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Analysis

Misrepresentation, Intimidation, Violence — How the Media’s Narrative of the Echo Park Lake Unhoused Causes Harm

Portraying the unhoused community as wayward hipsters is not only false but leads to real harm for the residents of Echo Park Lake.

An Echo Park Lake Resident (Photo: Jed Parriott)

On October 21st, 2020, Jed Parriott — a member of Street Watch LA — heard a knock on his front door at 8:30 at night. When he answered, he was greeted by a young man who immediately asked, “Are you Jed Parriott?”

“I was like,” Parriott told me, speaking of the incident, “‘Am I going to get bricks thrown through my window?’”

The man introduced himself as Riley Montgomery, a member of an organization called Friends of Echo Park Lake (FoEPL).

Riley Montgomery in front of Jed Parriott’s home (Photo: Jed Parriott)

“We all hate your guts,” Montgomery said. “And we all have your address.”

Friends of Echo Park Lake is a self-described progressive organization that — according to their website — “supports the urgency of obtaining suitable housing for the unhoused residents of the Echo Park Lake.”

Parriott tried to deescalate the situation and explain his position, but Montgomery kept repeating that FoEPL hated Parriott. At one point, he even said, “This is only the beginning.”

“It felt like he was fishing for a reaction from me,” Parriott said. “He repeatedly said to me, ‘Jed, you and Street Watch. You’re the reason people are dying.’ I know people who died at that lake. For him to say that to me was just beyond.”

Parriott calmly explained to Montgomery that Street Watch wanted the city to offer more humane solutions and did not advocate permanent residency at the lake. After a roughly 20 minute conversation, Montgomery left. Tensions have only risen since.

On January 26, Theo Henderson — an activist and host of the podcast We The Unhoused — attended a FoEPL meeting. His mic was muted after he expressed concerns about some of the group’s plans. FoEPL had met with CD13 Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell to discuss turning the lake into a police enforcement zone. Unhoused residents would have to accept whatever shelter the city offered or face arrest. KNOCK released video footage of the meeting earlier this month, which was subsequently pulled from YouTube due to an anonymous privacy complaint.

Screenshot from FoEPL Meeting via Zoom on January 26

In the video, several members say they want to enact an enforcement zone quietly to avoid backlash. Danielle Carrig — a member of FoEPL and the COO of Conde Nast — even expressed frustration that police enforcement would not begin sooner.

Blowback over the video may mean the group is disbanding, but the threat of enforcement still looms over the Echo Park Lake community — especially given the city’s general lack of transparency surrounding the situation. The fact such a small group of residents secured private meetings with O’Farrell sets a dangerous precedent for the future of the lake and the media narrative surrounding it.

Tangible Solutions For A Complex Problem

In his LA Mag piece, Jason McGahan reports a man at the Echo Park Lake encampment has a “ripped torso and piercing green eyes” while using adjectives like “photogenic” and “telegenic” to describe the community. McGahan repeatedly draws attention to the fact many residents own cell phones and mentions several times that Davon Brown — owner of the aforementioned ripped torso — is a former fashion model.

The article did not sit right with many Echo Park Lake residents and members of Street Watch. Parriott — who plays a prominent role in the story — was particularly offended. McGahan describes Parriott as a “39-year-old white guy with a head of blond curls” and implies he owns a BMW (he does not).

Friends of Echo Park Lake founder Jeff Giles gets gentler treatment. He is described as a 65-year-old physical therapist who sank his life savings into a condo, the value of which he worries will soon deplete. But this fact alone is not why Giles founded FoEPL. The catalyst was the death of Brianna Moore last August, an 18-year-old who passed away from a fentanyl overdose at the lake.

One can understand Giles’s and even McGahan’s concern. The situation at Echo Park Lake is worrying, but Giles and McGahan fail to understand the real root of the issue. McGahan’s article portrays Street Watch and their supporters as romanticizing the encampment, mistaking a dire situation for some encroaching Marxist utopia. He seems to believe what Riley Montgomery believed — that Street Watch wants people to die at the lake.

Street Watch members, however, are aware the situation is not sustainable but that the more pertinent matters are an end to criminalization, which opponents often spin as advocacy of permanent residency. They believe humane, permanent housing options are a human right that the city currently does not offer.

