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Inside LA’s Homeless Industrial Complex

Just 7 percent of the people in Los Angeles’s Echo Park encampment found permanent housing after it was cleared. Almost half are missing. Seven are dead. That’s not a failure of homelessness policy; it’s an example of the system working exactly as intended.

Gustavo Otzoy lived in the encampment from June 2020 until it was cleared in March 2021.
Gustavo Otzoy lived in the encampment from June 2020 until it was cleared in March 2021.

At 17, Gustavo Otzoy emigrated from Guatemala to Los Angeles, where he was held in immigrant detention for nearly three weeks. On his first day free, he explored Echo Park Lake—16 acres of grass, paths, and palm trees, an expansive body of water, a pristine view of the downtown skyline. Nearly 40 years later, now a U.S. citizen, Otzoy found himself heading back to the park. He’d just been released after serving a yearlong sentence in prison. He couldn’t return to the home he’d once owned in Palmdale, because he’d sold the deed to raise funds for a lawyer in his case. It was a hurried handshake deal, and the buyer had never fully paid him. Gripping his gold crucifix necklace, he got on his bicycle and rode to Echo Park Lake. He was, of course, afraid. He’d never been homeless before.

By the time Otzoy arrived, in June 2020, around 60 people had already established themselves as residents of the park, living in tents on the west side’s grassy incline. The pandemic had prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue an unprecedented recommendation: Allow unhoused people to remain wherever they are. Without recurring move-along orders or police sweeps, park residents enjoyed a rare taste of stability, and the freedom that comes from being left alone.

They had struggled to achieve this peace, Otzoy learned. Six months before, residents and organizers from Street Watch LA and Ground Game LA linked arms to form a human shield between park rangers and tents and successfully prevented a sweep. In a letter to the council member representing the area, Mitch O’Farrell, the residents pleaded to remain: “Camaraderie and connection to those who care about us (which is what we have here) is an integral part of our future success.” In May 2020, as Covid-19 made access to basic hygiene even more crucial, residents blocked rangers from locking the park’s bathrooms at night. Eventually, they secured 24-hour access.

Next to a weekly “Power-Up Station” where activists offered cell charging, Narcan (a medication that treats opioid overdoses), and know-your-rights information, Otzoy started collecting donations for the community. At resident meetings, he earned a reputation for dad jokes and an unwavering moral compass. “We all got involved in working together there, to make the kitchen, clean the bathrooms,” Otzoy told me. (Often we spoke in English, or sometimes through an interpreter; sometimes my Spanish had to do.) He moved his tent and stored the tools he used for plumbing gigs next to the communal living room and pantry. Over nine months, he helped build up the community’s infrastructure, which came to include a small vegetable garden and, briefly, a hand-built shower.

But as the encampment grew, so did the resentment of nearby home and business owners. A new coalition, Friends of Echo Park Lake, called for its removal. “WE - THE CITIZENS OF ECHO PARK - WILL NO LONGER TOLERATE OUR LAKE BEING DESTROYED ,” announced a petition. The Los Angeles Police Department and representatives of the mayor, the city attorney, and the council district all took meetings with the group. Ayman Ahmed, who moved to the park in fall 2019, said detractors didn’t see their “common humanity” with unhoused people, or “a kitchen for people who are trying to cook who have nowhere to cook.” They saw “dirty people they don’t count the same as them making their area dirty.” Using the park as a place to survive, unhoused people challenged its standing as a selling point for the neighborhood’s gentrification—a process often euphemized as “cleaning up” Echo Park.

