Seven Dead, 82 Vanished: New UCLA Report Shows the Failure of the Echo Park Lake Model
CD 13 Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell said 209 EPL residents were placed in transitional shelter after the encampment sweep. A year later, only 17 made it to long-term housing.
Update 4/20/22: As of April 6, the number of former Echo Park lake residents who are currently housed has dropped from 17 to 13. According to Ananya Roy, “This is why longitudinal data is crucial. This is why we cannot assume the permanence of even the best-case housing placements.”
One year ago, approximately 200 unhoused residents of Echo Park Lake awoke to find themselves fenced into the park, surrounded by police. Within 24 hours, police brutally evicted the encampment’s last residents, and arrested nearly 200 supporters and journalists.
CD 13 Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, whose office planned the raid, immediately touted it as a “success,” claiming that 209 people had been placed into transitional shelter.
But according to a new report from the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, one year later, only 17 of those people have been placed in long-term housing. Of the 84 former Echo Park Lake residents the UCLA researchers interviewed or had community knowledge of, most are still waiting in the system, have been forced back into homelessness, or have disappeared.
Six former residents were dead by the time of publication.
On the day the report was released, that number increased to seven, with the death of a former park resident known as Dancing David. He was waiting for an emergency housing voucher in the weeks before his death.
The report, which is based on 11 months of LAHSA data and ethnographic research, highlights the failures of a housing system based on displacement and carcerality.
“We want people to understand that what happened at Echo Park Lake was not a successful operation to ‘house’ people; it was a blatant use of state power to banish and erase the poor,” Ashley Bennett, an unhoused advocate and co-author of the report, told Knock LA. (Editor’s note: Ashley Bennett is also a founding member of Ground Game LA, the parent organization of Knock LA.)
The Echo Park Lake encampment began to take shape in the fall of 2019, partly as a refuge from the CARE+ comprehensive sweeps program, but also because the park had the only public restrooms and water fountains in the area. By January 2020, the encampment had grown to around 60 residents.
In the following weeks, conflicts with law enforcement escalated, including blockades, late-night harassment from LAPD, and the violent arrest of park resident Davon Brown by park rangers. The tensions eased in March 2020, when COVID-19 shelter-in-place guidelines put a temporary end to the sweeps.
At the beginning of the pandemic, “encampments across the city were losing access to basic survival resources and services, like restrooms, access to food services, showers,” said Bennett. “The community at Echo Park Lake stepped up in a major way… and they started coming together and building, from the ground up, the things that they needed to survive in their day-to-day lives.”
By summer, they’d created makeshift showers, a community garden and kitchen, and a crowdfunded community jobs program. The encampment functioned on a simple set of rules: don’t steal from other residents, and keep drug use inside tents. When conflicts occurred, they were handled internally, without the involvement of law enforcement.
“What I want to press on is that they created a supportive transitional environment outside of the homeless services system,” said Bennett.
Compared to most places on the streets, Echo Park Lake was a safe haven — particularly for women fleeing domestic violence. Park resident Mina Sullivan told the UCLA researchers, “There were lots of good people in that community. So if anything ever happened, they would stop it. They would help you.”
However, media coverage of the encampment tended to focus on the negative. As 2020 wore on, the public narrative portrayed Echo Park Lake as dangerous and crime-ridden — a narrative that Councilmember O’Farrell leaned into. By the end of the year, CD 13 staff was coordinating with the LAPD to clear the encampment and close down the park.
According to emails published in the UCLA report, the “Echo Park Operation” was a collaboration between CD 13, Recreations and Parks, LAPD, LASAN, the Department of Transit, the city attorney, and the nonprofit subcontractor Urban Alchemy.
The report refers to Urban Alchemy as “a mercenary outfit” that serves to “disappear visible poverty in a manner that appears less violent and more palatable than previous sweep systems.” The company is currently the subject of two class action lawsuits.
“Mitch O’Farrell unleashed rage, the likes of which I have not seen in emails from a CD office, on LAHSA, commanding LAHSA to do his bidding,” said Ananya Roy, director of the UCLA Luskin Institute. When the agency didn’t comply with Councilmember O’Farrell’s request to move Echo Park Lake residents into shelter beds (for the understandable reason that said shelter beds didn’t exist), CD 13 instead signed a $350,000 contract with Urban Alchemy in December 2020 for “outreach and other supportive services.”