Press Conference calling for a Stop to Sweeps (Photo: Jed Parriott)

The media places primary focus on young, healthy unhoused people while largely ignoring elderly residents and families with children. Being young and healthy is also not a protective shroud against financial difficulty. Davon Brown was a model, but anyone in Los Angeles could tell you, a handful of modeling or acting gigs does not guarantee a sustainable career. Brown was never living at the lake as a political statement; he was genuinely without shelter. People like Brown seek shelter in parks because they provide public health resources, such as bathrooms, sinks, and drinking fountains — not because of some trendy subculture associated with such communities.

“You end up with folx who have nowhere to go. Why they choose Echo Park is not because of the natural spring in the fountain. It’s not because of the boat rides. They’re there because they’re trying to survive,” said a former resident of Echo Park Lake who asked to remain anonymous. “People were not trying to find a cool place to live, which has been the story the city has tried to portray. They don’t want to hear the truth, which is that folx that are homeless are trying to find a better solution for themselves. But they’re dealing with a city that is not working fast enough, that is not working effectively enough.”

Unhoused Community of Echo Park Lake wrote Open Letter to Mitch O’Farrell in March about new shelter plans and coronavirus concerns.

When I asked Street Watch about tangible solutions to LA’s homelessness crisis, they had plenty. First, stop criminalization. This, in and of itself, would solve many problems. There is also a lengthy list of demands unhoused individuals at Echo Park released last year that still hold true, which include voluntary shelters without check-in, check-out policies and floorplans designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

However, it is not just about future changes, some of which could take months or even years to put in place. There are actionable means to help the unhoused community right now. Eric Garcetti could use Project Roomkey to immediately seize empty hotel rooms, something Street Watch has been fighting for since last April. In January, FEMA even said they would reimburse local governments 100% for commandeering hotels, but Garcetti has yet to act. Beyond government intervention, Street Watch members and other volunteers do what they can to help by handing out food and clothing, charging residents’ cell phones, and providing Narcan to treat overdoses — which saves lives. This makes Riley Montgomery’s suggestion that volunteers are “the reason people are dying” seem even more ludicrous.

Street Watch is met with the same accusations flung at many other left-leaning organizations. They’re rigid, idealistic, and unwilling to compromise. They refuse tenable plans and instead throw things into purgatory with quixotic demands. However, these grassroots organizations seem to be the only ones offering actionable solutions.

The Lake Provides A Cover

Sachin Medhekar is the chair of the Echo Park Homelessness and Housing Committee. I spoke with him over the phone about the situation at Echo Park Lake and we discussed the troubling nature of the media narrative and overall public perception.

“It’s complicated,” Medhekar tells me. “I think there are people who do have good intentions in [Friends of Echo Park Lake], but there are also people who don’t.”

He says how people discuss the lake is a sort of litmus test.

“Some people see the suffering and think, ‘We need to provide more adequate resources,’” Medhekar says, “They look at the lake and think, ‘Wow, their basic needs need to be met.’ Then there are people who go, “Gosh, I miss the way the lake used to be. Let’s get them housed so we can get the lake back.’ Ultimately, they’re asking for the same thing, but the priorities are different. If your priority is to get the lake back, the quickest answer is criminalization.”

Two young unhoused residents getting arrested by Rangers because one of them was smoking. They arrested and charged both with smoking in the park. (Photo: Jed Parriott)

I immediately recall a documentary Riley Montgomery posted on YouTube regarding Echo Park Lake. Sixteen minutes long, a little over half the film is devoted to chronicling the death of a duckling an unhoused man picked up off the street. The focus was the plight of the duck and not the man who shoved it in his duffel bag — emblematic of where the priorities of people like those at FoEPL lie.

Medhekar tells me not everyone who supports criminalization realizes what they are supporting. He’s had conversations with Echo Park residents about “sweeps,” a program where sanitation workers clean up street encampments ostensibly to ensure the sidewalks are safe and passable. An attractive idea in theory, sweeps are often a covert way of displacing unhoused people. The city’s strategy in Echo Park Lake, for example, was to do sweeps on a weekly basis in the hopes residents would eventually get exhausted with constantly moving their belongings and leave voluntarily. Sweeps can also result in unhoused people’s belongings being confiscated or lost, including documentation like driver’s licenses and social security cards. So without proper context, a well-meaning person can be in favor of sweeps without realizing the consequences.