City officials echoed concerns about the park’s appearance and accessibility. They cited the deaths of four people at the encampment as evidence that it had to go. In January 2021, police stepped up their presence. Officers patrolled park paths by day. By night, their headlights lit up the tents where residents slept. Outreach workers made regular visits to offer what interim housing locations existed, in areas as far-flung as Downey, more than an hour away by public transit. The city’s interim housing included a bed in a congregate shelter, whose cramped, shared spaces are infamous for noxious conditions and Covid outbreaks; an unshaded tent in a “safe sleep site,” subject to 24-hour surveillance; a strictly regulated hotel room in Project Roomkey, an emergency pandemic program; and a Tiny Home, where two residents share a prefabricated shed smaller than the American Correctional Association’s standard prison cell for one. Many took the offers, but many did not. They valued the camaraderie of the park. Some had already cycled through the interim system; they’d heard that the hotels were governed by restrictive rules.

In February 2020, residents of an encampment of unhoused people in Echo Park confronted Los Angeles city officials.
Ted Soqui

Officials suggested that the city would close the park for repairs, and residents recognized that a final sweep was imminent. On March 23, 2021, they put out a call on social media for support. “We’ve had nothing but each other this year and honestly it’s been a relief,” they wrote. “Without the constant LAPD and city harassment uprooting our lives we’ve been able to grow…. Our demand is simply this: please continue to leave us alone, or stand with us.” By 7 a.m. the next day, I was one of nearly 600 people who arrived. That afternoon, amid speeches, marches, and chants, outreach workers approached Otzoy with an offer of a room. “They told me if you don’t take it now, further on we’re not gonna give you anything,” he said. Reluctantly, he accepted. But as he readied himself to leave, he was told that there weren’t any open beds nearby after all.

By nightfall, around 300 people remained to defend the encampment. They were met by at least 400 cops in riot gear. Officers wielded batons, launched foam bullets at point-blank range, tackled members of the crowd, and injured at least a dozen people. Two were hospitalized. “They were protesting so peacefully,” Otzoy recalled in a UCLA report on the event. “And what did the police do? Sent their hundreds and hundreds in, arresting them, putting them in jail, shooting at them.” In the morning, the last of the residents—including Otzoy and Ahmed—awoke to find themselves completely fenced inside the park with a chain-link enclosure. In an Instagram livestream, they compared their surroundings to an open-air prison. After one last night, those who remained were threatened with arrest. Otzoy walked out, carrying what possessions he could. Ahmed was removed in handcuffs. In all, 182 people were arrested and 16 journalists detained. The entire operation cost $2 million.

City officials trumpeted the action as a success. A few days afterward, O’Farrell called it “the single largest housing event in the history of the city.” A year later, he continued to praise the “warm handoff” of residents into interim housing from the park’s “dangerous, deadly environment.” Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office recently insisted that the event proved the city’s ability to “transition whole encampments into shelter quickly and humanely.”

But the city’s own data dims their sunny narrative. In April 2021, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority issued a “final report” declaring that 183 people had been placed in interim housing. By June 2021, LAHSA admitted that six people never made it indoors, and 38 had left their original placements for the streets or unknown destinations. One had died. By October, only four had received permanent housing. At least two more had died. In January of this year, a LAHSA communications specialist told me the whereabouts of almost half the group were unknown. After the anniversary of the eviction, in April 2022, UCLA researchers found just 13 permanently housed, 11 confirmed back on the streets, 51 in Project Roomkey—a program already winding down—and 85 simply missing. At least seven had died.

The fence around Echo Park Lake remains in place, a monument to that day and to the policies that made it possible. The spectacular sweep of the park was not a failure of the city’s system to address the crisis of homelessness, but that system working precisely as designed: Promises of housing provide the legal and rhetorical cover for police to purge unhoused people from public space, while interim housing, on its surface a humanitarian project, functions as an arm of the prison system, used not to help unhoused people but to warehouse them. Aimed ultimately at clearance and containment, police sweeps and interim housing make up two sides of a single approach—the iron fist and the velvet glove—as the state hands itself over to the interests of real estate.

