Imagining New Communities with the Unhoused
Bodies of water have always been a primal source of both life and wonder, with their capacity to sustain life while escaping our control. The first verses of Scripture find the Spirit of God hovering over waters, while the earth was still formless and empty. It is out of this paradox of chaos and potential that everything was made. The earliest communities known to history are the river-valley civilizations that formed at Mesopotamia, the Yellow River, the Nile, their proximity to water providing nourishment for bodies, soil, and spirit. These same bodies of water have served as silent witnesses to the mundane and the miraculous across generations.
It is hard to tell the story of the unhoused community at Echo Park Lake (EPL) in Los Angeles without using both concrete and mystical language–but then, such is the nature of communities. This is especially true of communities formed to meet their own basic needs and who yet find their very existence under threat. The unhoused community at EPL, and the story of their violent displacement and subsequent emergence as a political force, has so much to teach about what it means to experience homelessness, and how cities can and should address it in ways that are mutually beneficial, life-affirming, and honoring to God.
Photo by Suzanne Stein
Refuge in the Lake
By January of 2021, almost 200 people were living in tents, make-shift shelters, and cars at one of Los Angeles’ most beautiful destinations, Echo Park Lake. Though the Lake is artificial, and only dates back a century and a half, like all bodies of water it bears a history all its own. As Allyson, a longtime unhoused resident of the lake, texted me, “Echo Park is a mystical place.”
Located Northeast of downtown LA, the neighborhood was originally dug as a reservoir in the 1860s and flooded with water from the Los Angeles River. When the population of downtown exceeded its land capacity, the lots around the reservoir were sold and developed. The early landowners pressed for the reservoir to become something more community-oriented and appealing. Out of this formed what we now know as the neighborhood of Echo Park, with the lake and surrounding park at its center.
Since the 1970s, Los Angeles’ policy on homelessness has largely confined unsheltered people to downtown, particularly in the neighborhood of Skid Row. But as with the expansion that led to the creation of Echo Park itself, Skid Row couldn’t hold the rapidly-increasing homeless population of the 21st century. Similar to the moneyed folks who’d made the two-mile migration 150 years prior, many unhoused people found Echo Park to be a welcome alternative.
I’ve worked in homeless services for five years in Hollywood, a few miles up the 101 from Echo Park. I’m deeply familiar with the lives of so many who experience homelessness in Los Angeles. These are lives marked by the toil of navigating governmental systems, a sea of nonprofits, and a citizenry that values compassion, but less than their own comfort. I’ve known and visited many encampments in Hollywood that model various forms of community, healthy and unhealthy, supportive and toxic; though I have never interacted with folks at Echo Park Lake as a homeless services provider. For professional and journalistic boundaries, I approached them as a writer for this piece only.
As I interviewed so many of the Lake’s newly-displaced residents, one word emerged over and over again: “safe.” For Adrian, another unhoused resident of EPL, the community represented a haven after he left a previous, more isolated encampment in East LA as theft and fights became more frequent. Gustavo was drawn there by a memory of his first time in LA, when he was brought to his immigration lawyer’s office in Echo Park as a youth. When Gustavo was evicted from his apartment as an adult and had nowhere to go, he sought security at Echo Park Lake and quickly found that the community-oriented atmosphere provided just that. “The Queen of Echo Park Lake,” so named for having been both a housed and unhoused resident of the neighborhood for thirty years, summed it up: “I found refuge in the lake.”
Photo by Suzanne Stein
With safety as a starting place, the community grew to also embody solidarity, creativity, and even joy. The EPL residents partnered with local advocacy groups and service providers to maintain a steady stream of resources such as food and clothing and cooperated with case management so people could find a way out of the park and into housing. They paid their own residents to clean up trash. They advocated to public officials for dumpsters and bathroom access yet rarely heard back. When requests did receive a response, it was often as a direct result of civil resistance, such as the time they formed a human blockade to prevent a city official from locking the bathrooms at night.
As more people streamed in and donations increased, a community kitchen was formed to keep food organized, fresh, and accessible to everyone. People with food allergies or preferences had an abundance of choice under this community model. They built working, beautiful showers to increase hygiene and cleanliness among the community. People worked side by side in the community garden, hands in the earth. For those willing to see it as such, this community offers the city and service providers an ideal situation: a low-cost, self-sustaining community that only needed to rely on outside support for housing and long-term-care; what service providers specialize in.
Nobody wanted to live in the park forever, but for as long as they did, they were not going to do so helplessly. Adrian affirmed what many of us overlook: “Just ‘cause we’re on the street doesn’t mean we have to be miserable. We can have a decent life, a good quality of life… just because we have each other.” The ability to survive and flourish even in untenable circumstances was on prominent display at EPL, but that is a characteristic quality for all people experiencing homelessness. Life on the streets, despite the narratives we internalize, is anything but “lazy.” People traverse long routes, memorizing paths they must take and routines they must adhere to daily to acquire the various resources offered throughout the county: meals, health care, internet access, etc. They take turns watching one another’s belongings and even pets so they can complete necessary errands.
