Two years ago this weekend, Los Angeles Police cleared a large homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake, erected what was supposed to be a temporary chain link fence around the park’s borders, and shut the park down for repairs.
The controversial decision, spearheaded by the area’s former City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, angered unhoused residents and activists, who said the encampment had become a hub for mutual aid efforts and organizing in the community. The sweep spurred multiple nights of protest, which were met with a massive police crackdown and resulted in more than 180 arrests.
The event was a flashpoint in the city’s homelessness crisis, and the fence that was erected that day became a divisive political symbol. It’s remained standing for two years, despite the fact that repairs were long ago completed. But now, the area’s new City Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez says he plans to take it down — a move that’s putting neighborhood residents on two sides of their own proverbial fence.
Some locals say they can’t wait for the park to be more accessible again. The fence has a handful of entry points but is locked from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. nightly.
Eleanor Wells walks her dogs at the park regularly and says the fence around the park feels “like a pen of sorts. And [the park] is supposed to be something that everyone can enjoy and enter from any sort of street, and to deprive the neighborhood of that is really tragic.”
Others fear the consequences of a park left open on all sides, as it always was before 2021. Echo Park resident Patricia Bauer says the only reason she’d want to see the fence come down is if it were being replaced by a wrought iron one. “The park needs to be closed at 10. Without the fence, it's almost impossible to do that,” she says. Now “people can't party here at like 3 a.m. [with] loud music and things like that. It keeps the wildlife in, and preserves the beauty of the park. It was a bad thing when we had so many homeless here. It was just filthy.”
But Soto-Martinez, a progressive political newcomer who defeated incumbent O’Farrell in the 2022 City Council election, says he made a promise on the campaign trail that he intends to keep. When he took office in December, he had two goals for the park: Bring down the fence his predecessor had built, and prevent a new encampment from cropping up.
“We can have both,” Soto-Martinez told KCRW. “We can alleviate people's suffering — folks that are living in the street — and you can have a park that's accessible.”
The council member hasn’t given an exact date for when the fence will come down, though he says he hopes to make it happen by the end of March. While some activists have questioned why it’s taking so long to remove a simple chain link fence, Soto-Martinez says it’s because he’s working on overhauling the council district’s infrastructure for addressing homelessness so people have places to go that are better than a tent pitched at Echo Park Lake.
“We are going to lead with housing, not criminalization,” says Soto-Martinez. “I think people are excited about that because that's ultimately what their demands were. Nobody wants to live in the street, nobody does that by choice. So we are going to provide those services up front.”
The plan, says Soto-Martinez, is to significantly ramp up outreach so unhoused residents are connected quickly with housing.
His office has hired a team of staffers to collaborate with local service providers offering shelter to the local unhoused community. They also worked with Mayor Karen Bass’ office to offer motel rooms to unhoused people living near the lake, in concert with her recently-launched Inside Safe program. Soto-Martinez’s homelessness director Patrick Mooney says most have accepted shelter so far.
“I think the statistic here is 98%,” says Mooney. “We’re now at 63 individuals adjacent to the park that have gone into Inside Safe nearby and in the community, in a place that they feel welcomed.”
A number of those residents were moved into the Hotel Silver Lake, which already housed participants from another Inside Safe effort that took place near LACMA.
In a controversial move, some of the original program participants were moved from the Hotel Silver Lake to a new hotel after only living there about a month, just before folks from Soto-Martinez’s Inside Safe effort were moved in. The mayor’s program has faced growing criticism in recent weeks for shuffling around participants in this way.
Soto-Martinez’s office said they were not part of the decision to move those people out of Hotel Silver Lake. And while Soto-Martinez told KCRW that they may partner with the mayor again, they don’t have any more Inside Safe efforts planned for the near future. “Moving forward, what happens at the lake will be coordinated by our team,” he says.
Meanwhile, as they continue to prepare for the fence to come down, Soto-Martinez’s office has been working with people who used to live at the Echo Park encampment to help inform their outreach strategy.
Queen Mendez grew up in the Echo Park neighborhood and was one of the last people removed from the lake during the 2021 sweep. She says she still has a tough time trusting city government, but she’s cautiously hopeful about Soto-Martinez’s efforts.
“I'm not a fortune teller, I can't see what's going to happen tomorrow,” says Mendez. “But I see him in the streets, I see him with the people. And that's something completely different than what we had with our prior councilman.”
The team has also done a lot of outreach to housed residents. Sonja Verdugo, an organizer for the activist group Ground Game LA, helped lead an effort to knock on more than 1,500 doors to chat with people about plans for the park. Verdugo, who was previously homeless herself, says the conversations have been fruitful.
“I've been on both sides of the fence, both sides of what's going on,” says Verdugo. “So I think it makes it easier for me to talk to people and explain what's going on, instead of them just jumping to the conclusion of ‘Oh, no, everybody's gonna move back into the park with tents.’”
Still, some locals remain uncertain about the fence coming down. Last weekend, those tensions came to a head at a standing-room-only town hall, where Soto-Martinzez stood before a restless and divided crowd as they peppered him with questions.
Some asked for more details about how unhoused people from the park would be cared for, or connected with housing. Others — toting “SAVE THE FENCE” signs — pushed for the structure to stay up permanently. And a few residents, like local Suzanne Hollingshad, wanted more time to hash out the plan.
“Is there room to take more time, to have more success in housing the unhoused folks in Echo Park and [the surrounding area]?” Hollingshad asked Soto-Martinez, as he stood on stage at Echo Park United Methodist Church. “So we can all not be this divisive?”
Soto-Martinez said he feels confident that by the time the fence comes down, community concerns will be addressed. “I searched my compass. And I said that this is what I believe is the right choice. But I also said that we're going to do it when we feel that it can be successful, when we have things lined up.”
Soto-Martinez says he expected the friction. “Some folks still have their opinion, but we just wanted to do things very differently, you know, not shy away from the tension, but rather embrace it. And this is part of the democratic process, so I've really enjoyed it.”
Mendez, who once lived in the park and now has her own apartment, hopes that fence removal will be the first steps towards healing a broken community.
“The safety of the community comes [from] within the community members, comes with the relationships that we have within one another,” she says. “A fence doesn't equal safety. We equal safety.”