In the following months, the private company’s employees performed daily tent counts at Echo Park Lake and tried to persuade residents to move into shelters. However, throughout early February 2020, Urban Alchemy’s daily reports frequently noted that the shelters they contacted were full.
“There was no help given, no appropriate information, no actual in-paper contracts for any of us,” said Queen Mendez, a former resident of the Echo Park Lake encampment. “They just terrorized us with the constant, you know, showing up with a police undercover… the constant helicopters in the night.” (Editor’s note: Mendez is now an employee of Ground Game LA, the parent organization of Knock LA.)
Despite the lack of available housing options, Councilmember O’Farrell moved ahead with the plan to clear the encampment.
The raid began on the night of March 24. In what the UCLA report calls “a full-scale militarized police seizure of public space,” 400 LAPD officers descended on Echo Park Lake, kettling and brutalizing activists supporting the unhoused community.
LAHSA Executive Director Heidi Marston also made an appearance, informing the park’s terrified residents that, despite the sudden police invasion, housing wouldn’t be available until the next day. LAHSA did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
Overnight, city employees put up a fence around Echo Park Lake, effectively turning it into an open-air prison. Residents were told that if they didn’t leave by nightfall, they’d be arrested — and once they left, they weren’t allowed to step foot in the park again, not even to collect their belongings. Throughout the day, LAHSA employees scrambled to connect the remaining park residents with housing. In the chaos and confusion, many housing offers were immediately broken.
That evening, another protest was held outside Echo Park Lake in solidarity with the few residents who were still inside the fenced-off park. Over 400 officers were deployed to break up the gathering — which they accomplished by kettling and arresting 182 protesters and journalists. (Editor’s note: Kate Gallagher, a Knock LA journalist and co-author of this article, was one of the journalists arrested. Knock LA journalist Jon Peltz was also arrested.)
By the morning of March 26, Echo Park Lake’s last two residents — unhoused activists Ayman Ahmed and David Busch-Lilly — were removed from the park in handcuffs. CPA and city controller candidate Kenneth Mejia estimates the total cost of the Echo Park Lake raid at over $2 million.
O’Farrell and other city officials immediately touted the raid as a success. On April 7, 2021, Deputy Mayor of City Homelessness Initiatives Jose “Che” Ramirez called the “clean-up” a “model” for housing and services, and claimed that the displaced park residents would be in “stable, permanent housing” within a year.
UCLA’s After Echo Park Lake research collective partnered with LAHSA to track former park residents over the course of the next year. The long-term results are stunningly bleak.
According to LAHSA’s internal final report in April 2021, there were 183 initial placements of Echo Park Lake residents. 151 went into Project Roomkey; 22 in Project Homekey; six in winter shelter; and five in A Bridge Home temporary shelter.
However, of those 183 claimed placements, only 168 were actualized. The remaining 15 people didn’t complete the initial placement process. As of February 2022, 69% of the initial 168 placements exited the system — including 15 who are confirmed to have returned to homelessness, and 82 who disappeared to unknown situations. Forty-eight are still in temporary shelters waiting for housing.
Only 17 people have been placed in permanent housing.
After reading the report, Harrison Wollman, a spokesperson for Mayor Garcetti, told Knock LA, “These longer-term numbers 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 and services that more effectively place individuals on a path out of homelessness.”
Councilmember O’Farrell’s office, which also previously touted the mass displacement of Echo Park Lake residents as a success and a model to be emulated across the city, did not respond to a request for comment.
The vast majority of Echo Park Lake residents were initially placed in Project Roomkey, a temporary program utilizing vacant hotel rooms as housing for vulnerable unhoused individuals during the pandemic. The draconian conditions inside Project Roomkey are now well-documented. At the LA Grand Hotel, where many Echo Park Lake residents were sent, participants didn’t even get a key to their own rooms. Staff were allowed to enter the rooms without permission at any time.
One Roomkey resident once came back to her room to find that the staff had unlocked her daughter’s urn and cut open the bag of ashes. The resident had to vacuum her daughter’s ashes off the rug.