One of the least-considered realities of homelessness is how little choice and agency is afforded people. “Beggars can’t be choosers” crudely describes the reality of homelessness. Unhoused people must settle for whatever is offered, whether it’s a meal they don’t like, a piece of clothing that doesn’t fit, or a shelter that protects them from the elements but is so loud and unsafe that they can’t actually rest. When someone does exercise their agency and refuses a resource that they don’t want, they are branded as ungrateful, rude, or worse: “service-resistant.”
It is tempting, especially among the left-leaning and well-meaning, to see unhoused people as primarily powerless–victims of systemic injustice and broken systems, and who need us to save them. This functions as a necessary correction from the ethos of the last century: the bootstraps mentality that suggests anyone can make it in our society and economy, and that whoever doesn’t is obviously at fault. Lost in both of these formulations is what people experiencing homelessness exemplify daily and which the people of Echo Park Lake demonstrated in spectacular fashion: that they are creative, resilient, capable, and loving, even where systems fail and help is delayed.
Photo by Stanton Sharpe
When we persist in our obliviousness to this fact, and instead act out of a savior mentality, those in positions of power wind up speaking for the destinies of the vulnerable, while rarely speaking with them. In doing so, the actual wants and needs of the community are talked over–regardless of whether we do this because we don’t care or because we mean well, the outcome is the same. When they are not brought to the table, the purported solutions often don’t match the actual needs, and so they fail. When that happens, the vulnerable are forced to carry the blame, and conservatives and liberals alike grow frustrated and resentful. Drastic measures are considered by even the most compassionate, and are implemented by force.
Closing the Park
In the weeks leading up to the raid, the residents of EPL knew something was up.
Fear and tension escalated as helicopters frequently flew overhead at all hours of the night. City outreach workers had more urgency in their tone, and police prowled the park with increased presence and vague warnings. “They would show up at 3 in the morning, shining flashlights into people’s tents and saying, ‘You know you’re going to be kicked out, right?’” reported Queen.
The Sunday before, activists relayed intel that the park was going to be closed on Wednesday, March 24. This activated the residents, as well as community supporters across LA. The story was picked up by the LA Times: What, exactly, was going to happen at Echo Park this week? Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell issued a vague statement that promised that if something was going to happen, residents and the community would be notified properly (at least 24 hours notice). But the residents knew better. His office hadn’t responded to their requests for resources, meetings, or information before–why would he start now?
“When we persist in our obliviousness to this fact, and instead act out of a savior mentality, those in positions of power wind up speaking for the destinies of the vulnerable, while rarely speaking with them.”
All Wednesday morning and afternoon, residents, activists, and journalists kept watch as nothing seemed to happen. But as evening approached, locals noticed police staging a mile away near Dodger Stadium: dozens of police cruisers and large trucks containing hundreds of yards of fencing. Under cover of darkness, what would become a national news event was underway.
Around 9pm, more than 400 officers in full riot gear descended on the park. Their objective was to erect a fence that surrounded the entire park; more than a mile around. The park would be fenced in that night, and anyone who remained in the park would be enclosed, with 24 hours to vacate before being arrested. For O’Farrell, the deployment of an occupying force would seem to qualify as official notice.
Police cornered a large group, arresting protesters and press alike, including an LA Times reporter. It’s important to note that the arrest of designated, badge-wearing press is not normal, acceptable, or constitutional, even as it is becoming more common. Our Nations Media photographer was surrounded by officers for nearly an hour, unable to leave until a senior officer could “verify his credentials.”
Photo by Stanton Sharpe
While this was happening, residents of the park were being offered a way out: placements at remote sites across the county in Project Roomkey, a state-wide initiative that utilized empty hotels and motels as COVID-safe interim housing. These had been offered before, with some residents agreeing during the tense weeks preceding. Seeing the fence go up, and the hundreds of police, many began to realize that they were out of options and said yes. By the end of the night, only about 20 residents remained in the park as the fence was finished, closed, and guarded; anyone could leave, but none could enter.
On night one, Gustavo refused to take the “deal.” With a calm defiance, he and two others had pitched a tent right in front of the police line that first night. When he told me the story, his eyes got big and he reached in his backpack to pull out the issue of “La Opinión,” a free Spanish street publication, which features the scene on its front page. After awakening the next day to a nearly empty park, fully encased in fencing, Gustavo finally surrendered and took the Project Roomkey placement. In all, only two residents stayed put, electing to be arrested to raise awareness about their community’s violent eviction from the park.
That night, another round of arrests and provocation would take place, as activists attempted to hold a non-violent vigil outside the fenced-in park. The police quickly declared it an unlawful assembly, using force and intimidation to conduct mass arrests despite the activists’ clearly-declared peaceful intentions.
Footage from that night taken by activists–housed and unhoused alike–looks eerily similar to footage taken across the country during protests after the murder of George Floyd in 2020: police pushing forward, bullying, creating physical contact, and then overreacting when citizens push back. One activist’s arm was broken by police. Officers pointed less-lethal weapons at protesters at point-blank range, and some fired.
