I checked in with the residents of Echo Park Lake, who have built a community of resources and support, to see how they’ve grown.
A community garden, a crowd-funded jobs program, and a kitchen with free food — this may sound like a commune from the ’60s, but these features can actually be found today in Los Angeles. The unhoused people living at Echo Park Lake have organized themselves into a resilient, ever-growing community, despite accommodations and resources the City has failed to provide.
It’s no secret that Los Angeles is in the middle of a housing and homelessness crisis. LA County has over 60,000 residents who have lost their housing and COVID-19 has exacerbated this already critical situation. Mayor Garcetti refused to cancel rent during the pandemic while Project Roomkey fell far short of its goal to provide shelter for 15,000 unhoused people in local hotel and motel rooms. This lack of meaningful, decisive action is nothing but an abject failure on the part of our elected officials, forcing tens of thousands of unhoused people to fend for themselves on the streets.
For the unhoused community residing at Echo Park Lake, however, they seem to have adopted Bernie Sanders’ former Presidential campaign slogan: not me, us.
“If everyone talks together and works together, it’s just better,” said Ayman Ahmed, an unhoused resident of Echo Park Lake. “If you live an individualistic and ego-centric life, that’s suffering. If you’re part of a community, you’re a part of a whole instead of being the whole, if that makes sense.”
Ayman Ahmed has been an integral part of helping the unhoused people at Echo Park Lake transform themselves from a few scattered tents to the interconnected community we see today. In late 2019, he and Devon Brown moved to Echo Park Lake hoping to find refuge. Unlike living in a tent on the street or under an overpass, parks have crucial resources including water fountains and bathrooms.
One day a housed resident of Echo Park named Jed Parriott introduced himself to Ahmed and Brown, explaining that he was a housing and homelessness activist with Street Watch Los Angeles. Parriott informed the unhoused men that they had every legal right to rest in public spaces and that the issue continues to be hotly debated in the courts.
“I asked if they wanted to have a Know Your Rights potluck,” Parriott told me, “They said yes, and Ayman wanted to know how to get help and support if they got arrested. I pointed out that I have connections to the National Lawyers Guild and we exchanged phone numbers. I think we were really inspired by each other in that moment.”
What unfolded in the following months was an organic conversation between housed and unhoused Angelenos. Street Watch LA gained several unhoused members and began providing the residents of Echo Park Lake with essentials like tents, hygiene kits, food, clothing, and NARCAN (a nasal spray that can treat narcotic overdose).
Housed residents of the Services Not Sweeps coalition, which includes Street Watch LA, started showing up when the City sent CARE+ teams to Echo Park Lake backed by armed Park Rangers to conduct weekly cleanups (or “sweeps.”) The sweeps are a controversial process intended to keep encampments of unhoused people sanitary, but in reality they destroy unhoused people’s personal possessions, cause unnecessary trauma, and further criminalize unhoused people. Several unhoused residents of Echo Park Lake have told the housed members of the Services Not Sweeps coalition that they are treated better when their housed neighbors stand nearby to witness and record the CARE+ teams.
“The pandemic gave a pause to the sweeps,” Parriott said, explaining that the City officially stopped sending CARE+ teams to unhoused encampments during the first five months of the international health emergency. “Slowly more and more people came to the park, seeing the organizing and thinking it was a safe haven. Many unhoused people don’t want to go to a shelter while COVID is a problem.”
Around this time, an unhoused resident of Echo Park Lake named Diana started cooking for everyone. This laid the foundation for the communal kitchen that stands there today — a wooden structure with a blue tarp roof, multiple hotplates, and shelves overflowing with donated food. Soon after, an unhoused resident named Anna took over.
“God is sending a lot of people in here,” explained Anna while she cooked soup, strips of bacon, and diced onions and peppers on three separate hotplates. “This [soup] is pretty healthy, it’s got lentils, yellow potatoes, carrots — it’s all really fresh. And they eating, so the food is not going to the trash.”