After the sweep, Otzoy spent a few nights in a hotel room paid for by Street Watch LA, then returned to living outdoors. A couple of months later, he ended up at the Dragon Gate Inn, a Project Roomkey site in Chinatown, overseen, as all interim housing sites are, by a nonprofit contractor. According to a spokesperson from O’Farrell’s office, the varieties of housing on offer from the city respond to individual unhoused people’s readiness to live indoors; the district praises the “safe, secure, managed environments” of its interim housing. A communications specialist from LAHSA told me that residents move between options according to their needs. However, as LAHSA admits, there are nowhere near enough spots indoors for everyone who lives outside; many languish on wait lists. Spending time in one site does not guarantee access to another, and the lack of permanent housing available means that for most unhoused people, the last step never arrives. The city now maintains 33,592 permanent housing apartments, but its efforts to expand that number have been beset by inflating costs and lengthy delays. “A balanced rehousing system has five permanent housing exits for each shelter bed,” LAHSA recognized in a 2021 assessment. “The Los Angeles system is closer to 1 to 1.” (In January, LAHSA stopped responding to my emails.)

At Otzoy’s Roomkey site, he wasn’t allowed to bring his plumbing tools into his room, so he traveled by bus between job sites, a storage space, and the hotel. The curfew was 7 p.m. A few times, he was late, and security turned him away; his punishment for not following the rules was a night on the street. Participating in a protest made him late again. Another missed bus. Finally, administrators told him not to bother coming back at all.

Otzoy would be the first to tell you: Constant surveillance and strict, infantilizing rules make the city’s interim housing a lot like prison. Residents are not allowed to have guests, pets, or more than 60 gallons—one trash bag’s worth—of personal belongings. They’re searched on entry to facilities; even a fork can be considered contraband. “You’re already fragmented,” one park resident who’d returned to living outdoors told me. “You need something to hold you together, not tear you apart—separate you and your family, you and your pet.”

At Project Roomkey, residents are barred from traveling between floors or seeing friends in the same hotel—an isolation that, according to a recent UCLA report on deaths among unhoused people, contributed to the number of overdoses there. Unhoused people have taken to calling Project Roomkey “Project No Key.” Residents do not get keys to their rooms and must be escorted inside by program staff, who can enter at any time. In congregate shelters, residents are often locked out during the day. In interim housing, a category that includes congregate shelters, residents are locked in at night. At one Roomkey site, said Annie Powers, an organizer with Street Watch LA and the LA Tenants Union (which I helped start in 2015), people could leave only between noon and 4 p.m. “That’s ‘yard time,’” Powers said—just what you’d encounter in prison.

When they enter interim housing, unhoused people sign a contract as a “participant” and must testify that “no tenancy is created.” This designation strips residents of the rights associated with being a tenant, explained Marques Vestal, an assistant professor of critical Black urbanism at UCLA and a member of LATU. It deprives them of “the power of the historical tenant movement.” “A tenant right to something,” he reminded me, “has been hard-fought in blood and lives.”

Tenants get evicted. Participants get “exited.” This language is more than Orwellian doublespeak. Rather, it points to the production of a new legal environment, “a system of rightlessness,” said Ananya Roy, director of the Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA. Residents of interim housing, she told me, face “a constant stripping of rights in the way that in the prison you’re stripped of your rights.” “You’re in their hands,” Otzoy said. “They can do with you what they want.”

City officials describe their intervention in Echo Park Lake as a mission to house people. Police were needed at the park, Mayor Garcetti said, so protesters didn’t “prevent the housing operation that was happening.” “None of our work,” Councilman O’Farrell said, “has been violent or police-led.” (In a statement to me, O’Farrell’s office stressed its service efforts and offers of interim housing, and emphasized the “inhumane” conditions at the park; in an interview, a spokesperson disputed any use of the word “sweep.”) But in a 101-page “After Action Report,” the LAPD notes that the park’s clearance was delayed by three months to accommodate an outbreak of Covid-19 among officers: The eviction was timed to their availability rather than to the housing status of park residents.

