The fence around Echo Park Lake will come down, but the homelessness crisis endures

The chain-link fence around Echo Park Lake is about to be removed. Newly-elected City Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez campaigned on a promise to remove it, and he defeated the incumbent, Mitch O’Farrell, who oversaw the process that led to the fence going up.

Anyone who just landed in Los Angeles from Mars might be wondering why a fence around a park is a big deal in L.A. politics. It’s because the fence allows the park to be locked at night by employees of the city. That prevents the return of the homeless encampment that was cleared from the park in March 2021, an action that prompted a confrontation between hundreds of Los Angeles Police Department officers and hundreds of activists who were protesting in favor of the encampment.

The removal of 183 people residing around Echo Park Lake was said to be necessary for repairs. The individuals were offered housing in motels and told they could not stay in the park.

That’s when sanitation crews removed 35.7 tons of solid waste, including 300 pounds of hazardous waste and 723.5 pounds of biological waste. Just eight years earlier the city had spent $45 million to refurbish the park, but after the encampment was cleared the park needed $600,000 in repairs described as “restroom improvements,” “replacing five drinking fountains,” “improving light poles,” replacing “handrails and planks” on the lake bridge, “refurbishing the park’s turf” and “improving the park’s irrigation.”

A number of academics, some on the public payroll, denounced the city’s actions and defended the encampment. A report from the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy described the structures built by unhoused residents as “the infrastructures of community.” Taxpayers might view it differently. The itemized repair bill indicates that the park was trashed, scavenged for materials, and tapped for free water and power services from irrigation pipes and lighting fixtures.

Housing costs are high in Los Angeles. Activists believe that is sufficient justification for the city to provide free housing, paid for by taxpayers, to anyone who wants it. That seems to be the premise of the city’s policy: until everyone has an apartment (not a shelter or motel bed), no one can be stopped from camping on the city’s public spaces.

Visitors from Mars, who are undoubtedly better at math than we are, would be the first to point out that the numbers will never add up. It will never be possible to give everyone everything they want at everybody else’s expense.

Under the “Inside Safe” program initiated by Mayor Karen Bass as well as the Project Roomkey/Homekey state and local program of converting hotels to housing for the homeless, unhoused people who return to Echo Park Lake after the fence comes down will be offered housing in a motel.

But some activists have complained that the hotel-housing program is “carceral,” that is, like a prison. People who don’t like the program’s rules may choose to say no to an offer of housing in a motel.

Then what?

Then we’ll see if Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez will want the LAPD to get involved again. Probably he won’t. So if the park is taken over by a huge encampment, and if teams of earnest social workers are unable to persuade the residents to refrain from the activities that led to $600,000 in repairs plus sanitation costs, the taxpayers will effectively be told to shut up, pay the bills and stay out of everybody’s way.

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That happens to be the state’s policy, too. Billions of dollars in state funds, plus sacks of federal cash, have been thrown at the crisis that is called homelessness. But when we’re achieving the opposite of what we intend, there’s a flaw somewhere in the logical premises on which the policy is based.

The flawed premise here is that “homelessness” is the result of high housing costs. If that were true, then a policy of giving people temporary housing in a motel to help them get on their feet would have shown great success by now for a large number of people. Instead we have activists telling us the program has too many rules and we have tragic incidents of people overdosing alone in their hotel rooms.

The fence is not the problem.

Write and follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley

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