PLAYTIME POLITICS-Echo Park is no stranger to me. As a boy in the early 1960s, my family would go there, a favorite of my dad who worked downtown and knew the park.
It is a special park, a gem, nestled in a glen, giving the feeling of being far removed from the rest of the city. I take out-of-town visitors there.
It is no wonder the group homeless people recently removed from the park found it so appealing. I last visited the Echo Park Lake, pre-COVID lockdown, on a Sunday afternoon spilling into the early evening. It was filled with people, which could easily number toward or over a thousand. It was a community of families, of younger and older adults. There were street vendors.
The park was filled with people and their children, many of whom seem to be from nearby areas where low-income residents live, some with maybe more than one family to a residence. Here they could escape their cramped quarters to relax and let their children out in the air to be children.
Echo Park accommodated this large number of people, but the homeless encampment with their tents, outside kitchens and storage areas, were taking up a far greater amount of space. This squeezed out, and indeed prohibited the usual large gatherings of people, many of whom in our COVID age are called essential workers.
With schools under COVID pandemic closure, children have been locked in their cramped home quarters, and with Echo Park becoming a homeless community, their one local place to get outside and let loose was no longer available. COVID shutdowns have led to documented increases in abuse in the home, as well as mental illnesses and suicide. An escape from crowded spaces, needed our mental health -- particularly for our children -- had been given over to a smaller-numbered community of homeless individuals.
Like many who question the City’s permissiveness in allowing homeless camps in parks, I am not immune to the ordeals of the homeless. But parks by their nature are to be shared by all, not one class of people. The homeless need help, but the rest of the city cannot be forgotten.
The few hundred homeless in the park take up space that could accommodate over a thousand others wanting to use the park for recreation. They are equally a community, and equally deserving of using the park.
In my life I have played in other LA City parks -- baseball on the baseball diamonds, basketball in the gymnasiums, or just walked among the trees, wandering in open space. Parks offer mental and emotional health benefits to counteract the ever-increasing density of Los Angeles. Indeed, this past Easter, Griffith Park was temporarily closed because of crowd size. This was not a COVID issue, but every Easter the park is filled beyond safe capacity.
Los Angeles is well known for its lack of park space relative to its (growing) population, so these parks must be kept open for all. They must serve the greatest number of people, and homeless encampments do not serve the greatest number of people in Echo Park, or other city parks.
In the Echo Park neighborhood, crime increased with the encampment. And it wasn’t safe for the homeless people living there who suffered assaults from outsiders. Why would the city, or anyone else, support having a community that is attacked and assaulted, and conversely creates more crime?
The homeless need protection, but it leaves one bewildered when urban planning experts support only a utopian vision of the homeless community without recognizing the undeniable rise of crime, within and outside that community.
Summer is coming, and if we continue to gain against COVID, the city’s residents, restless from already one COVID summer lockdown, will be a force ready to get out and go to the city’s parks. If the parks are filled with homeless communities facing an onslaught of people itching to get out and go to park, tension between the two could arise. I hope not, but the city and others supporting homeless communities in parks need to be aware of the other side.
In medicine, the overlying creed is, “Do no harm.” By keeping the homeless in the city’s parks, which are meant for all of its people, the city and urban theorists may be doing harm to the homeless and to the people of the city.
There is a recent proposal to place homeless people in tiny homes in beach parking lots at Dockweiler and Will Rogers Beaches, and in Marina del Rey. Like city parks, the people who missed last summer at the beach will be clamoring to go there. On weekends, over a million people visit county beaches, and these are not only local residents. People from the eastern part of Los Angeles County drive to the beach to the escape the inland heat. They also drive from the Lancaster/Palmdale area and Inland Empire.
Anyone who has tried to park near a beach in lots or on the streets on a summer weekend knows it is a difficult situation, filled with tension. Imagine when there are tens of thousands of beach seekers in cars trying to find a place to park and those spaces are taken up by a few hundred tiny homes for the homeless.
This could increase the frustration of trying to find parking and cause confrontations between the homeless and those who equally deserve their place at the beach.
Should drivers, after traveling a couple of hours to go to Will Rogers, find the parking lots taken up with tiny homes, they may not just shrug and gleefully drive away. They may park their cars wherever they want, and this could lead to Pacific Coast Highway becoming a true parking lot. This would be catastrophic for emergency vehicles.
What would happen if fire broke out in the hills above the beaches? How would fire engines and paramedics get to the emergency? How would people threatened by the fire evacuate?
The homeless need help, and they need to refer to God’s favor toward those who help themselves. They need services. They need to have a place off the streets. But in serving the homeless, the right of the rest of the city’s residents to experience parks and beaches cannot be ignored. Helping the homeless community should not come at the expense of the far greater number living in the many other communities. Do no harm.
(Matthew Hetz is a Los Angeles native. He is a transit rider and advocate, a composer, music instructor, and former member and president and executive director of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra. He is a CityWatch contributor.) Photo: Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.