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Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell Holds Echo Park Lake Press Conference, Bars Press from Attending

In a bizarre move, the CD 13 Councilmember announced the reopening of Echo Park Lake and only invited a single news outlet.

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell gives a statement outside Echo Park Lake on March 25, 2021. At that time, multiple outlets were invited. (Source: LA This Week)

CD 13 Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell has had a rough two months. 

His violent sweep of the unhoused residents of Echo Park Lake on March 25 has been extensively criticized by the press, members of the public, the ACLU, and his own colleagues on the city council. O’Farrell defended the heavy police presence at Echo Park Lake citing “outside groups… repeatedly issuing credible threats.” When pressed to provide evidence, the Councilmember’s office produced a single email that opens “Dead Councilman Ofarrell [sic]” which many were quick to note could be a simple typo for “Dear.” A petition calling for his resignation collected 3,160 signatures [Disclosure: the petition was sponsored by Ground Game LA, the non-profit parent organization of Knock LA].

With all this bad press, it’s understandable that Councilmember O’Farrell wanted to announce Echo Park Lake’s long-awaited reopening with as little fanfare as possible: at a secret conference inside the fenced-off park, with an audience of about 20 senior citizens, several geese, and one hand-picked journalist.

On the morning of May 19, O’Farrell was spotted touring the park with a small contingent of (predominantly white and elderly) community members. When baffled reporters from multiple major news outlets (including NPR, Spectrum, and the LA Times) arrived on the scene, they were stopped by security guards. The event was invite-only — and the only media outlet on the list was NBC Los Angeles, infamous for its homelessness series “Streets of Shame,” which includes pieces such as “‘McMansions’ for the Homeless.”

It was a strange move for a Councilmember who recently came under fire for his lack of transparency leading up to the park’s sudden sweep, and for the arrest or detention of at least 20 journalists on March 25. (O’Farrell insisted, despite all evidence to the contrary, that only two journalists were detained and that they were quickly released. For context, I was one of the journalists who was arrested and held in detention for several hours.)

In light of all this controversy, the content of NBC LA’s exclusive interview strongly suggests that O’Farrell shut out the press in an effort to regain control of the narrative.

While walking around the lake, O’Farrell told reporter John Cádiz Klemack that the EPL encampment was “narcotics distribution central… over the summer we had four people that died.” Regarding the sweep, O’Farrell claims that by that time, “we had housing solutions for everyone here. Nearly 200 people were placed into a safe, secure environment.”

O’Farrell also states that only $500,000 was spent on renovations to the lake, even though the allocated funding for the “park improvement” project was recently increased from $600,000 to $1.1 million.

Cádiz Klemack ends the segment by repeating, without question, a provably false claim by O’Farrell: “The councilman says if this type of cleanup or sweep or whatever you want to call it actually is going to work in the future, he says they need to have enough places to put people who are willing to accept housing. He says in Los Angeles, right now, they have that.”

NBC LA aired the interview seemingly without fact-checking any of O’Farrell’s statements. 

Some of the red flags are obvious — for example, while four people did die at EPL throughout 2020, only two of those deaths happened during the summer. More significantly, according to the most recent count, there were 66,436 unhoused individuals living in LA County, and only 22,243 total units in interim shelter and supportive housing. That’s a far cry from “enough places for everyone.”

Shortly after this mysterious pseudo-press conference, the Councilmember’s office sent out a press release, which doubles down on an obvious lie:

“The park was temporarily closed in late March after a three-month long process placing nearly 200 formerly unhoused individuals into transitional housing with clean beds to sleep in and wrap-around services including three nutritious meals a day, medical care, job opportunity placement, case managers, and the ability to keep their animal companions with them at their side… Every single person experiencing homelessness in the park was offered transitional housing and services.”

Over the past two months, O’Farrell’s office has given several different figures for the number of people placed in transitional housing. In a tweet from March 24, it was “more than 120.” At a press conference on March 25, it was 166. In a tweet from March 27, it was 209. Recently, the figure inexplicably shrank back down to “nearly 200.” 

However, internal LAHSA emails revealed that their estimate, as of the park’s closure on March 25, was only 152. 

Graffiti from Echo Park Lake on March 29, 2021 (Photo: Kate Gallagher | Knock LA)

As Knock LA and the LA Times have previously reported, multiple residents of Echo Park Lake who were promised a room through Project Roomkey were told that no rooms were available after all. They were redirected to congregate shelters (where, among other concerns, the risk of catching COVID is incredibly high), or else told to tough it out until a room could be found. 

For those who did manage to secure a room, the conditions were far different from what was promised. Project Roomkey participants have described the program as “prison-like” and “traumatic.” There were also no promises made as to how long the arrangement would last before the hotel reopened and they were forced to leave.

O’Farrell’s statement repeatedly refers to the encampment as “unsafe” and “inhumane.” While the situation at Echo Park Lake was hardly perfect, it remains to be seen whether the City’s violent eviction made things any safer.

Without an adequate supply of permanent social housing, those who made it into temporary shelter are likely to find themselves back on the streets — and without the community support and resources that were available to them at Echo Park Lake.

But fear not: O’Farrell promises that the newly-renovated park will be “safe, clean, accessible, and secure for all who wish to use this shared public space.” 

The repairs include upgrades to the park facilities, landscaping, graffiti removal, and — most notably — the installation of security cameras. O’Farrell told LAist that the cameras “will definitely be monitored by Recreation and Parks and a feed will be available to the LAPD.”

Given that the LAPD’s last excursion to the park resulted in 184 arrests and multiple serious injuries, it’s unclear why this would be considered a good move for public safety.