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Former Echo Park Lake Residents, Internal LAHSA Communications Contradict Housing Placement Claims

Residents accepted transitional housing only to have promises immediately broken, while LAHSA employees worry about those who were shut out of the rooms other residents did get in.

Residents report the terms of service provision being changed immediately after agreeing to them, while LAHSA employees worry about the effects of prioritizing placement of encampment residents ahead of more vulnerable populations. (Photo: Shanley Kellis)

NOTE: Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect sources who wish to remain anonymous.

This time last week, Echo Park Lake transformed overnight from a community of unhoused Angelenos fighting for their existence to an open-air prison.

“To tell you the truth, I was afraid,” unhoused former resident Gustavo told Knock LA, recalling coming out of his tent in the early hours of March 25 to find he and his community fenced inside. “I was afraid, just being there by myself.”

The night before, March 24, over 400 LAPD officers released a few hundred protesters from a kettle around midnight, leaving the residents of the Echo Park Lake Tent Community to spend one last night in their tents as public servants built a fence around them. By morning, no one was allowed in or out.

That same night, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) Executive Director Heidi Marston was on the scene, informing residents remaining at the park that there would not be housing made available until the following day. Marston returned to speak with unhoused activist and Echo Park Lake resident David Busch-Lilly at the park the next morning, and spoke to the LA Times about how the sweep had been handled.

“It’s about setting expectations, being clear and giving them options,” she said. The way Echo Park Lake had been cleared by the police “facilitates fear, chaos, and it breaks the trust we built. It seems like it didn’t need to happen this way.”

Former residents told Knock LA that any existing trust between Echo Park Lake residents and service providers like LAHSA was extremely fraught to begin with. By Thursday afternoon, the pressure put on remaining residents at the park and promises quickly broken by LAHSA employees scrambling to get people out of the park made things far worse.

City officials, most prominently Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell and Mayor Eric Garcetti, have insisted that many who lived and organized at Echo Park Lake just last week have been successfully rehoused. The LA Times reported Mayor Garcetti as saying the event was, “the largest housing transition of an encampment ever in the city’s history.”

Interviews Knock LA conducted with displaced Echo Park Lake residents, organizers, and employees within LAHSA indicate a far different reality.

Gustavo was staying in a local hotel room paid for by activist group Street Watch LA this week after LAHSA and other local homeless services failed to house him following the sweep. Prior to the raid of March 24, he had lived in the Echo Park Lake community for over seven months.

“I found a spot where there were good people,” he told Knock LA Tuesday afternoon. “I said, ‘hey, this is my family and we try to take care of each other.’ We were a community.” 

Gustavo, like much of the Echo Park Lake population, is employed, regularly taking handyman jobs in the area. On the morning of Thursday, March 25, he says LAHSA employees and other service providers repeatedly went around to tents, asking unhoused residents if they would reconsider accepting services, and that rooms for many would be made available. Immediately upon accepting, he was first told he would need to forfeit the tools needed for his job in order to enter the program, then that there was no immediate housing available after all.

“And then [the LAHSA employee] said around here, we do not have rooms anymore,” Gustavo said. “I said, ‘hey, you just told me you have room for me.’”

Instead, Gustavo was offered a place at a shelter, which he rejected due to the reputation of their lack of safety for unhoused residents.

“I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff,” he said. “They don’t treat you with respect there. So I said no, I am not going there.”

LAHSA then offered Gustavo the possibility of a room in Downey, a 20-minute drive by car from his work. Gustavo does not own a car, and the commute, compounded with an inability to bring his tools into a Project Roomkey site, meant he would be unable to work at all. This was the last Gustavo heard from Project Roomkey after being assured a local room mid-eviction, and he’s been staying in a hotel room provided by Street Watch LA ever since.

Project Roomkey has been a source of widespread criticism since its launch back in March 2020 after a faulty record of following through on its promise to “provide non-congregate shelter options for people experiencing homelessness, protect human life, and minimize strain on health care capacity.” Throughout 2020, the program experienced a number of blows — LA County delivered only a third of the 15,000 rooms initially promised, allegations of discrimination against the disabled surfaced, and the program was scheduled to be closed altogether, ending permanently in September 2021. 