Fed up with false promises, residents accused homeless service workers of merely legitimizing police efforts. Otzoy said they acted as the “eyes and ears of the police”; Ahmed called them “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Emails exchanged between the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and LAPD over the summer of 2020 corroborate their teamwork at the park, from shared tent counts to tandem visits. In December, O’Farrell contracted nonprofit Urban Alchemy to supplement outreach. As one Urban Alchemy worker told The New Yorker about its beat in San Francisco, “Police barely fuck with us, because we do all their work.”

Even LAHSA employees admit their role in facilitating sweeps. “To have someone come out and offer services,” Kristy Lovich told me, “is always, in my opinion, a form of political insurance,” allowing the city “to refer back to that request for services in order to justify what would eventually happen as a law enforcement measure using police.” From July 2019 to July 2020, Lovich supervised LAHSA outreach to a region that includes Echo Park Lake. During her tenure, she oversaw the implementation of LA’s Comprehensive Cleaning and Rapid Engagement program, or CARE/CARE+. Touted by the city as a “more humane” alternative to sweeps, the policy, in her view, simply rebranded the same punitive practices. The measure of the program’s success was not housing placements but pounds of garbage removed. In 2019, LA Sanitation disposed of more than 8,273 tents and 4,439 tons of garbage—a “euphemism,” Lovich said, “for people’s belongings.” Lovich was terminated in July 2020, shortly after publishing a petition questioning LAHSA’s partnership with the LAPD. The public statements of other former employees suggest disillusioned attrition is an agency pattern. In April 2022, LAHSA director Heidi Marston herself resigned.

Policing and homeless services have a long history of mutual support. Often, sweeps are advanced as a mechanism necessary to bring unhoused people into interim housing. As one ethnographer wrote, “Officers report that as they make the neighborhood increasingly uncomfortable for homeless people, these individuals will be forced to reconsider their aversion to social services.” “A permissive approach,” wrote Marshall McNott in a 2003 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, “while perhaps appealing to the humaneness in all of us, does little to provide meaningful assistance to those so needing it.” At the time, McNott was president of the Los Angeles Mission shelter in Skid Row, home to LA’s largest concentration of unhoused people. In 2006, the LAPD under William Bratton, who was then police chief, consulted with McNott as it designed the Safer Cities Initiative, an experiment in the policing strategy known as “broken windows.”

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a proponent of the strategy, said broken windows policies target “problem people and problem places.” They expand police discretion over quality-of-life crimes. In their first articulation of the strategy, academics George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson argued that police should focus less on lowering the crime rate and more on producing “a sense of safety” by maintaining “public order.” Obstacles to that order, they wrote, were “not violent people, nor, necessarily, criminals, but disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people.” The unhoused, William Bratton said in 2003, are the first signs of disorder: “The homeless take over a portion of the park. Drug dealers follow. Drug dealers beget violence. It then begins to affect the whole business area and businesses begin to die.”

At the Alexandria Park Tiny Home Village in North Hollywood, California, guards scan residents with a metal detector, search their personal items, and take their temperatures before letting them enter.

In the first 10 months of Safer Cities, the LAPD made 7,428 arrests and issued 10,342 citations in Skid Row—many for jaywalking, others for violations of 41.18, a 1968 municipal code that makes it a misdemeanor, subject to fines or imprisonment, to “sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way.” Laws that target unhoused people, as Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project explained, selectively “criminalize shit that everybody does”: “Everybody sits. Everybody stands still. Everybody lays down. Everybody eats.” Between 2006 and 2019, according to the National Homelessness Law Center, laws against sitting or lying in public rose by 78 percent across 187 cities.