Police designated a “Press Viewing Area” blocks away from the action, obfuscating journalists’ view. With the press purposefully prevented from covering the night’s events, all we have is cell phone footage and the crafted narrative of the LAPD.
“What the former residents most mourn is not the violence they experienced, nor the frustration of being displaced–but rather, the destruction of something beautiful they had made together.”
The choice to stage these events at night, and to neutralize the ability of the press to report, left the unhoused residents of the park feeling as they often do: unseen and alone–longing for a day like the one Jesus promised, when “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known…. whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (Luke 12:2-3).
In line with the great prophets, though, the community wasn’t going to sit back and wait for that day to come on its own. The local and national news, which was at first largely critical of the tactics used by the councilmember and the police, began to soften, move on, and even went so far as to suggest that the ends justifies the means. But the community of EPL was determined, after a brief period of lament, to not let anyone forget.
Photo by Stanton Sharpe
Echo Park Rises Up
In the first month after the closing of the lake, things were quiet–the community was regrouping and seeking traction. A gathering was announced for Saturday, April 17–a celebration of the resilience of the community. It was announced as a large event, but when Saturday came, only a dozen or so arrived. They hung signs along the new fence that read, “Echo Park Rise Up,” “Services not Sweeps,” and “Housekeys not Handcuffs”. One group attached a tent to the fence surrounded with flowers like a gravestone, and a sign reading “There must be a better way.”
The most prominent work was a collage of tissue-paper flowers, in stunning colors carefully and meticulously made, hung on the most-frequented intersection of the park. Along a common route to access the 110, thousands of drivers would pass by that day, unable to miss the vibrant colors arranged to form a distinct phrase: “F**k Mitch.”
Beauty, hostility, anger, and solidarity were all held by that fence. The art would all be gone by the next morning, but for one day the community bore creative and prophetic witness to what had happened. This convergence of anger and beauty reminded me of the Psalms, which hold some of history’s most beautiful poetry, and also its most potent rage. One psalm may elucidate a God who leads us beside still waters, while another will ask that same God to dash the head of a child against a rock. For marginal communities both ancient and contemporary, rage and beauty are not opposites, but companions.
In this quiet month for the former residents and activists, O’Farrell’s office filled the void, celebrating the clearing of the park as a monumental success; a model, even. The already-split City Council divided further than ever on the issue, with those who support services over sweeps decrying the event, and those who support criminalization more resolute than ever. Activists and community stakeholders are still waiting to see which approach will win out, as versions of this same battle play out across the City of Angels.
What the former residents most mourn is not the violence they experienced, nor the frustration of being displaced–but rather, the destruction of something beautiful they had made together. The showers, the kitchen, the kinship, all destroyed and replaced by worse versions that just happen to be “state-sanctioned.” What happened at Echo Park is not a story of people getting kicked while they were down, but getting kicked while they were rising up.
Photo by Stanton Sharpe
Part of believing in the imago dei–that the image of God residing in all people–is not just believing that they deserve help, or that they are owed certain things. Essential to that belief is also that they have agency, that they deserve choices, have the capability to describe and advocate for their needs, and have people come alongside them rather than decide for them exactly how those needs will be met. The image of God resided in the community at Echo Park Lake, and persists despite their dislocation.
On May 19th, nearly two months after the raid, a group of former EPL residents and activists stood on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall to protest the conditions they were experiencing at Project Roomkey–forced isolation, no case management, sickening food, and unusable toiletries. They announced the creation of a new coalition called U.T.A.C.H.: Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing. They highlighted the unreasonable and dehumanizing features of the city’s housing options–including the Project Roomkey sites that so many had been pressured into. Queen, with conviction, told me, “They basically awoke warriors and fighters… they awoke a whole community and they awoke the roots. When you mess with people’s homes, you will get a fight back.”
Photo by Kevin Nye
One week later, the Lake reopened, with a few renovations and an entirely new structure. Nearly all the grassy areas are now fenced off. The playground, the walking paths and the shores of the lake itself are the only accessible parts. Signage emphasizing park hours are littered throughout, and cameras survey the previous “hotspots” of tents. The lake, with its beautiful grass and playgrounds, the center of one of LA’s most iconic neighborhoods, is rendered inert, bearing the same carceral features as the places where its formerly unhoused residents now live.
When we dehumanize the unhoused, we dehumanize ourselves. When our method for dealing with injustice is to displace communities, we lose part of what makes the entire community whole. When we transgress the agency of others, we do so at the expense of our own freedom. In Los Angeles’ decision to rid the park of the undesirable, they made the park undesirable for all.
The story of Echo Park Lake refuses to fade out of memory. The unnatural, transplanted waters of Echo Park Lake hold the same memories as the transplanted unhoused community who lived there more naturally than those of us who are housed. These memories are of a community that cared for one another, met needs, and created beauty in the liminal space. Will we remain too proud to learn from them? Our innate desire for healthy, whole communities rests on whether we will ultimately embrace living in a community that has space for everyone, or if we will destroy what is beautiful in our vain attempt to control it or keep it all to ourselves. The Spirit of God hovers over those waters, too, where chaos and potential meet, longing for new creation.