While many unhoused people seeking transition into long-term housing have been critical of the program, 90 days in a hotel room of their own offered a temporary housing solution. Accepting PRK services resulted in the unhoused agreeing to a number of punitive policies for a population whose only “crime” was being unhoused. Previous reporting at Knock LA has revealed strict curfews, frequent seizure of property, inedible food, and little-to-no privacy.

For those displaced at Echo Park Lake last Thursday, the option to remain up to 90 days while working with services to secure permanent housing does not appear to be in place.

This is clear from the experience of former Echo Park Lake resident Mariah*, who spoke to Knock LA from a Project Roomkey room on the westside of Los Angeles last Sunday afternoon. 

“I didn’t start packing until later in the afternoon,” she said of her experience being evicted from Echo Park Lake. “I was in a state of shock because everything had accelerated… so there’s a lot of stress with us remaining in the park. So we just hung out together, just giving each other emotional support.”

Before being housed miles from where she had originally been assured housing by LAHSA on March 25, she experienced three different changes to her temporary housing plan, and no clear idea of how long she would be housed by the program. Along with many others, Mariah woke up at a fenced-in Echo Park Lake, and told Knock LA she received similar pressure from LAHSA at the scene. 

“They knew me, they knew where my tent was and they kept coming by. ‘Have you decided yet? Have you decided yet?’”

After considering the alternatives, Mariah felt she had no choice. “I realized I had to accept the Project Roomkey offer,” she said. “LAHSA was in the park, Urban Alchemy was in the park… I was debating what to do, what am I gonna do? And so I decided that’s my best option. I’m not as young as I used to be anymore, otherwise I would have hung in there.”

Leaving the community at Echo Park Lake for Project Roomkey was a difficult one. “I felt like I was letting down my companions, the fighters,” she said.

After formally accepting services, Mariah was immediately informed there were no hotels available for that night, and that she could potentially be housed at a shelter on Skid Row. Having had bad experiences in shelters, she informed the LAHSA employee she preferred to pitch a tent in front of O’Farrell’s office nearby in protest. Shortly after, a different LAHSA employee guaranteed her housing in a Project Roomkey site in Culver City the following day.

After spending the evening in a hotel paid for by Street Watch LA, Mariah was taken to a Project Roomkey site by LAHSA employees Friday afternoon, only to be informed that there was not space for her in the hotel after all. Scrambling, the employees accompanying her were able to find a space available at Nest, a newer temporary housing site. Mariah was initially thrilled to receive housing area closer to Echo Park Lake, until learning the conditions she’d be living in — a shared apartment with three strangers, where residents are only allowed to leave the building from 12 PM to 4 PM each day.

“So I’m shocked,” she told Knock LA. “I said, ‘wait a minute, this was misrepresented to me.’”

Concept art for Nest by Brooks + Scarpa, funded in early 2019 by the city.

By the time Mariah learned about the restrictions imposed by Nest, the LAHSA employees who accompanied her were gone. While making her decision whether to stay or not, her possessions already separated by “acceptable” and “unacceptable” in trash bags. Mariah told Knock LA that someone approached the gate of Nest, terrified. She recounted the woman’s reaction:

“Out of nowhere, a woman… walks up to the gate. She’s video recording on her cell phone. And she shouts out, ‘My friend is in there, and they won’t let him out! Then they wouldn’t let me join to visit him! It’s a jail!’”  

This experience convinced Mariah to leave the site before enrolling. Back on the street with her belongings in bags, Mariah contacted the LAHSA employee who had guaranteed her housing the afternoon before at Echo Park Lake. By Friday night, he was able to house her at a hotel on the far west side of the city for an indeterminate amount of time, where Mariah was asked to sign an agreement assuring Project Roomkey she would not shoplift from the grocery store across the street. As of Sunday, she was unsure how long the program would guarantee her housing.