When I asked her if the kitchen was one person’s idea or a group effort, Anna looked at me warmly and said “This is a community kitchen — everybody doing a little bit.”
In addition to the donated foods, Anna gets fresh basil and other herbs from the community garden. Brimming with oranges, Swiss chard, and aloe, the community garden started as an idea between two formerly unhoused residents of Echo Park Lake, Cece and Jesus.
“We were talking about indigenous ways of living,” Cece explained, “And [Jesus] is a gardener. He grew up gardening with his father, and he would come to this lake with his father and fish here.”
The community garden is decorated with signs promoting diversity and understanding, and is in part a memorial for Brianna Moore and Andrew Kettle, two unhoused residents of Echo Park Lake who died over the summer. As tragic as their loss has been, Parriott believes that the community at Echo Park Lake has largely prevented deaths.
“Armando — who got housed! — was at the park for a while,” Parriott explained, “I gave him NARCAN. He said he wasn’t a drug user but he’d take it just in case. One week later, Armando came to me and told me that he saved someone’s life because of the NARCAN.”
Another invaluable resource the unhoused community at Echo Park Lake began was the jobs program.
“I’ve been homeless two years, so I can tell you you get nothing or everything all at once,” Ahmed explained. “So the idea was that if we maintain a donation tent we can better understand what each community needs, and the people working have some money in their pockets and they won’t be isolated in the streets.”
Donated funds were used to pay unhoused residents up to $40 per day to do work like managing the donation tent by keeping a log of everything in stock. Unhoused residents could also earn $20 for walking around the park picking up trash.
“People who were in the jobs program, many have gone on to hotels and housing,” Ahmed said. “We had to unfortunately end the jobs program — we ran out of money. What we came to realize was that this is gonna take tax dollars to maintain. As idealistic as it might have been, I still stand by its roots. This community started as us banding together cuz that’s all we had. The cops tried to kick us out, the Councilman tried to kick us out, but no one was telling us where to go instead. It was just community forming cuz [sic] of the tough times. Fast forward, we’re situated in the Park and we can’t really get swept right now, and now we’re just getting all the blessings.”
Curious to learn additional perspectives on the community at Echo Park Lake, I reached out to Kelvin Martinez, a mental health provider at AIDS Project Los Angeles and housed member of Street Watch LA.
“From my experience in homeless services, and as a clinician, I think this [is] exactly what we need more of.” Martinez said. “In LA, when one is unhoused, you are not welcomed to sit or stand near most businesses, people often walk by without even acknowledging your existence, and you are constantly scrutinized and distrusted. Seeing a garden, a pantry, and jobs program springing up through a partnership between housed and unhoused Angelenos is a truly remarkable event, because it’s a perfect model for starting to integrate people back into community.”
I also spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Beck, a social work professor at Georgia State University and co-author of the book of The Homeless Industry: A Critique of U.S. Social Policy, to learn whether the community at Echo Park Lake was a total outlier or more commonplace.
“The National Union of the Homeless was an organization of unhoused people who did extraordinary work” Dr. Beck told me. “They were able to secure 11 houses by coordinating the takeover of buildings in 1988. I say this to say there’s a long history of homeless people using grassroots organizing.”
Not everyone is pleased with the community at Echo Park Lake, however. Riley Montgomery, a housed resident of Echo Park, created a Save Echo Park Lake petition on change.org, claiming that the park is “virtually unusable now” and alleging that there is “rampant drug use and drug sales” going on. As of this writing, the petition has over 2,000 signatures.
“In reality there’s a nation-wide drug problem” Ahmed told me when I informed him of the petition. “You say they say there’s drug use in the park, well ask your neighbor what his kid is doing. You say there’s drug use in the park, what about drug use inside?”
Katie Fedigan-Linton is a member of Street Watch LA. You can follow the unhoused community of Echo Park Lake on Instagram @echoparkriseup.