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The Unhoused Diaspora

Across Los Angeles, unhoused Angelenos are being forced out of their communities in the name of preserving public space for “all citizens” — but who does that really include?

People getting arrested at Griffith Park by Park Rangers.
Unhoused activists are arrested at Griffith Park. (Photo by Kate Gallagher)

From the moment Ayman Ahmed set foot in Griffith Park, he was on the park rangers’ radar. As he trekked through the wooded hills on the night of Friday, April 9, a ranger rolled up beside him and asked, “Where are we setting up now, Ayman?”

It had been two weeks since Ayman was forced to leave his home at Echo Park Lake. The LAPD’s violent sweep of the park on March 24-25 displaced more than 200 unhoused Angelenos overnight. 

As Knock LA has previously reported, the promises of housing for all the park’s residents were quickly broken, leaving many in unsafe or uncertain situations. Others turned down the offer of a place in Project Roomkey, which was already well-known for its strict, carceral conditions. Of the 177 EPL residents who were given shelter, 43 have left their initial placements, one has died, and zero have been placed in permanent housing.

Once again left to fend for themselves, several former Echo Park Lake residents decided to rebuild the community they had lost: they set their sights on Griffith Park. 

Park Rangers arrest activists at Griffith Park. There is a tent and a few  dogs present.
Park Rangers arrest activists at Griffith Park. (Photo by Kate Gallagher)

The chosen spot was innocuous enough: a patch of lawn nestled among the ruins of the Old Los Angeles Zoo, surrounded by wooded hills and the stone cliffs of long-defunct animal enclosures. By moonlight, the park was quiet and preternaturally peaceful. Far from any roads or parking lots, the only artificial light came from the floodlights outside the bathrooms (which, it was soon discovered, locked automatically at 10:30 PM. Propping one door open at 10:29 would have to be a nightly chore.)

By Saturday morning, the secluded location brimmed with life. Over the weekend, the park hosted picnics, Ultimate Frisbee games, a stand-up comedy show, a wedding, and a massive game of laser tag.

Cece, an unhoused organizer and former resident of Echo Park Lake, was acutely aware of the double standard separating her not just from the carefree weekend parkgoers, but also from the housed organizers who were there to support the encampment. 

“I saw housed people able to lay in the grass and frolic in ways that, you know, we aren’t,” she said. “When we’re having fun and being out and open in ourselves, that’s when they choose to crack down.”

The situation was precarious. As more people became aware of the tents on the hill, it was only a matter of time until the rangers arrived — and no one was sure how they would respond. The group’s budding plans for the encampment — a community kitchen, battery-powered string lights draped between the trees, weekly yoga sessions — had to be put on hold until they were sure they’d found a safe haven and be allowed to stay.

Park rangers speak with activist Ashley Bennett about removing the tents from Griffith Park.

After three days without any visits from law enforcement, the dream came crashing down on the evening of Monday, April 12. Around 6 PM, a few of the encampment’s residents were sharing a meal, when several vehicles full of park rangers and LAPD officers pulled up on the grass next to the seven tents.

Citing an unleashed dog, then a restriction against having tents in the park, then a bulky item ordinance, then finally promising vaguely that “everything will be explained,” the rangers detained five people present at the encampment on charges that were unclear to all.

Soon after arriving, however, one ranger received a phone call from Chief Park Ranger Joe Losorelli, who made the true goal crystal clear: “Take the tents down and arrest them, period. We’re not gonna have that at Griffith Park. The park is for decent people to come to.”

Unlike the incident at Echo Park Lake, this raid was not ordered by a member of City Council — in fact, a member of CD4 Councilmember Nithya Raman’s staff was at the scene, informing the LAPD and park rangers that, in accordance with the CDC’s health guidelines, the office’s policy is not to displace anyone who is sheltering in place.

Losorelli, who falsely claimed that “the COVID stuff doesn’t apply anymore,” later arrived on the scene himself to ensure the camp was swept away. After his arrival, the rangers finally offered the justification that would later become their official story about the incident — that the tents had to move because they were in a “high fire severity zone.” 

There were no LAHSA employees at the scene, and no offers of housing, as city guidelines dictate. When the rangers were asked where else the unhoused residents were supposed to stay, they were unable to provide an answer, beyond a night in a jail cell.

“If you want to go to jail, we’re gonna take you to jail,” Losorelli said. “I know all you guys from Echo Park, I know you were offered housing already, and you’re not gonna do that here, it’s not gonna happen.”

Park Rangers arrest activist Caleb Crowder for taking down tents in Griffith Park. (Video by Jon Peltz)

Ayman and Cece were shepherded into a squad car, but the rangers agreed to let the rest of the group go free as long as they took down the tents. However, in a Kafkaesque turn, once Caleb Crowder, an organizer with Ground Game LA, began taking down his tent as requested, he was once again put in handcuffs — supposedly, because his actions had confirmed that the illegal tent belonged to him.

Ultimately, four people were arrested and later charged with violating LAMC 63.44, “ban on erected tents.” As the last tents were finally taken down, Losorelli asserted clearly, “We won’t let this be another Echo Park.”