These laws consistently run afoul of the Constitution. In 2006, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals limited the LAPD’s ability to enforce 41.18. “Because there is substantial and undisputed evidence that the number of homeless persons in Los Angeles far exceeds the number of available shelter beds,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote, “criminalizing the unavoidable act of sitting, lying, or sleeping at night while being involuntarily homeless” constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. In 2018, the circuit court’s landmark Martin v. Boise decision ruled that anti-camping ordinances in cities throughout the country were unenforceable on the same grounds.

But these injunctions did not prevent citations or arrests of unhoused people; rather, they established the availability of shelter as a prerequisite for enforcement. In other words, juridical rulings limiting the criminalization of homelessness gave police and property owners a greater stake in the provision of shelter. And, conversely, the availability of shelter gave police more license to remove unhoused people from public space. This dynamic is explicit in the LAPD report on the eviction of Echo Park Lake, where offers of interim housing are linked to the encampment’s removal and demonstrate attempts to limit the city’s legal liability: “The standard that every person in the park should be given an offer of housing,” the report notes, was “based on direction from the Mayor’s Office in consultation with the City Attorney’s office.”

Rather than serve unhoused people’s needs, the expansion of access to shelter has laundered efforts to criminalize them. In March 2020, the LA Alliance for Human Rights, a group largely composed of business owners, sued to compel the city to construct enough shelter for all unhoused people in Skid Row, thus legalizing anti-camping enforcement. (A compromise is now in the works.) San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has introduced “Shelter-for-All” legislation, motivated, he admitted, by the constraint of Martin v. Boise. Sacramento’s proposed “Right to Housing” counts congregate shelters as housing and establishes an “obligation to accept”—with penalties for refusing—when more than one shelter option is offered. Laws establishing a right to shelter are “as perverse as it gets,” Ananya Roy told me. When criminalization depends on its availability, a right to shelter is a “right to police the poor.”

This July, LA’s City Council voted to reestablish 41.18. Skirting the spirit of the 2006 injunction, though not its terms, the council enabled enforcement within 500 feet around parks, schools, libraries, and underpasses; up to 1,000 feet from designated interim housing sites; 10 feet around driveways; five feet around entryways; and in broader swaths of the city if passed by council resolution. In response, “people went into cracks,” said Carla Orendorff, an organizer with Street Watch LA and the LA Tenants Union. “People went into tunnels. People literally went underground.” When researchers attempted to map the overlapping effect of the rules, they found a city virtually covered in red.

In 1984, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development christened Los Angeles County “the homeless capital of America.” The last completed count, conducted pre-pandemic in January 2020, found 66,433 unhoused people, an increase of nearly 50 percent in just five years.

“Homelessness has three related causes,” urban planner Peter Marcuse wrote in 1988, at the end of the Reagan years: “the profit structure of housing, the distribution of income, and government policy.” Though homelessness is as old as the country, the interventions of Reagan’s administration—since upheld by bipartisan consensus—at once cemented it as a feature of American life and shaped what the government is prepared to do about it. From 1981 to 1989, the HUD budget was slashed by almost 80 percent, turning public and subsidized housing into the housing of last resort, allocated not by eligibility but by lottery. Since the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the federal government has delivered resources to unhoused people by issuing block grants to municipalities to distribute to nonprofit contractors—establishing “the homeless industrial complex,” as Paul Boden calls it, a baroque system of public-private partnerships. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, seeking a bulwark against the “undeserving poor,” policymakers seeded disciplinary requirements into public benefits, so all forms of welfare bloomed into workfare. Now, aid recipients must jump through the paternalistic hoops of monthly re-qualifications, mandatory drug testing, and more. While requirements for job training or sober living have diminished within interim housing, arbitrary restrictions and lock-ins persist; coercion remains inseparable from the state provision of a social need.

Municipal policies have exacerbated the problem. The withdrawal of federal funds has locked municipal governments in a devil’s bargain: To create a tax base for their resources, they must court investment and raise property values. As the social wage withers, individuals pin their hopes on the appreciation of their homes. Even public-sector workers’ pensions are pegged to real estate investment trusts. But when property values rise, more people lose access to housing. “In a good economy,” Mayor Garcetti once explained, “homelessness goes up.”