“I was told by the LAHSA worker that this is only gonna be for a week or two,” she said.

Why top brass at LAHSA agreed to O’Farrell’s direction to have the park’s population dispersed into an already chaotic and backlogged temporary housing system in the first place remains unclear. Interestingly, Marston’s comment to the LA Times stating it “didn’t need to happen this way,” referring to the heavy policing and fearmongering of the March 24 sweep, directly contradicts the media narratives of Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell and Mayor Garcetti. 

In a thread from Saturday, March 27, O’Farrell declared that 209 unhoused people had been provided transitional housing successfully. These numbers differ from those stated by both LAHSA and activists from Echo Park Lake – as well as those Marston has been using internally.

In an internal email to LAHSA staff from Marston’s team dated last Friday provided to Knock LA, Marston indicates that just over 100 Echo Park Lake residents had been provided with transitional housing between March 19th and March 26th — 71 people through Project Roomkey, 22 people in Nest, six people in Mayfair, and three people in A Bridge Home – for a total of 152 placements “since the deployment began.” These numbers contrast with O’Farrell’s, and certainly with Echo Park Lake unhoused advocate and Street Watch LA organizer Jed Parriott’s estimation of approximately 63 people accepting services. 

As of March 25, Heidi Marston’s internal communications put the number of placements for EPL residents at 152.

Interviews with LAHSA employees indicated that there was little, if any communication made of an abrupt sweep and pressure to re-house on this scale prior to it taking place. 

“I never heard anything,” said Michael*, a higher-level LAHSA employee. “I don’t think that LAHSA was as aware as possible until that day, or high, high-up management did not communicate that. Maybe for fear of leaking information out.”

Non-management employee Amber* reported that no one in her sphere was aware of the extreme measures of police presence, violence, and pressure from O’Farrell to get residents into housing at the park on March 24.

“Nobody really talked about it, which was very uncomfortable,” Amber said of the days following the raid. “There were some emails sent out that were either written by Heidi’s PR team or her… it was basically saying that in February, Mitch O’Farrell had asked LAHSA to basically target outreach in Echo Park.”

This pressure came “because the encampments are growing, and becoming more obvious in the community,” Amber explained. “And in general, that’s why encampments are targeted… from the perspective of NIMBY-minded people, not myself.” 

Protesters stand in from some of the hundreds of LAPD officers deployed to Echo Park Lake on Thursday, March 25. (Photo: Kate Gallagher)

According to Michael, it was well-known that encampments at Echo Park Lake, Skid Row, and Eagle Rock were potential targets for such efforts, going back as much as a year. This geographical (as opposed to need-based) approach frustrated LAHSA employees who maintained the wait list for Project Roomkey.

“These PRK rooms were specifically for highly, highly vulnerable populations that are more susceptible to catching COVID —65-plus, pre-existing mental health and medical conditions,” Michael said. “But we were asked, in partnership with the Mayor’s office, to offer the folks in these encampments [rooms], to prioritize them to move them into these hotel rooms.”

Michael feels that this alteration to the prioritization system “doesn’t make sense,” and confirmed that as a result of those displaced from Echo Park Lake last week who had either accepted or been pressured into accepting Project Roomkey services, unhoused people at high risk to contract COVID were pushed even further down the Project Roomkey waiting list. It is conceivable, he says, that some people currently waiting for voluntary Project Roomkey services will not receive them before the program ends in September.

Amber followed up with Knock LA to describe a recent meeting in which a LAHSA service provider expressed extreme concern about an Echo Park Lake resident they had lost touch with. She noted that working remotely has made it all the more easy for the average LAHSA employee to be out of the loop regarding key actions within the agency.

“There’s a disconnect between PRK staff, providers, and LAHSA,” she said. “Sometimes information is not shared easily or accurately.”

Parriott says that the Echo Park Lake community was targeted for services on a daily basis by multiple service providers beginning Friday, March 19.

