LA clears another park encampment in battle over worsening housing crisis

Los Angeles officials are shutting down a major public park in an effort to remove homeless encampments from the area, reigniting bitter conflicts about the city’s worsening housing crisis.

MacArthur Park, in the city’s Westlake neighborhood, is one of many public spaces in LA that became a popular camping spot for unhoused Angelenos during the pandemic, drawing hundreds of campers.

Map of MacArthur Park and the surrounding neighborhoods

At the end of September, city leaders announced that the park would be closing for “maintenance” work, with officials giving unhoused residents until Friday at 10.30pm to vacate.

The closure, which officials say is temporary, follows the controversial clearing of an encampment in nearby Echo Park and comes as the city is struggling to grapple with a humanitarian crisis that has significantly worsened since the pandemic.

Advocates and unhoused people at the park said this week that there is confusion and anxiety about what lies ahead. “I don’t know how this is going to work out,” said Fatima Rodriguez, 28, as she cleaned the area outside her tent on Monday, four days before the closure.

The LA native said she had been living on the streets for about a year, sometimes in the park and sometimes under a bridge, and that she wasn’t sure what shelter options were available: “I just want to know how long the park will be closed.”

‘We had no options’

More than 66,000 people were homeless in LA county at the start of 2020. Once Covid hit, shelters and other programs reduced services, and large encampments grew. Pandemic rules restricted the city from evicting people from makeshift tent sites.

Some residents chose to move to park encampments with established communities of tents, saying they provided a better option than group shelters – which could expose them to Covid – or hidden alleys and underpasses, where they could be more vulnerable to violence.

An aerial view of MacArthur Park and downtown Los Angeles in 2020.
An aerial view of MacArthur Park and downtown Los Angeles in 2020. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Echo Park and MacArthur Park both drew large crowds of unhoused people.“It’s not that we want to be in the park, it’s just that we have no choice,” said Gustavo Otzoy, 55, wholived at MacArthur Park earlier this year after the city shut down the Echo Park encampment where he had been staying.

Located in a neighborhood home to many Central American immigrants, MacArthur Park is known for its lake and picturesque fountain, a popular soccer field, a pavilion for outdoor performances and a large population of geese.

The area has plenty of open space where people could set up tents and advocates say there are benefits when groups gather near each other. “Having people in one place has kept them in touch with services, has kept them fed, has got them water,” said Robin Lifland, an advocate who lives next to the park and has helped organize donations for the unhoused residents. Over the last year, the park has seen mobile shower programs, regular food dropoffs, outdoor church events, Covid testing and vaccine clinics.

But life at the park has also been extremely difficult, with unhoused residents raising concerns about physical and sexual assaults, frequent fights, fires and other safety hazards. Many encampment residents have struggled with severe mental health challenges, addiction, overdoses and health problems – oftentimes, conditions that were created or exacerbated by living outdoors.

Lisa Marie Nava cleans a mobile shower provided by the Shower of Hope, a homeless services group, in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles on 23 March 2020.
Lisa Marie Nava cleans a mobile shower provided by the Shower of Hope, a homeless services group, in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles on 23 March 2020. Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP

Officials said gang-related violence in the area made the park particularly dangerous for homeless residents, though some advocates have argued the city was fear mongering about crime and that high-profile cases of violence were not related to the unhoused community.

‘People scatter and disappear’

In January, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (Lahsa) and People Assisting the Homeless (Path), a not-for-profit group working with the city to service the homeless, began sending outreach workers to the park.

“Our unhoused neighbors were really being preyed upon. So we’ve definitely seen an eagerness to go inside,” said Jennifer Hark-Dietz, Path’s deputy CEO.

In the past year, the city and its homeless service partners have increasingly focused on specific locations that developed large encampments during Covid. The goal, said Colleen Murphy, Lahsa’s manager for unsheltered strategies, was to build trust in a specific tent community through persistent outreach in one area, and to get them connected to appropriate shelter options, services and treatment. Outreach workers have primarily relied on Project Roomkey, a pandemic program, to offer residents temporary motel stays.

Echo Park Lake encampment statistics: 183 unhoused residents removed from the park; 174 residents in interim housing; 4 residents placed in permanent housing; 5 residents unaccounted for.

Meanwhile, the city has escalated its crackdown on tent communities and people sleeping outside. The city faced widespread backlash in March when it evicted the encampments at Echo Park Lake, aided by a militarized police force that arrested nearly 200 people who protested the park’s closure.

Over the summer, authorities cleared massive encampments from the Venice Beach boardwalk, and the city council also passed a new law further restricting sleeping on certain public property. City leaders have pledged to offer shelter to unhoused people when requiring them to move. But in practice, the housing initiatives have had mixed success, with reports of many ending up back on the street.

