent to tent, attempting to count the campers.

“Park rangers here. Anyone home? We have services and transitional housing. Please meet us at the front gate,” one ranger said, peering into a tent. A police helicopter circled overhead, and an officer said over a megaphone that anyone still in the closed park would be subject to arrest.

Fewer than five unhoused people remained. Valerie Zeller, a homeless woman who got married in the park last weekend, was one of the final holdouts. She rode a bicycle around the park, passing a hand-painted banner that read, “Healing Happening Here.”

Earlier in the day, one homeless park resident, Ayman Ahmed, said that when police announced Wednesday night that campers could stay another day, “we thought it was a victory.” But in the light of day, he wondered:

“Was it a victory? Twenty-four hours with a perimeter all around us?”

Some residents of the surrounding neighborhood, meanwhile, expressed relief at the impending demolition of the homeless encampment, although the park will be closed for repairs for months.

“It’s a tough situation,” said one resident, Ray Delgado, standing with his Labrador retriever, Bryce, in the greenery-filled yard outside his Echo Park Craftsman home. “I definitely feel for the people that had been living there, and I also use the park daily with my dog and felt increasingly alarmed at the condition that it had been progressing into. I really felt they needed to do something.”

Charles McKnight moves his belongings along Logan St. before LAPD officers evict homeless from an encampment in Echo Park.
Charles McKnight moves his belongings along Logan St. before LAPD officers evict homeless from an encampment in Echo Park. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

The showdown at Echo Park Lake, with its verdant views and deep connections to local history, has crystalized much of the debate over homelessness in L.A. Should homeless people be allowed to congregate on any public land? What is the city’s obligation to them — and to its housed residents? What is the proper role for police?

On the one side was a camper who goes by the name “Wall Street.” “This park is public land,” he said. “If someone happens to not have a home, having a park where they can stay safe is very valuable.”

On the other side was Echo Park resident Riley Montgomery, who started a petition demanding restoration of the park and who applauded the cleanup operation, even at the expense of losing access to the park. For nearby residents, he said, “Even if there’s a fence, that’s preferable to having to walk through a massive encampment where they have to worry about being assaulted or walking over needles or having hate speech said to them as has happened multiple times.”

A mist from the lake’s fountains floated over the park as outreach workers checked tents to see if they were empty. By mid-evening Thursday, about a dozen homeless people remained. At its peak, the camp had nearly 200 tents, some occupied by more than one person.

In an interview with The Times’ editorial board, Mayor Eric Garcetti said that if homeless workers need more time to get the remaining campers into interim housing, they will “absolutely” get it. However, it appeared possible that police would move out the last holdouts by the end of the night.

“At 10:30, they’re kicking everyone out, you know that,” said a staff member from Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit hired to provide services in the park. He spoke to an unhoused man as sanitation workers in hazmat suits waited to load couches, an overstuffed chair and other items into a mini-garbage truck.

Geese roamed the park, normally full of vendors selling snacks and wares, looking for food. A normally bustling commons was quiet — the swan boats sat moored.

Jerome Noll, 32, sorted through his tent contemplating what should come with him to the hotel. He’d arrived in Los Angeles on skid row, and the park was a haven for him — relatively peaceful and tranquil — that made him feel closer to nature, he said. The end of this encampment and the community that came with it, along with the animosity he experienced from people who wanted homeless residents gone, left him disheartened. Still, he realized it was time to go.

Two men push a shopping cart with a homeless man's belongings.
Members of Urban Alchemy help Jason Reynolds and his dog, Bubba, with their belongings after Reynolds was evicted from the Echo Park encampment. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“They have deemed people like this a lower dredge of society, even when a majority of people are a paycheck away from the same thing,” Noll said. “We’re not crisis actors. This a really painful moment. You’re watching my things being ripped from me. Watching my friends go through the struggle — that part bothers me a lot.”

An outreach worker escorted him to a bus that would take him to a hotel. His tent, which he had spray-painted, remained behind.

At 5 p.m. Thursday, more than 150 people filled Sunset Boulevard and Lemoyne Street outside City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s office, many of them holding signs saying, “Evict O’Farrell” or “Services not sweeps.” O’Farrell, whose district encompasses Echo Park, has been the prime mover behind city policies surrounding the encampment. Speaker after speaker criticized the councilman’s handling of the situation and what they see as his broader failings to help the homeless residents.

People march down Sunset Boulevard to protest the closure of a homeless camp in Echo Park.
People march down Sunset Boulevard to protest the closure of a homeless camp in Echo Park. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Queally, the Times reporter, had been covering the protests when he was detained. It was not immediately clear why he was held, but the Los Angeles Police Department had issued a statement a short time earlier saying reporters were subject to dispersal orders in the area.

Times Managing Editor Kimi Yoshino said the news organization was outraged that Queally was detained simply for doing his job. The Times immediately protested to authorities, and he was released without charges.

Queally said he had an LAPD-issued press badge in a lanyard around his neck when he was grabbed by two officers and placed in zip-tie handcuffs despite repeatedly telling them he was a Times reporter.

“I was pretty calm, and they weren’t violent or anything, but I was like, ‘Check the credentials, L.A. Times.’ No answer,” Queally said. “‘Check the credentials, L.A. Times.’ No answer.”

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The police actions in the park had begun some 24 hours earlier, and officers had been met by more than 200 protesters. City Park rangers, flanked by Los Angeles Police Department officers, had taped notices of closure onto trees and light poles on the east side of the park, where homeless people have been camping since 2019. The signs said the park would close Thursday and gave notice that all personal property must be removed, “including, but not limited to, tents, chairs, tables, backpacks, bags, and personal items.”

