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The Echo Park Bathroom Saga: How the City Hates Homeless People

In violation of an LA City Ordinance, over 70 unhoused residents were forced to share access to one bathroom at night.

Activists from Streetwatch LA block maintenance staff from locking public restrooms in Echo Park. (Source: Twitter.com)

People have been living at Echo Park Lake for a long time.

It makes sense. There’s a lot of open space on the north side of the park, the neighborhood is walkable, and (perhaps most importantly) there’s access to public restrooms and running water.

But starting in January 2020, all but one of those 16 bathrooms (formerly open 24/7) have been locked every night. It’s part of a larger campaign of fear and terror against the residents of Echo Park Lake, spearheaded by CD 13 Councilmember and former cruise ship dancer Mitch O’Farrell.

In response to a series of direct actions organized by activists, O’Farrell’s office promised to provide services to the residents of Echo Park Lake, including a Mobile Hygiene Unit with showers (which never came), activating an emergency temporary shelter in the area, and staffing to allow access to the northwest restrooms 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That last concession came as a surprise to some, as prior to that the bathrooms had been open all night (with no graveyard shift staff required). However, technically speaking, they were supposed to be closed after 10 p.m. in accordance with a city parks ordinance.

So, after O’Farrell filed his motion to have the City Attorney amend the municipal code to legally allow for 24-hour access, armed guards showed up to make sure every bathroom but one stayed closed after hours.

Chalk art from Echo Park Lake. (Source: Twitter.com)

There were around 60 people living in Echo Park Lake then, but the restrooms also serve many more who live in the surrounding area. And since the COVID-19 pandemic, the lake’s population has increased to around 80.

That meant lines of people standing in the cold at 1 a.m., waiting to use their shared bathroom. That meant residents opting to use makeshift solutions like bottles, or holding it in for hours and hours until the bathrooms opened again. That meant our nominally progressive city was denying people a basic human need.

“From a purely societal standpoint, you think you’d want unhoused people to be as clean as possible, especially during a pandemic,” says Ayman Ahmed, a resident of Echo Park Lake. “Even though we’re broke and unhoused, we’re still human and need access to basic hygiene.”

Months later, in April, Mayor Eric Garcetti signed off on the full City Council’s vote to keep the bathrooms open 24/7. Absurdly, park staff continued to lock the bathrooms at night, sometimes as early as 8:30 p.m., for weeks afterwards.

But in May, an unhoused resident of Echo Park contacted Jed Parriott, an ally from StreetWatch LA, to tell him that action had to be taken to get more bathrooms open.

Note the officers who refuse to wear masks, endangering public health.

After talking with unhoused residents, Parriott reached out to other activists to peacefully block the bathrooms and prevent them from being locked. Their demand: keep all these bathrooms open 24/7 per the city ordinance. Or, at the very least, the unhoused residents would settle for four being open at night for now.

For the city to provide anything less, surely, would be staggeringly cruel.

After hours of debating with parks staff and the police, the calls were made. Rec & Parks actually topped the activists’ demands, promising to keep four bathrooms open on the northside and the eastside of the park every night for the duration of the pandemic.

“It felt like a victory,” says Parriott. “We have to do radical actions to get attention. Aside from Alvarado, this is one of the only encampments with public bathrooms… libraries and restaurants are closed right now, where are people supposed to go to the bathroom?”

When they returned the next night, however, the bathrooms were locked again, even earlier than usual. It took two more nights of non-violent action before the park staff would leave the bathrooms unlocked without calling the police.

“The city only moves when there’s shame. They don’t care about writing or laws. They only care about public opinion,” says Ahmed.

One can see why he feels this way. Fifteen Angelenos had to stand in front of public toilets at midnight in order to force the city to follow its own laws.

The next time an LA city official says they can’t take action because of the law, like providing basic renter protections (for instance), remember this. The city will break or ignore the law if it thinks it can get away with it. Usually, that means targeting unhoused people.

But of Echo Park Lake, Parriot says, “There’s a community here and it’s only getting stronger.”

If you’re interested in joining actions like these in the future, Parriott suggests you email StreetWatch LA at email hidden; JavaScript is required.

And, sincerely, Mitch O’Farrell — do better. People are paying attention.

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