In March, the police department spent $2m over four days enforcing the closure of Echo Park. A Lahsa spokesman said this week that of the 183 people who were living in the park before its shutdown, only four people have been placed in permanent housing. The majority of the remaining residents are still in temporary housing, Lahsa said.

People gather to watch police activity at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles on 2 April.
People gather to watch police activity at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles on 2 April. Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/REX/Shutterstock

But Ananya Roy, director of UCLA’s Institute on Inequality and Democracy, who is studying the Echo Park displacement, said her group was in contact with residents who returned to the streets after their initial placements, and that it was unclear if residents in shelters would receive permanent housing: “People are scattered and disappeared … And there’s just a waning of what I call Covid compassion. We’re on the brink of a regime of pretty severe exclusion.”

The Venice efforts have been more successful: out of 213 moved off the boardwalk, 46 are now in permanent housing, and 167 are in interim shelter, according to St Joseph Center, a local service provider.

Murphy noted that the vast majority of people who get permanent housing stay housed, but that the region couldn’t keep up with the demand: “We’ve helped a lot of people get indoors, but we don’t have the supply of permanent housing.” More than 200 people fall into homelessness everyday in the region, according to government statistics – and the problem could soon get much worse with the state ending its Covid eviction restrictions.

Venice Beach encampment statistics: 213 unhoused people moved from the boardwalk; 167 unhoused residents in temporary housing; 46 unhoused residents in permanent housing.

The homelessness crisis has also become a top issue in recent political races. Some Venice residents sued the city to try to force the closure of encampments, and groups across LA have pressured their local representatives to be tougher on residents living outdoors, arguing that tent sites can be dangerous and hazardous.

High-profile politicians have campaigned alongside encampment critics, promising to “clean up the streets” and “arrest” people who refuse to move.

The LA county sheriff, who is facing reelection, has warned that unhoused people were flocking to LA to “destroy our community”, and has criticized government assistance programs that aid “nomadic” people, even though.The majority of the LA homeless population was living in LA when they became unhoused.

Preparing for the shutdown

At MacArthur Park, 257 people have moved into some kind of shelter since January, according to the office of Gil Cedillo, a council member whose district includes the park. Although the population has dramatically declined, tents remained scattered throughout the area in the final days before the shutdown.

A tent has been placed near a ‘No camping’ sign at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles.
A tent has been placed near a ‘No camping’ sign at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. Photograph: Sam Levin/The Guardian

Cedillo said that the park closure was necessary for electrical repairs, landscaping, irrigation upgrades, and sign and furniture replacement, and that part of the park would remain open.

At the park this week, police cars roamed throughout the pedestrian paths, at times questioning unhoused residents who remained. At least one individual was detained on Monday, though it’s unclear why.

“Their purpose is to harass and bully,” said Lesly Lynch, 70, an unhoused resident who was spending time at the park but no longer camps there. “This is not going to solve the problem,” he said of the closure, noting that some people won’t stay in shelters because of the strict rules and challenging environment.

Otzoy, who had stayed at Echo Park and MacArthur, works as a handyman and said the motel program felt “like a jail”. The curfews interfered with his work schedule, and he wasn’t allowed to keep his tools, he said, adding that the MacArthur Park renovations shouldn’t require a fenced-off closure: “That’s just an excuse.”

“They need to concentrate on more important things – like housing,” added Jimmy Glenwood Sr, 72, another unhoused resident sitting on a bench nearby.

Lesly Lynch, 70, an unhoused resident, was spending time at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles.
Lesly Lynch, 70, an unhoused resident, was spending time at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. Photograph: Sam Levin/The Guardian

“It’s security theater at best for people who are housed and complaining,” argued Sherin Varghese, the co-founder of Ktown for All, a volunteer advocacy group for unhoused people. “It’s an illogical approach that prioritizes aesthetics over humanity.”

Stacy White, an unhoused resident who was camping at MacArthur but has now moved into a shelter, recently returned to help friends who remained. She said she supported the park closure, given how dangerous it had become for unhoused people: “I don’t want to die outside.” But she was not confident that people would get the help they need: “Nothing is gonna change.”

José Felix Cabrera Larios, vice-president of the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council, said he was glad the park would be improved and was hopeful there would be no encampments in the future: “Before the pandemic, rules were followed. And the rules will be followed once the park reopens.”

Cedillo, the council member, declined an interview request. A spokesman said he could not say whether people who refused to leave would face arrest on Friday: “The park is closing, and we’re asking everyone to leave.”