Most alarmingly, participants weren’t allowed to have visitors, or visit each other’s rooms. Given the strict curfew (some locations initially only allowed participants to leave between 12 PM and 4 PM), this amounted to spending around half of each day in solitary confinement.
Breaking any of the program’s rules could lead to a “non-compliance notice,” and even one notice can be grounds for immediate eviction. This lands participants back on the streets with no path to permanent housing.
“The city has created a new regime of evicting people [from encampments] with a pretense of housing, but not actually offering any of that housing,’” said Annie Powers, a researcher and co-author of the report. “What we’ve seen instead is the city calling this array of programs with conditions tantamount to being in prison ‘housing.’”
And as Project Roomkey is temporary by design, remaining residents are also at constant risk of sudden eviction. When the program ends at a given location, residents are evicted with little notice and shuffled off to another shelter.
The problem, at its root, is the dearth of permanent housing.
“We are in a time of unprecedented expansion of housing resources and money to address homelessness. Unprecedented, akin to the New Deal,” said Roy. “The question on the table is, where’s that money going?”
The report notes that while the city of LA is receiving billions of federal dollars for housing and shelter, much of that money is going toward temporary solutions, like Safe Sleep Villages and Tiny Homes. And although 6,806 emergency housing vouchers were recently made available to the City and County of LA, the system has failed at implementing them effectively. Even for those who receive vouchers, finding a landlord willing to accept them can be difficult.
The result is a never-ending revolving door of displacement.
On May 26, 2021, after two months of “renovations,” Echo Park Lake reopened to the public — with a permanent fence around the perimeter. Heavy police presence, Urban Alchemy employees, and 33 new CCTV cameras ensured that no unhoused people would resume their residence in the park.
The “renovations” also included new signs banning vending in the park, citing LAMC 63.44 — a local law that was previously overturned by the state. The signs were later updated to say “no vending, unless in accordance with city rules and regulations.”
Vending permits and equipment required for food vendors to comply with city laws can be prohibitively expensive. Before the park’s closure, there was little enforcement of permitting laws at Echo Park Lake. But with the aggressive policing in the reopened park, vendors without permits — many of whom were already struggling financially — were afraid to step foot inside the fence.
“There’s a lot more to be said about the growing, militarized policing of parks,” Roy told Knock LA. “The fencing and closing of public spaces and how that intersects with the criminalization of homelessness.”
In May 2021, a group of Project Roomkey residents, many of whom had been displaced from Echo Park Lake, announced the formation of Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing (UTACH). UTACH spoke out about the Project Roomkey’s prisonlike conditions and demanded changes to the program. They succeeded in winning some of their demands: notably, an extended curfew (the LA Grand Hotel Downtown curfew was changed from 7 PM to 10 PM), and making Narcan available at Project Roomkey sites.
But some of their requests, like access to additional bathrooms, went unanswered.
“People who are on the street right now feel very broken and alone. It feels like nobody cares,” said Will Sens Jr., a former Echo Park Lake resident and member of the research collective. “They need to know that people care about them, so that fire can be lit. We’re there to help embolden these people so that they can feel their own agency again.”
The report suggests four key strategies to prevent a disaster like the mass eviction at Echo Park Lake from happening in the future:
- Keep people housed by building tenant power and preventing evictions.
- Tackle discrimination in housing markets by eliminating application fees, background checks, and credit checks, especially for people with housing vouchers.
- Abolish criminalization by repealing laws like LAMC 41.18 that make it illegal to sit or lie on the street, and eliminate law enforcement contracts with shelter and housing systems.
- Invest in the public acquisition and community control of property through community ownership and operation of public housing.
While these are goals to work toward on a larger scale, all of the researchers, organizers, and unhoused residents of Echo Park Lake interviewed for this piece suggested that more Angelenos become involved in their community. “Say hi to your neighbor, be more conscious of the community. Because you never know, you might be the next one on that street,” said Mendez.
“The solutions were there in the park,” said Carla Orendorff, an organizer with Street Watch LA who participated in the research collective. “The answers are there and they’ve always been there. But most importantly, listen to unhoused people who are telling you what they need to survive.”