ECHO PARK — On a cool spring night in March of 2021, Echo Park erupted. The 183 people living in the park were permanently evicted, hundreds of cops descended on the neighborhood, and almost 200 protesters and reporters were kettled in the streets surrounding the park. In the aftermath, then-city councilmember Mitch O’Farrell held up the sweep as a blueprint for how other public spaces in Los Angeles could be similarly cleared of their unhoused inhabitants.
And behind closed doors, O’Farrell’s office made an unusual request — a final touch in a plan to both evict the residents of the park and simultaneously make their eviction feel inevitable. They asked LA Sanitation (LASAN) to include statistics on the amount of urine and feces collected in their report on the Echo Park sweep, figures the department says it only publicizes upon request.
The figures offered up by LASAN — an estimated 180 pounds of feces and 544 pounds of urine — were widely cited by local outlets like CBS (including one widely-shared LA Times article that reported 564 pounds of urine were found, 20 pounds more than the estimate in the LASAN report).
The local news coverage helped form the narrative that calcified around a sweep that inspired hundreds of protesters to descend on Echo Park over two nights.
This narrative pushed by O’Farrell — and bolstered by the supposed 724 pounds of urine and feces — was that the residents of Echo Park Lake were destroying the park, making it into a dangerous biohazard. The implication was that the sweep had to happen.
What was missing in discourse about the sweep is the reality of what it means to live outside, in a public park, when the public bathrooms in that park were intermittently closed in an apparent attempt to stop unhoused residents from using them. Everyone in LA County uses the bathroom, but it’s only when you’re unhoused that that waste gets measured, chronicled in an LASAN report, and held up as a justification for your displacement.
Will Sens lived in the park for about a year — he was one of just 17 former park residents who managed to get into permanent housing following a sweep that was ostensibly supposed to move all 183 residents off the streets. And Sens wasn’t surprised when he saw the LASAN statistics cited in the media. That kind of vilification is familiar to anyone who pays attention to media coverage of the unhoused.
“They’re just like, trumping up shit, right?” said Sens. “I kind of have a hands-off approach with the media as far as not really having any huge expectations of the truth coming out. It’s always some trumped up bullshit.”
The report from LASAN includes a map of the park, divided up into six “zones,” with weights of urine and feces that were supposedly found in each zone.
For some reason the report does not explain, “zone 2” was apparently host to zero pounds of urine or feces, even though its neighboring zones reportedly had 179 pounds, collectively.
What the report also does not make clear is how the urine was supposedly recovered. Did LASAN workers measure the urea content of the soil? If there were 544 pounds of urine in the park — where were they? Why would you measure urine in pounds? And why was the Sanitation Department weighing the excrement to begin with?
In response to emailed questions, LASAN Senior Environmental Compliance Inspector Howard Wong said that there was “no scientific method” to measuring the excrement, and that workers made no distinction between human and animal waste found in the park.
The weight of the urine was, according to Wong, “estimated by Clean Harbors staff on the disposal manifest”. Clean Harbors is a waste disposal contractor that claims to be the largest in the country and deals with everything from used motor oil to biohazards. They did not respond to our repeated requests for comment.
LASAN also did not respond to follow-up questions about how, exactly, the urine was found and measured.
This is not the first time that the city of Los Angeles has cited the weight of unhoused people’s excrement in a public report. A series of quarterly “homelessness” reports released by the LAPD included estimated data from LASAN on “urine/feces” in pounds.
When asked why the urine and feces statistics are included in some reports but not others, Wong said they’re included “only when requested.” The estimates ended up in the Echo Park report thanks to a “CD 13 request” — the local city council office which was run, at that time, by Mitch O’Farrell.
O’Farrell did not respond to a request for comment sent by Instagram message.
Bathrooms for all
The Echo Park encampment was unusual, in part, because of how many communal resources it had available to its residents. There was a community garden; a kitchen area where people could drop off donated food; a camping shower (although the shower became functional just about a week before the raid, Sens said).
“[There were] housed and unhoused activists that lived in the park, working together to keep the park clean,” Sens said. “We had a weekly meeting. We watched each other’s back.”
One resource the community struggled to access was bathrooms — access to the park’s public bathrooms had been an ongoing battle throughout the life of the encampment.
By the day of the raid, Sens said that he thought the park bathrooms had finally been reopened, but there had been months where the bathrooms were closed at night, leaving the residents of the park without anywhere to go.