There seem to be varying degrees of responsibility here. Having worked in digital media, I know fact-checking is often a matter of seeking confirmation from reputable sources. Publications like LA Magazine certainly qualify. While I am responsible for the bad takes I put on the internet in my 20s, it would be naive to pretend my views were formed in a vacuum. We all have a moral responsibility to stay informed, but political spin and media bias make it difficult for even conscientious citizens to do so.

The problem is bigger than individual failings, especially when one considers what high-profile media figures often do behind closed doors. Given O’Farrell is seeking re-election soon, it is hard to imagine the fact FoEPL included the COO of Conde Nast was not a factor in his decision to meet with them.

Screenshot from FoEPL Meeting via Zoom on January 26

This brings us to the issue of Danielle Carrig, who holds a great deal of sway in the media and likely has a comprehensive knowledge of power dynamics in Los Angeles. Teen Vogue — part of the Conde Nast empire — is well-known for having their finger on the pulse of progressive issues. Carrig must understand the consequences of a group of affluent white people calling the police on a community disproportionately comprised of people of color. She chose to push for that anyway.

While getting unhoused people into city shelters may seem charitable, there is a shortage of ethical options here. The former Echo Park Lake resident I spoke to said, regarding shelters, “Based on my experience, [people] need permanent housing and some kind of stability. A shelter is just a bandaid over the wound.”

City shelters are rarely adequate. Parents and children are often separated due to regulations and some facilities require total sobriety. Having seen loved ones grapple with substance abuse, this horrifies me. If people with a chemical dependency quit cold turkey without medical assistance, they usually die. People may be less likely to die at the lake than in one of the “suitable housing options” FoEPL proposes.

During my meetings with Street Watch, one statement I heard over and over again was, “There is no one-size-fits-all solution for homelessness.”

Identifying and enacting compassionate solutions will be difficult, but that is no excuse to settle for inhumane measures. There are no easy answers here, but there are obvious wrongs.

Out Of Their Own Backyards

Media has always loved to trash Los Angeles while those behind-the-scenes — including Carrig — quietly reap the benefits of economic disparity. If the story of Echo Park Lake ever makes its way to a broader audience, one has to wonder how it will be portrayed. The precedent set isn’t great.

McGahan’s take on Echo Park Lake tries to evoke Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” but never explores why the center is not holding. Just last May, The New York Times ran a piece by Amy Wilentz titled “Are Cars Protecting Los Angeles?” that reignited the tired New York vs. LA debate in the midst of a national pandemic that had disproportionately affected the LA’s most vulnerable — including the unhoused community, who make a very brief appearance. When discussing Skid Row, Wilentz describes driving through the neighborhood on her way to pick up “some urgent necessities like Parmesan cheese, arugula and black peppercorns.” “But there’s an overabundance of life here,” she wrote, “and an overabundance of caution is impossible.” The unhoused community is a prop to give our narrator fleeting hope before disappearing comfortably into the periphery.

These are just a few examples of the version of Los Angeles big media frequently promotes — a city built on wealth and superficiality, sheer opulence devoid of real culture. Propping up that message obscures Los Angeles’s real problems and — more importantly — what is possible if we better allocate our resources.

The anonymous man I talked to earlier found shelter through Project Roomkey and eventually got his own apartment through a nonprofit.

“I am proof the city does work,” he said. “I am proof there are programs out there that can give permanent housing to homeless folx. Why aren’t there more stories like mine?”

The media prefers stories like Montgomery’s documentary. Los Angeles is a city where the suffering of a single duckling takes priority over the myriad systemic factors that led to a man snatching a wild bird off the sidewalk, a city where unhoused residents are a side character whose charming antics grant you vague solace en route to Parmesan crisps.

The story never ends with resolution. The story barely acknowledges there are problems. It ends instead with one of its various privileged narrators pushing those problems comfortably out of their own backyards.


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