As skirmishes erupted, police were seen shoving some protesters; bottles and other objects were thrown at officers. Protesters chanted, “Whose park? Our park!” and, “Why are you in riot gear? I don’t see no riot here!”

A man is inside a tent in front of a line of police in riot gear.
A protester sits in a tent set up in the street next to Echo Park Lake on Wednesday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In a written statement, the LAPD characterized the protest as “largely peaceful.”

“After expressing their 1st Amendment rights, all protesters voluntarily left the area,” the statement said. The LAPD made only one arrest Wednesday night. Nicole Partori, 26, was cited and released for failing to obey an order to disperse and flashing a light in an officer’s eyes. Also, two minor uses of force have been reported, it said.

One man reported that police broke his arm.

Can confirm that a baton-wielding cop broke my arm last night. https://t.co/uBVbzOJVOM pic.twitter.com/bXhPoDyQvq— Isaac Scher (@isaacscher) March 25, 2021

Westside City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents another area with a large homeless population, on Thursday issued a statement on Twitter criticizing the use of police to clear the park.

“The fact that more than 150 people from Echo Park Lake have been housed is a major achievement, which I applaud,” he wrote. “But the deployment of scores of police officers there in riot gear is wrong and counter-productive…. It disrupts efforts to build trust, house people and provide services.”

Bonin called for an accounting of the cost and the effects on police services in other areas.

Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, similarly criticized how the park’s closure was handled and communicated. People needed more time and ample warning before being told to leave, she said.

“It’s about setting expectations, being clear and giving them options,” Marston said. The way the sweep has been handled, she added, “facilitates fear, chaos, and it breaks the trust we built. It seems like it didn’t need to happen this way.”

On Thursday morning, a small number of people woke up inside the fenced park. They said they were worried about what was to come.

“I feel like I’m being detained,” said David Busch-Lilly, who was among more than a dozen people inside the fenced park as dawn broke. “If I leave, I don’t trust that they’ll let me back in.”

Valerie Zeller likened it to “a hostage situation.”

The homeless woman said she was reluctant to go to the hotel rooms that had been offered to people camping at the park, saying she’d heard that residents would be searched and subjected to curfews.

Yellow tape ringed the blocks surrounding the park, where police cruisers blocked people from driving or walking into the area. Inside the fenced park, the morning chatter of birds and geese mingled with the low moan of a helicopter overhead.

Another homeless man in a gray cap, who declined to give his name, said that encampment residents were hoping they would get some kind of legal permission to stay, based on the “shelter-in-place” guidelines for the COVID-19 pandemic.

He did not want to head to “any government-provided facilities.”

“I just don’t like to take anything from the government,” he said.

Gustavo Otzoy said he had lived along the lake for seven months. He had to go to work Thursday, he said, but didn’t want to abandon his tools — construction tools for installing tile, drywall and hardwood floors — lest he lose them.

“I need these things to work,” he said in Spanish. Beyond that worry, he said, “I want to be with my community.”

“At the beginning, I was scared when I arrived here. But nobody robbed us. Everything was good.”

As the sun crept higher in the sky, Urban Alchemy workers clad in black and green jackets approached the dwindling number of encampment residents to ask whether they wanted to go to a hotel.

“A lot of people who have been going,” one worker said. “I hear they’re getting the penthouse suite.”

“We’ll see what’s up,” a man in a zebra-print mask replied. He said he had heard troubling things about the hotel program: doors being opened for “random checks” that deprived people of privacy; restrictive curfews; not being allowed keys to the room.

A glow is visible inside a tent along a lake after dark, with the city skyline in the background.
A homeless woman sits in a tent beside Echo Park Lake on Wednesday night. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Later, the workers approached Otzoy, who quizzed them about whether he would get storage space for his construction tools.

An Urban Alchemy worker assured him they could store his things and said the room would be a step toward permanent housing.

“Are you going to go?” the worker asked.

Otzoy demurred. “Not right now,” he told the worker.

“The truth is, I don’t trust it,” he said in Spanish as the workers moved on. “And today I want to be here to support everyone.”

Others had already decided to leave before the crackdown began.

Over the last year, the encampment had grown to nearly 200 tents and covered nearly half the park, evolving into a commune-like society with a shared pantry, a garden, a veneer of self-policing and efforts at cleanliness. It drew the attention and support of activists from groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America, and caused despair among some surrounding residents.

Delgado, the Echo Park resident, said he’d heard the constant drone of helicopters buzzing late into the night from his perch on the hill just west of Echo Park Lake, 100 yards or so from where a quartet of LAPD officers and caution tape now blocked the stairs down to Glendale Boulevard.

Police on guard on Glendale Avenue during protest at Echo Park.
An LAPD officer stands on Glendale Avenue during Wednesday’s protest at Echo Park. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

His feelings on the park encampment were complicated: He recognized that it had become a community and respected the way people living in the park engaged with one another, but he still didn’t think the park was “an appropriate place for it.” The encampment had been a topic of fervent communication in his local Nextdoor community, where he said the majority of commenters favored the “rehabilitation of the park and moving them out of there,” though the commenters also remained “very sympathetic to the homeless’ plight.”

But Delgado, a 47-year-old who works in marketing and communications, said he was ultimately pleased with the outcome of the crackdown, saying that he had wanted to see people get into housing, and believed that had been adequately delivered. He thought a police response was necessary because of the number of protesters and the politicization of the issue.

“I think there’s really a need for people to kind of step back from their position and find where the middle ground is. And this seems like it’s a middle ground,” he continued. “There’s no win-win in any of this.”

Times staff writers James Queally, Matthew Ormseth, Kevin Rector and Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.