It’s not just Echo Park. Lack of free and easy bathroom access is a widespread issue in Los Angeles. A recent report from LAist found that there were just 14 permanent and free public bathrooms available in the city of Los Angeles for about four million residents. That means that often, using the bathroom in public requires buying something, or sweet-talking a gas station or coffee shop employee.
Both options are often unavailable to the unhoused, as pointed out in a petition from Theo Henderson, the host of a podcast called We the Unhoused, which describes itself as “lift[ing] the voices and struggles of the unhoused in LA and beyond”.
“We all need them. Young. Old. Housed. In-between,” Henderson wrote in the petition. “We need accessible bathrooms! We need them without conditions. Without shame or blame.”
Shame and blame
For two years following the sweep, a chain link fence encircled Echo Park Lake. Then, this past March, the fence was removed — orchestrated by CD 13’s new councilmember, Hugo Soto-Martinez, who ran on a platform that included removal of the fence and stopping sweeps in the district.
But last month, Soto-Martinez authorized a CARE+ sweep at an encampment on Juanita Ave in Rampart Village. Activists from LA Street Care said in a tweet thread that the sweep “resulted in residents being just as traumatized as they were at sweeps under Mitch O’Farrell.”
“It’s been frustrating to see someone who expressed the values that Hugo expressed in the campaign so focused on the optics when people are being harmed. Hopefully ‘Juanita’ was a learning experience,” said Kris Rehl, an organizer with LA Street Care.
“I definitely think Hugo has been an improvement to Mitch O’Farrell — many of the conditions are better for unhoused constituents — but there’s still room for improvement.”
LA Street Care said on Twitter that leading up to the Juanita sweep, organizers had been in contact with Soto-Martinez’s office about “… residents’ hygiene requests, including portable toilets, hygiene stations, and trash cans that will be emptied regularly.”
The councilmember’s office seems to be addressing at least some of those requests following the CARE+ sweep.
In response to emailed questions, Soto-Martinez’s office said it “prioritizes the requests and buy-in from unhoused residents living at the encampments … when scheduling CARE+ cleanings” and that they were implementing “regular trash pickup and sanitation services” at encampments in the district, including a port-a-potty and hand washing station across Beverly Boulevard from the Juanita encampment (although on a recent visit, two encampment residents were unaware of it).
The Juanita encampment residents’ requests are similar to those made by the residents of Echo Park Lake in the early days of the pandemic — requests that went mostly unaddressed. And when the encampment was ultimately swept, it was partially thanks to a campaign from housed residents of the neighborhood painting the park encampment as unsanitary and dangerous.
In the aftermath of the sweep, O’Farrell described the encampment as a “dangerous, deadly environment,” and claimed its residents were living in “squalor and filth.”
But that’s not how the encampment looked from the inside.
“It wasn’t like — this disease to me. I’m an old hippie. Tents and wandering around and meeting people and high fiving is just my whole life, you know what I mean?” Sens said.
“If somebody’s tent was getting flooded or something, I’m the one running over there to help them pull the shit out of their tent. So it’s just totally different when you’re there with the people. It’s different than looking down and seeing a bunch of dirty trash, tents, chaos, whatever people see from the outside.”
To people familiar with it, the encampment at Echo Park Lake didn’t look particularly dangerous or filthy. It looked like 183 people trying to make do without storage closets or reliable electricity or plumbing that can whisk away your excrement from a gleaming, sanitized toilet bowl.
The encampment was a relatively-well-kempt and organized community that could sometimes offer respite and protection from the dangerous business of living outdoors in a city where an average of five unhoused people die every single day.
The supposed promise of the sweep — to move people from the park into housing — fell woefully short because there simply wasn’t enough housing available. And clearing the park of its residents did nothing to change that. For the most part, it just displaced people — moved them away from the community and resources they’d built together — and forced them to be unhoused somewhere else.
And that is what likely happened for the majority of the former residents of the park. Sens has now finally moved into permanent housing through a long process that began with the sweep. But he was one of the lucky ones.
The UCLA analysis that was published a year after the sweep reported that just 17 former residents had moved into permanent housing. 82 had “disappeared”; 15 were confirmed to be back out on the streets. And six former residents of the park had died in the year following the sweep, the UCLA researchers said.