As Echo Park exemplifies, efforts to raise property values imperil long-term residents. In 2013, the city reopened Echo Park Lake after a $45 million renovation and established a gang injunction over the neighborhood. During the two years of the park’s closure, property values in the area rose by 29 percent. Flippers seized on both single-family homes and rent-controlled buildings, inhabited for decades by working-class Latinx tenants. Many were displaced. Between 2000 and 2014, Echo Park’s immigrant population fell by 27 percent. (In 2015, Garcetti listed an Echo Park post-and-beam house at $1.65 million; he’d purchased the property in 2000 for $345,000.) As richer, whiter residents felt more secure, residents of color suffered police harassment, citations, and incarceration. (The gang injunction’s discriminatory campaign went so far as to make it illegal for one Echo Park native to be seen with his father outside.) Last year, average home prices in Echo Park crested $1 million; rent for a one-bedroom tops $2,350.

For every 5 percent increase in LA rents, 2,000 people become homeless. Rising rent burdens make houselessness a monthly threat: 600,000 tenants in Los Angeles spend 90 percent of their income on rent. Of course, the problem isn’t limited to that city. Across the country, only 37 rentals are affordable and available for every 100 extremely poor households; in no city can a minimum-wage worker afford median two-bedroom rent. Encampments have grown 1,300 percent since 2006.

Homelessness is both a result of and an impediment to the pursuit of economic growth. Visible signs of poverty disrupt cities’ capacity to sell themselves as products and lure increasingly global capital. Though unhoused people are much more often victims than perpetrators of violence, their presence is associated with a decline in neighborhood safety and thus threatens the security of speculative investments. As municipal policy aligns with the profit motive, police act as the shock troops for real estate’s capture of public space. The management of unhoused people—whom the LAPD calls “transients”—becomes an avatar for the fear of capital flight.

Called to protect city property values rather than unhoused residents, police are the first responders of homelessness policy. Between 2017 and 2019, according to Court Watch LA, police in O’Farrell’s district issued the highest rate of homelessness-related citations in the city, nearly one per unhoused person. In 2016, according to the Los Angeles Times, one in six LAPD arrests was of an unhoused person. In 2019, the department admitted that unhoused people were the victims one in every three times police “used force.” The allocation of state resources reveals clearance and containment as a matter of intent, not austerity: The state runs a $31 billion surplus, and the city’s policing budget claims 54 percent of discretionary funds. In 2015, a city audit found that $87 million of the $100 million earmarked for homelessness went to policing. The cost of Los Angeles’s new “safe sleep sites” runs $2,663 per person per month—more than the median one-bedroom rent.

“The service the state is providing,” Hamid Khan, founder of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, explained, “is population control.” Those not driven elsewhere by policing are driven indoors. Interim housing acts as an “arm of the prison system,” in Kristy Lovich’s words. It warehouses—under the guise of rehabilitating—those caught in police dragnets. As with prisons, containment is a racist project: Black people make up 8 percent of LA’s general population, but 34 percent of its unhoused. And the cycle linking incarceration and houselessness is well documented: According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s review of most recent available data, 2 percent of formerly incarcerated people were homeless in 2008, a rate nearly 10 times higher than among the general public. If prisons become an unpopular line item in future state budgets—while the surplus population grows—policymakers can expand interim housing to direct funds to similar ends.

“Wish I can force them into housing and treatment,” Sgt. Mike Flanagan posted on social media this past January, alongside before-and-after pictures of a sweep. In March, Governor Gavin Newsom promised to expand California’s conservatorship laws, a legal basis to hold unhoused people against their will—as if their refusal to accept interim housing says more about their mental capacity than the conditions of what’s offered. In 2019, nearly 60 percent of people experiencing homelessness for the first time in LA cited economic hardship as the cause. Against a wealth of evidence that most people become unhoused because they cannot afford rent, politicians and police deploy the language of mental illness, “justifying the shelter system as a medical intervention,” said scholar Marques Vestal.