Activists are arrested by Park Rangers in Griffith Park midday. There   are several tents and Park Ranger trucks in the background.
Photo by Kate Gallagher

Echo Park Lake reopened to the public on May 26, with permanent fencing installed around the perimeter and constant LAPD presence (including at least one instance of a patrol car cruising down the walking path). Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell stated that the re-opened park would be safe and secure “for all who wish to use this shared public space,” but the heavy security raises questions about who, exactly, public spaces are for.

In the months since the Echo Park Lake debacle, encampment sweeps have been ramping up all across Los Angeles — many of them targeted in other places where, in Losorelli’s words, “decent people” like to go.

Just three days after the arrests at Griffith Park, the city cleared an encampment from a handball court at Venice Beach, after more than 2,000 residents signed a petition calling for its removal. 

Several tents are set up in a grassy area next to the Venice Boardwalk. A man sits on a bench. There is a piece of paper taped to a pole that reads: "Services not Sweeps Direct Action Protocols"
Photo by Kate Gallagher

The Venice boardwalk, home to over 200 tents, has come under fire from local residents and business owners due to a recent increase in crime around the encampment. Even Sheriff Alex Villanueva personally pledged to “reclaim and regulate public space for the community.”

On May 18, a coalition of community organizations gathered at the boardwalk to oppose an “area clean-up and tree trimming” near the skatepark. The clean-up displaced several tents from the targeted section of the beachfront. 

Photo by Kate Gallagher

David Busch-Lilly, an unhoused activist and former Echo Park Lake resident who lived on the Venice boardwalk for 10 years, described the city’s strategy as a “gigantic shelter shuffle … shuffling people into these hotels, so they can clear out privileged areas of Los Angeles, like Echo Park, like Venice, for the wealthy.”

Busch-Lilly also pointed out that the artists and street vendors who live along the boardwalk are part of Venice’s cultural DNA.

“The fact of the matter is, half of these people that are going to be moving today are the reason tourists come to Venice Beach,” he said. “To see not just their tents, but their poetry burned into wood. There’s chainsaw juggling, there’s sand sculptures … this is a place that belongs to the world for people to come and be culturally free.”

Three activists stand on the Venice Boardwalk. One is speaking into a microphone and the other two stand behind a white folding table with a banner that reads "Venice Justice Committee"
Photo by Kate Gallagher

Peggy Lee Kennedy, an advocate with the Venice Justice Committee, questioned the utility of removing unhoused communities from parks and beaches before adequate housing solutions are available.

“You could say its a recreational area, but where are they going to go when you clear them off the beach?” she asked. “They’re gonna go to the streets. So you’re just moving people around if you don’t have real solutions.”

Four activists pose, with fists raised, in front of a white banner with graffiti that reads: "Homes not Zones"
Mark poses with activists from Street Watch LA. (Photo by Kate Gallagher)

Even sidewalks — the most mundane of all public spaces — can become the site of disputes between housed and unhoused communities.

Mark has been living on the sidewalk of Vesper Ave. in Van Nuys for about three months. To call his dwelling a “tent” doesn’t do it justice — the cozy living room setup he shares with his unhoused neighbors includes armchairs, a futon, a full-length mirror, and an area rug to cover the sidewalk.

Before arriving on Vesper, Mark lived on another street nearby. His makeshift home apparently drew the ire of local business owners, who — much like the city did in Venice — used tree-trimming as an excuse to clear the encampment off the sidewalk.

“We were down the way on another street, and [a business] said they wanted us to move because gardeners were gonna trim, so we moved,” he recalled. “And the gardener never showed up. They were playing that old game just to get us to move.”

Another difficulty is the CARE+ sanitation sweeps that regularly come through, forcing the small encampment’s residents to pick up and move so the sidewalk can be power-washed. This is especially grueling for Julia, 59, who is physically unable to move all her belongings on her own.

At around 7:30 AM on the morning of May 6, LAHSA and sanitation workers arrived for a scheduled CARE+ sweep. Julia showed the crew a letter from her doctor stating that, due to chronic medical conditions, she should be permitted to remain in place. 

UCLA Health. To whom it may concern: I am an internal medicine physician at UCLA Medical Center. I am writing this letter to serve as verification that Julia has chronic medical conditions. I have reviewed their. medical history. In my opinion, physical and mental health can be exacerbated in times of stress, including forced removal of one's personal possessions. For this reason, and in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I would strongly recommend that someone in this condition be permitted to remain in place. Julia is currently homeless, residing in Van Nuys. Julia needs to take daily medications which are stored among their belongings. Even if unattended, unhoused individuals retain full rights to property and are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures without due process. Please contact me with any further questions or if further verification is needed.

The letter notes that the stress of “forced removal of one’s personal possessions” can exacerbate physical and mental health issues, and that “unhoused individuals retain full rights to property and are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures without due process.”

The LAHSA employees confirmed that they already had a copy of the letter from the last time they’d swept Julia’s block. On that occasion, they had disregarded the doctor’s note, and Julia had to recruit others to help move her belongings. This time, they reasoned, since Julia had been able to find help the first time, she should be able to do so again.