“Suddenly, a week and a half ago, LAHSA was just like, ‘we’re gonna be here every day for the next four days to make sure everybody gets a room,’” Parriott told Knock LA Tuesday afternoon. “And not just LAHSA. PATH, Homeless Healthcare, six or seven other service providers.”

Echo Park Lake, morning of Wednesday, March 24 (Photo: Shanley Kellis)

He says the sudden pressure to accept services indicated an impending sweep to the community, though O’Farrell had not formally announced one by the evening of March 24. Parriott and organizer Ashley Bennett had previously connected around 20 Echo Park Lake residents with services, at the request of residents. Bennett was fired from LAHSA in a retaliatory measure at Mitch O’Farrell’s request last year, claiming she had been “instigating anarchy in the park” in early 2020 by informing residents that there was no LAHSA housing available at that time. (Disclosure: Ashley Bennett is a founding member of Ground Game LA, which is affiliated with Knock LA.)

Organizers at the park grew concerned when previous Project Roomkey qualifications, including the 65+ age range and allowing those with pre-existing conditions going to the front of the line, were overturned in order to clear Echo Park Lake. Parriott described a conversation with a local unhoused man with several pre-existing health conditions who was shocked to hear that rooms were rumored to be available for Echo Park Lake residents — he had been on the waiting list since last June.

“Now [they were] just targeting this geographical area because it’s so coveted by NIMBYs who want them gone,” Parriott told Knock LA. 

The declarations of success from O’Farrell, Garcetti, and Marston have received heavy criticism outside the unhoused community, as well. On March 31, members of the faculty of UCLA, USC, UCI, and Occidental College released this statement:

Read full letter here. (Originally shared by Ananya Roy)

The police raid and subsequent displacement of the Echo Park Lake community demonstrates what many who lived in the park knew already — LAHSA and the City of Los Angeles are insisting that unhoused people leave public spaces, while offering no well-organized, long-term alternative. The narratives that have emerged from city officials like O’Farrell, Garcetti, and Marston also fail to address common reasons that unhoused people resist services, including but not limited to restricted hours of moving freely, seizure of property, feeling higher at risk to contract COVID-19 in city housing, and a concern among unhoused women of being assaulted in the shelter system.

“I’d rather live under a bridge than live with my kids in one of those rooms” said former Echo Park Lake resident and activist Jessica Mendez, or “Queen,” at a Tuesday press conference in front of City Hall. “As a woman, that’s degrading. As a human, get out of here with that bullshit.”

O’Farrell’s declaration and subsequent photo opportunities with Project Homekey ring particularly hollow with unhoused residents at Echo Park Lake as they rebuild their lives with inconsistent or inadequate interim housing following the destruction of their community. Residents at the lake had been trying to get a meeting with O’Farrell with no success for months, and continued to try all the way through last Thursday afternoon as their tents were destroyed. Prominent unhoused activists David Busch-Lilly and Ayman Ahmed were eventually detained by police for refusing to disperse from the park without once getting to speak with the Councilmember who had declared the park’s clearing for “upgrades” a win.

Former Echo Park Lake residents, activists, and allies hold press conference on March 31. (Photo: Shelby Eggers)

Ahmed spoke to this dissonance at the press conference, and to his frustration with how Project Roomkey and similar services residents were pressured to accept are framed by the city.

“Why did they displace us? For what reason?” he asked. “For this Project Roomkey nonsense? These are not adequate alternatives to what we had. What we had at Echo Park was a shelter, was a community.”

This morning in Echo Park, there was no construction within the fenced-in park, no indication of the upgrades O’Farrell assured constituents were an emergency. A full week after 400 cops descended on an encampment, an entire community was displaced and 182 protesters were characterized as violent and arrested, the community displaced by the “largest housing transition of an encampment ever” struggles, but continues the fight.

“I’m happy,” Gustavo told Knock LA from a hotel room provided by activists. “We can fight for it, we can fight for what is right. What happened to these people was so wrong.”

LAHSA declined to provide comment for this article, citing displeasure with Knock LA’s previous reporting on Heidi Marston.