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How Los Angeles Created the Playbook for a Nationwide War on the Unhoused

As politicians look to build public support for homeless encampment sweeps, they’re using tactics popularized in LA—the site of one of the nation’s most intense battles over the unhoused.


How Los Angeles Created the Playbook for a Nationwide War on the Unhoused

As politicians look to build public support for homeless encampment sweeps, they’re using tactics popularized in LA—the site of one of the nation’s most intense battles over the unhoused.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

The forever war against unhoused people is heating up in cities across the U.S., and the key battleground is large encampments, particularly those in visible public spaces.

Last month, an encampment near New York City’s Tompkins Square Park was swept with the help of the NYPD, which arrested eight people. Late last year in San Francisco, Mayor London Breed declared a “state of emergency” in the Tenderloin neighborhood, igniting a series of encampment sweeps. And in Chicago, Fireman’s Park has become a frequent target for homeless removal.

With each of these clampdowns come newer, more aggressive strategies to erase visible poverty in neighborhoods with increasingly wealthy, gentrifying interests. And as politicians across the country look to build public support for sweeps, they appear to be pulling tactics from a playbook engineered in Los Angeles—the site of one of the nation’s most intense battles over homeless encampments.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, LA homeless communities in public zones like Echo Park Lake, MacArthur Park, and Venice Beach have been targeted for removal—all contrary to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance advising that sweeps can put the unhoused at higher risk for COVID transmission.

This escalation reached a flashpoint in March 2021, when more than 400 militarized LAPD officers descended on Echo Park Lake to destroy a large encampment. By the end of the two-day standoff, police had arrested or detained over 180 people and brutalized many more, including members of the media and random bystanders. In total, the city displaced 183 people during the operation, and spent more than $2 million in policing costs alone.

Officials sold the raid as a housing success with a “compassionate” approach. But the research we’ve conducted over the past 14 months as members of the After Echo Park Lake research collective suggests it did little except destabilize and scatter many of the people who had been living in the park. Instead, the operation appears to have served as a proving ground for new strategies for disappearing indigent people—all while channeling more funds toward police and dubious nonprofits and away from tangible, long-term housing solutions.

Here are three key tactics in this campaign playbook:

1. Use misleading rhetoric to portray raids as good for unhoused people.

The easiest way to sell mass displacement as a success story is to sugarcoat what’s actually happening. To do that, officials often intentionally misuse the word “housing” to sell carceral shelter and other precarious forms of living.

In the wake of the Echo Park Lake raid, outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti touted it as “a successful housing operation unprecedented in scale.” City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell branded it “the single largest housing event in the history of the city.”

Comments like these ignore the fact that not all housing is equal, and rely heavily on the notion that forcing people into shelter of any kind is inherently better than allowing them to remain on the street. The reality is many unhoused people feel that entering a broken shelter system sets them on a path to nowhere, and is not worth the sacrifices to one’s safety, lifestyle, and autonomy. Many of the unhoused folks we spoke to for our study told us that shelters and other city-provided carceral housing options are far worse than encampment life.

Take Project Roomkey, the main program Echo Park Lake residents were being forced into. Although the initiative was trumpeted as a way to move unhoused people into temporary shelter amid the pandemic, in practice the program was carceral in nature and disastrously mismanaged. Los Angeles had access to immense resources to house people during this crisis and failed to create a system of stable, permanent housing. “That people prefer a tent to a hotel room tells you all you need to know about Project Roomkey,” said La Donna Harrell, an unhoused organizer and member of the research collective.

The apprehension unhoused people may have about these programs is often used to brand them as “shelter-resistant.” But the data we collected demonstrates that it is not individuals who are shelter-resistant, but the very system—one that churns people from one placement to another, creating the appearance of activity while doing little to change their housing status.

A chart showing the breakdown of Echo Park Lake placements as of February 9, 2022.
After Echo Park Lake research collective

For all the talk of “housing,” our research found that many of the unhoused residents vanished from LA’s homeless system entirely after the Echo Park Lake raid. Some were arrested or scared away with the threat of arrest in the weeks before the raid. Others were scattered into shelters or hotels for temporary stays, with many eventually being expelled or self-evicted.