Volunteers from Street Watch LA helped Julia and Mark move their possessions into a nearby parking lot while Julia spoke with LAHSA about her housing prospects. She’d been waiting for a placement in Project Homekey, a statewide program that converts hotels and vacant apartment buildings into permanent supportive housing. But space is limited, with only 2,121 total units in LA County, and after six months on the waiting list, Julia wasn’t seeing any progress.

“They said they would let me know next Thursday,” she said. “But that’s what they said last time, too. And I think the time before that, probably the time before that too.”

After having bad experiences at shelters in the past, Julia was wary of returning to temporary shelter. Instead, she had her sights fixed on the long-term.

“I’m trying to go back to school, so it doesn’t really matter what the conditions are that I live in,” she said. “If I have to live in a tent because of finances, then I’m doing it. I only need one semester of flight school and I have my pilot’s license, and I can get a job and get my own place.”

Five activists from Street Watch LA pose with large banners that read "Services not Sweeps" and "Home Not Zones"
Street Watch LA protests a sweep in Van Nuys. (Photo by Kate Gallagher)

With the CDC’s pandemic guidelines on the way out, and a looming decision in a federal lawsuit over LA’s homelessness crisis, the city will soon have to make a decision about the future of its homelessness strategy.

The lawsuit, brought in March 2020 by a coalition of DTLA residents and business owners calling themselves the LA Alliance for Human Rights, criticizes the city and county governments for failing to address the homelessness crisis, particularly in Skid Row.

On April 20, Judge David O. Carter issued a sweeping preliminary injunction in the case, which orders the city and county to offer housing to every resident of Skid Row within six months. However, the injunction doesn’t specify what sort of “shelter” will be provided, or what exactly will happen to those who don’t accept the offer. 

The vagueness has raised concerns from activists and Skid Row locals, who worry that the business advocates who brought the suit are more focused on getting people off the sidewalks than providing long-term housing solutions.

A Denver development company already has plans to build a $2 billion, 10-building complex on the eastern edge of Skid Row, with only 212 of its 1,521 housing units set aside for low-income residents. It’s worth noting that the project will be built in partnership with Los Angeles Cold Storage Co., whose president, Larry Rauch, is a plaintiff in the LA Alliance lawsuit.

Although an Appeals Court panel temporarily halted Judge Carter’s injunction until June 15, it’s already causing waves on Skid Row.

In early May, the LAPD and LAHSA began targeting outreach at an encampment on the corner of Winston St. and San Pedro St. Directly across the street is the Tailor Lofts, a six-story historic industrial building which was converted into an upscale live-work building in 2019.

“LAPD was coming out, pressuring the community saying, ‘oh, you guys gotta move by October 1 per Carter’s preliminary injunction,’ which is 100% false,” said Skid Row activist General Jeff Page. “I’ve parsed out the actual language. He ordered the city to offer housing, but the community has the option to refuse.”

However, on Monday, May 10, fencing was installed on the sidewalk surrounding the Tailor Lofts ahead of planned renovations. The eight encampment residents across the street were told that they would have to clear the block, whether or not they accepted LAHSA’s offer to move into Project Roomkey, “Because there was pressure and confusion on the homeless folks, they ended up having to agree,” General Jeff said. “They felt forced to agree with LAHSA that they would go into hotel rooms, even though they weren’t sure [that they wanted to].”

By Wednesday, May 12, seven of the encampment’s eight residents had taken down their tents and moved into hotel rooms through Project Roomkey. Rick, who’s been living on Skid Row for over 12 years, is the only one who stayed. 

“Everybody was coerced,” Rick said. “They were forced into it. Some of the guys were threatened. They told them: if you don’t move, we’re going to take your stuff, and you’re going to get arrested.”

The next day, workers arrived to put up a second set of fencing on Rick’s side of the street — on the opposite side of Winston St. from the Tailor Lofts. 

“They were going to dig up the concrete and lay irrigation plumbing for some planters that would go on the sidewalk,” General Jeff explained. “What we know on Skid Row as anti-homeless-planters, so that there’s less room for tents to go up on the sidewalk.”

The workers did not appear to have a proper permit to put up the fencing. Later that afternoon, an investigator from the Department of Public Works arrived, who determined that the fencing indeed appeared to be illegal. 

Nevertheless, the next Monday morning, a construction crew arrived, forced Rick to move, and began tearing up the sidewalk. When volunteers from Street Watch LA, J-Town Action, and LACAN attempted to block the illegal construction, LAPD officers threatened to arrest them.

After a Department of Public Works investigator arrived and spoke to the police, the construction was finally called off. It was a victory for Rick — but this was just one battle in what’s shaping up to be a long war against the gentrification of Skid Row.

A certain phrase in Judge Carter’s injunction sounds all too familiar: “The homeless have been left no other place to turn to but our beaches, parks, libraries, and sidewalks, and it is pivotal that they no longer rely on spaces that enhance the quality of life for all citizens.”

The key question is whether “all citizens” includes the unhoused.