Homeless tents along Echo Park Lake's west bank

Tents line both sides of the path on the west bank of Echo Park Lake.

Echo Park - A recent cool and gray Saturday morning at Echo Park Lake found a few joggers taking laps around the paths, fisherman waiting patiently for a bite and geese honking at anyone who wandered too close. Then there were the tents.

Tiny, one-person pup tents. More roomy tents large enough for three or four people. And a combination of tents and pieces of wood and other materials, some with microwaves, mirrors and artwork placed near entrances. All told there were slightly more than 100 tents in what has become one of the neighborhood's largest and most visible homeless encampments.

Despite concerns about public health and safety, the homeless encampment at the lake has continued to grow during the pandemic and quarantine.

"There definitely is an increase," said Genevieve Liang a board member at SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, which started seeing growth along the lake as early as late February or early March, before the pandemic really even started to kick in. 

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Heidi Marston, executive director with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, echoed the sentiment, noting that the camp's expansion underscored the precarious economic situation many Angelenos have experienced because of COVID-19.

Up until early spring, SELAH (which stands for Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz, Atwater Village and Hollywood) had focused its outreach efforts on the tent cluster in the northwest corner of the park. But by the beginning of spring, they'd started to see the tent community had extended further south along the Glendale Boulevard. It now reaches the length of the lake, rows of tents reflected in the water.

And that's not counting the tents just outside the park border, or the assorted vans, campers and cars nearby that also serve as homes.

The encampment at the lake has defied numerous clean ups, some of which turned into tense confrontations between advocates for the homeless and city workers. The city had also pledged to increase health and social services as the tent city became a permanent feature of the park.

As for solutions to reduce the size or remove the encampment - no answers seem to stand out at the moment, at least through official channels.

Marston emphasized the need for more hotels and motels for people experiencing homelessness during the crisis.

Clothes line at Echo Park Lake

Clothes dry on the line at Echo Park Lake

But the pandemic has created its own complications. A proposal to set up 30 beds at the headquarters for the Episcopal diocese across the street from Echo Park Lake fell through after Los Angeles came under COVID-19 emergency orders, according to Tony Arranaga, a spokesman for Councilman Mitch O’Farrell.

“We are actively working to identify other sites that are suitable for moving individuals indoors,” Arranaga said.

Meanwhile, more tents continued to pop up at the park even after the city converted a recreation center about three blocks south of the lake on Patton Street into an emergency homeless shelter in March.

At the Echo Park Neighborhood Council, the Homelessness and Housing Committee recently approved a couple of letters asking the City Council for more trash receptacles at the park, and up to $500 for cleaning supplies to distribute to people living by the lake. Those letters were forwarded to the main neighborhood council for approval.

But Mo Najad, vice chair of the council, said, “At the end of the day, the neighborhood council is just advisory. It comes down to the city and the state to address the problem. It’s a very big problem, but they could do better.”

He added, “Personally, I think the city has been lenient toward the homeless population during this time .... They have not kept up the sanitary policing.”

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But the City Council also has its own limits on what it can do. O’Farrell noted in an interview with The Eastsider last May that a citywide emergency order forbids disturbing encampments.

To a fair extent, that leaves the encampment residents to figure out things on their own.

Most structures along the lake are just basic tents. One complex compound of tarps and tents features a circle of chairs and pots of drought-resistant plants. (Liang identified this as one of the camp's "provisions closets," where people can pick up supplies.) Not far from there is the other extreme - a pile of unidentifiable wreckage.

On the banks of the water stands a cluster of umbrellas, where it's possible to sleep on the shore. Near a sign that says "Eric Garcetti took our showers," a communal shower stall has been rigged up, Liang said.

Street Watch LA has set up solar charging stations and has helped people apply for stimulus checks, Liang added. Marston said LAHSA has outreach teams in the park as well. 

And while some people have contacted The Eastsider saying they avoid the park now, a recent Saturday afternoon saw pedestrians strolling through the avenue of tents as they might through any other neighborhood.

“My sense is that folks who are living there have tried to self-organize amongst themselves, and provide for each other with resources from organizations likes ours,” Liang said.

Panorama of Echo Park Lake's northwest corner

The northwest corner of Echo Park Lake.

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