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The Antidisplacement Fight in Echo Park Lake, Los Angeles

Dis)Placement: The Fight for Housing and Community after Echo Park Lake
After Echo Park Lake research collective: Ananya Roy; Ashley Bennett; Jennifer Blake; Jonny Coleman; Hannah Cornfield; La Donna Harrell; Terrie Klein; Samuel Lutzker; Hilary Malson; Jessica Mendez; Carla Orendorff; Gustavo Otzoy; Annie Powers; Chloe Rosen
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In 2019, an unhoused encampment formed at Echo Park Lake, a public park in a downtown, gentrifying Los Angeles neighborhood. This community grew during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reflecting the social composition of homelessness in LA, the encampment had many Black, Indigenous, and immigrant residents and was a refuge for people fleeing gendered violence. Residents built life-sustaining infrastructure, including a community garden and kitchen, a jobs program, and accessible showers.

In March 2021, city politicians pledged all residents would be placed in “stable, permanent housing” within a year and ordered an eviction of those who stayed at Echo Park Lake. In the weeks before, some residents, anticipating a violent eviction, left. Others agreed to temporary placements from the city, placements promised as a step toward stable, permanent housing.

On March 24 and 25, the city conducted a militarized police invasion of the encampment. It mobilized 400 police officers to evict the 15 to 20 remaining residents and built a chain link fence, enclosing the park, the remaining residents, and others present at the park, including journalists and community organizers who showed up to defend the encampment. Police brutalized many present at the park that night and arrested 182 people, including prominent journalists.

Though the eviction of the Echo Park Lake encampment is not unique, it is notable in its coordinated mobilization of public resources, from policing to homeless management services, for the purposes of displacement. The mayor of Los Angeles declared the Echo Park Lake displacement to be the “most successful housing transition from an encampment in the history of the city.”

Analysis of the success of the pledge that “all 183 displaced residents will be placed in stable, permanent housing within a year” is important to determine what kind of model is set forward for the city. (Dis)Placement: The Fight for Housing and Community after Echo Park Lake comprehensively analyzes the displacement of this Echo Park Lake community and explores the city’s reliance on temporary placements and the criminal legal system in lieu of more permanent housing solutions.

The After Echo Park Lake research collective, formed after the March 2021 eviction, comprises movement-based (Ground Game LA and Street Watch LA) and university-based (UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy) scholars and a community board of unhoused scholars. To undertake this work, the research collective conducted ethnographic research with 41 displaced residents over a year, maintained community ties with another 43 displaced residents, drew on community histories, examined public records on resources expended on eviction and enclosure, and analyzed homeless management data to determine whether post-displacement placements of the Echo Park Lake unhoused community led to the city’s guarantee of “stable, permanent housing.” During ethnographic research, the research collective used open-ended interviews to understand housing trajectories, contextualize each person’s experience of housing insecurity, and uplift the complex social relations that shape experiences of home and homelessness.

The study finds elected officials depend on a promise of housing to try to justify the displacement of unhoused people. However, the “housing” promised is often temporary shelter, subject to exclusionary criteria and isolating rules, and not stable, autonomous housing. Residents then shuffle through the system, often moving from one temporary program to another or returning to being unhoused, producing little tangible change in their material conditions.

This abstract distills key findings from the report. However, when distilling, much can be erased. We encourage readers to take the time to read the entire monograph. From the authors: “[The monograph] is long and detailed because the system of permanent displaceability requires careful exposition. At the heart of our monograph is the knowledge of those who are unhoused, expressed not only in ethnographic vignettes but also through their analysis and theorization of the system. Dear reader, we invite you to read the monograph as a counterpoint to the simplistic explanations of, and solutions for, homelessness that abound in liberal cities such as Los Angeles. To transform this system of inequality and carcerality, we must first understand it thoroughly.”

Key findings
  • Of the 84 displaced residents researchers followed over a year, only 4 are now housed, and mainly through social networks and community support. Six have passed away since the displacement.
  • Of the 183 people who were on the official Echo Park Lake placements list, only 17 have been placed in stable housing. Of these, 4 people were housed through their own means, 4 people were placed in Project Homekey, 4 people in subsidized rentals (Rapid Re-Housing and Section 8 vouchers), and 5 people in permanent supportive housing. As of February 2022, 82 residents had disappeared from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority system, and another 15 had documented returns to homelessness. Forty-eight residents are waiting in Project Roomkey for the prospect of housing.
  • Though Project Roomkey was initially conceived by housing justice organizers, the city’s production of the project created an environment where people are under constant threat of eviction within an uncertain and traumatizing system of displaceability, expulsion, and carceral isolation.
  • Police enforcement was coupled with housing placements, and this has now become a model for the City of Los Angeles, through a “Street to Home Strategy” that accompanies an expansion of anticamping laws. These programs, which criminalize poverty and seek to spatially contain unhoused people, come at a time when there is the vast expansion of federal and state funds for housing and homelessness that can be directly invested in permanent housing.
Policy and practice implications
  • Promises for housing shouldn’t be used to refer to any placement or shelter program designed to be temporary. This use of “housing” is misleading and doesn’t mean residents are in, or can reliably expect to be placed in, stable, secure, accessible, permanent homes.
  • The authors suggest that in the short term, policies must prioritize keeping people housed. The main driver of increased homelessness in Los Angeles is economic hardship, and the pandemic has exacerbated this among working-class communities of color. Initiatives like Stay Housed LA are a first step to keeping people housed, and building and protecting tenant power through tenant unions is essential.
  • Bills like California’s AB 2203, which would prohibit credit reports as part of the rental housing application process when there is a government rent subsidy (like a voucher), are important to remove one tool of race and income discrimination.
  • The authors underscore that criminalization and housing partnerships with police must be abolished because they further anti-Black racism and undermine work with unhoused populations by tying punishment to poverty.
  • Public acquisition of land, through measures like social housing, and community control of property, like community land trusts, are essential to secure housing justice within a dominant system of corporate housing grabs, predation, and eviction.