A year later, Echo Park Lake cleanup provides a mixed bag of results

Until a little over a year ago, 45-year-old Will Sens called a plot of grass at Echo Park Lake home.

However, a cleanup effort displaced more than 100 tents and their residents from the park in March 2021.

“I found myself on the streets, suddenly … It was like an oasis, you know,” Sens said.

The displacement led to clashes between police and homeless advocates, though city officials praised the move.

“We have housed 161 individuals who’ve been experiencing homelessness at Echo Park Lake,” said Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, who drew heat for the cleanup effort, in 2021.

Sanitation workers also cleared out 35 tons of trash from the site, according to the parks department.

But new research from UCLA finds that a year later, the rehousing effort hasn’t been as successful as it was initially touted.

Of the 183 people who were displaced, 17 are in long-term housing, 48 more are waiting for it in temporary shelters or programs, 15 have returned to homelessness and many more are unaccounted for.

“There’s no actual pathway to housing,” said Sens, who accepted a temporary spot through Project Roomkey at the Grand Hotel and is still there a year later.

Sens said he thinks city leaders should do more to consider the perspectives of the unhoused when they design programs meant to assist them.

“The key message is work along with us; listen to our plight,” he said.

Park patrons can enjoy the space now, but a fence remains around the perimeter, and local leaders are defending the actions taken a year ago.

“The situation that existed at Echo Park Lake prior to March 2021 was not safe for anyone – housed or unhoused, many of whom were being victimized themselves,” O’Farrell said in a statement. “The claim that the City ‘staged a police invasion’ is untrue. What actually happened was a three-month outreach process that led to a warm handoff to LAHSA and transitional housing placements for nearly 200 people who had been living in a dangerous, deadly environment. It is beyond absurd to claim that Echo Park Lake – where people were living in squalor and filth, in an environment that included rampant open-air drug use, at least one drive-by shooting, at least one machete attack, reported prostitution, reported trafficking, and four deaths – was somehow more humane than living in a safe, secure, managed environment. Since last spring … crime is down significantly in the park and surrounding neighborhood, and Echo Park Lake has remained safe, clean and accessible for all who wish to enjoy this shared public space. It will remain that way.”

Harrison Wollman, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Garcetti, called the operation a victory in an email.

“Our housing operation in Echo Park was a success, and it was highly encouraging because it showed that through hard work and collaboration, we can transition whole encampments into shelter quickly and humanely,” Wollman said. “These longer-term numbers affirm a truth we’ve long known: that shelter does not end homelessness by itself. That’s why we must also continue investing in long-term solutions like permanent housing and services that more effectively place individuals on a path out of homelessness.”

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority added that the Echo Park Lake cleanup was a learning experience for the organization, which has encapsulated those lessons in its “Best Practices for Addressing Street Encampments.”

“These best practices include providing plentiful housing resources and client-centered care,” LAHSA said in a statement. “We are committed to implementing and improving on these best practices as we continue to partner with service providers and community partners on the most effective ways to conduct location-specific outreach to help bring our unhoused neighbors inside.”