Of the 183 people identified by the LA Homeless Services Authority as former residents of Echo Park Lake, only 13 of the 17 who were housed in February (as seen in the chart above) remain housed today, according to our research. In our subsequent research tracing the housing trajectories of 84 documented former residents of Echo Park Lake, we found that more in that group have died than have been permanently housed—a count of seven to four.

2. Fearmonger about encampments by conflating homelessness with substance abuse and mental illness.

When Echo Park Lake reopened after the raid in May 2021, O’Farrell released a statement that sought to portray the operation as a matter of humanitarian necessity.

“The situation at the Lake was not ‘commune-like,’ and it was naive and inaccurate to describe it as such,” he said. “It was unsafe, unhealthy, inhumane and deadly — with multiple fatalities, widespread drug usage and criminal activity, including reports of sexual assaults.” Breed and New York Mayor Eric Adams have used similar rhetoric while attempting to justify their moves to clear encampments in their cities.

Making unhoused people seem dangerous and undignified is a prerequisite for any larger scale project to displace them. Fearmongering of this sort is easy and effective, but it amounts to little more than villainizing people for suffering amid a lack of state resources.

This tactic only muddies the issue and shifts focus toward solutions that effectively launder state control as a form of care. It usually results in more money being diverted toward policing and enforcement and away from the root cause of the issue: the lack of stable and permanent (vs. “affordable”) housing, and the lack of political will to house people.

3. Outsource solutions to nonprofits that perpetuate the status quo.

Many cities working to clear unhoused people from public spaces have turned to what we refer to as the “mercenary model,” which empowers nonprofits to helicopter in under the guise of service provision—often while disingenuously positioning themselves as alternatives to police and other state agencies.

Urban Alchemy is one such “mercenary” organization that has experienced “explosive growth,” expanding from San Francisco to Los Angeles and other cities. In the months before the Echo Park Lake displacement, the city paid Urban Alchemy $350,000 to do outreach at the park, with the goal of moving people into “placements.” But with little available housing or interest among the park’s residents in voluntarily uprooting, Urban Alchemy ended up conducting what we call “outreach to nowhere.” Despite their lack of success, officials could at least claim that they had made an honest effort at a more humane solution.

A tent count report from Urban Alchemy emailed to Mitch O’Farrell’s office in January, obtained via public records request.
A tent count report from Urban Alchemy emailed to O’Farrell’s office in January, obtained via public records request. (via After Echo Park Lake research collective)

Although Urban Alchemy promotes its use of outreach workers who are formerly incarcerated—and in some cases currently or formerly unhoused themselves—the organization is also the subject of multiple class action lawsuits for labor abuse and harassment.

Organizations like Urban Alchemy don’t represent material alternatives to policing, and do little to improve our current broken systems. Their primary purpose is to siphon off tens of millions of dollars in government contracts to perform what many see as sloppy, often hostile, forms of outreach. Rather than substantively address these criticisms, Urban Alchemy has called them part of a “made up” narrative.

The state’s eagerness to outsource this work to nonprofits only frustrates broader accountability efforts, as private organizations elude the meager transparency laws otherwise applied to public agencies. Despite its inefficiencies, this mercenary model is growing in popularity, largely due to support from politicians looking for the cover of a feel-good narrative that makes the clearing of encampments seem more palatable.

O’Farrell stands with Urban Alchemy outreach workers at Echo Park’s “Tiny Home Village.”
O’Farrell stands with Urban Alchemy outreach workers at Echo Park’s “Tiny Home Village.” The city of Los Angeles has spent nearly $50,000,000 constructing tiny homes. (via Coucilmember Mitch O'Farrell's office)

As pandemic-related tenant protections expire and inflation rates soar, issues of homelessness will likely only get worse in the coming years. Barring an unprecedented political and economic investment in addressing the root causes of this crisis, unhoused encampments will remain an inevitability.

The evidence so far suggests that cities, wholly captured by business interests, will face increased pressure to respond by simply disappearing homelessness. By now, it’s clear that elected officials are more interested in managing constituent “frustrations” over witnessing poverty than they are in addressing the underlying conditions that have made cities uninhabitable for poor people.

The cynical tactics of the Echo Park Lake playbook offer politicians an easy way to be seen as “doing something” without actually having to do anything. But we can’t sweep and criminalize our way out of this problem. Any effective response to homelessness must revolve around actual housing, robust service, and accountability—not deception, coercion, and force.

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