Homelessness is not a problem caused by individuals experiencing it, but by the systems that distribute—and deprive people of—housing. Four unhoused people die in Los Angeles every day. Their deaths are as predictable as they are preventable. Their lives are stolen by the interlocking system of economic abandonment and aggressive policing, of services choked by carcerality, of sweeps that fracture the community ties that hold people to life. “To keep the undesirable person in a lifetime of flux, in a lifetime of transition, in a lifetime of insecurity, in a lifetime of disruption,” Hamid Khan told me, “is absolutely the desired outcome.” In practice, our homelessness policy blurs the distinction between services and prison, between social workers and police. Resisting or accepting interim options, you either become a ward or get a warden. “It’s not a mistake that there’s curfews and that people are so isolated and atomized from their community,” Annie Powers said. “All of that is intentional and by design… in order for poor people to be made to feel like this is what they deserve. The point is punishment.”

Unhoused people’s comfort is a moral hazard. If the state provided housing for all who needed it—permanent, unsurveilled, well-resourced public housing—it would undermine the capitalist dictate that you must work for a wage in order to pay for the basic human need of shelter. Both a limit to capital accumulation and a visible reminder that the system often fails, unhoused people threaten the foundations of the everyday “rat race,” as Ayman Ahmed put it, of “struggling week to week just to pay for that ridiculous box.” But nothing about our housing system is natural or inevitable. “Didn’t we make this all up?” Ahmed reminded me. “Can’t we make it up better?”

In April 2021, Gustavo Otzoy joined former Echo Park Lake residents at Pershing Square—a shadeless, nearly benchless park redesigned in 1994 to harden its architecture against unhoused people. Passing a microphone across chicken and waffles, residents talked about their struggles in Project Roomkey: the difficulty of maintaining jobs under the curfews, of losing touch with friends scattered by placements, of the humiliating treatment by staff. That day, they founded Unhoused Tenants Against Carceral Housing. The name claimed solidarity with tenants indoors and rejected the entire interim system—soft imprisonment for the crime of not being able to afford rent. UTACH’s first action, held in late May on the steps of City Hall, resulted in a few improvements, including a 10 p.m. curfew at the Project Roomkey site at the Grand Hotel. But at a meeting with LAHSA, the agency failed to make any broader commitments.

In mid-June, Otzoy was attending an UTACH protest at Echo Park Lake, affixing NO FENCES posters to the fence with masking tape, when park rangers accused him of vandalism. They knocked Otzoy over, pinned him to the ground, and arrested him, leaving him bloody and bruised. The charges were dropped; eventually, a ranger admitted he’d touched Otzoy first. But Otzoy spent around a month in jail, in violation of his parole for interacting with officers at all. And though that violation was ultimately dismissed, Otzoy was still banned from Echo Park Lake for as long as his parole lasts—evidence, he told me, of the lengths to which the city will go to dictate where an unhoused person can be.

Lately, Otzoy has been staying at a hotel in Boyle Heights. After he was exited from Project Roomkey, he secured an emergency voucher for a modest room under no restrictions. He has a key, but no assurance of how long he’ll get to stay. UTACH has turned to building its base, traveling west to the San Fernando Valley, south to San Pedro, and east to Boyle Heights to do outreach at encampments either under or at risk of 41.18 enforcement. The group aims to empower people with their rights—including the right to demand more rights—in order to build an infrastructure for collective refusals and collective action citywide. But outreach itself shows people that they are not alone. “Fighting this injustice helps me to get out the pain that I have, that I feel,” Otzoy said. “It helps me.”

Organizing to turn the slogans of “homes end homelessness,” “housekeys not handcuffs,” and “nothing about us without us” into policy, UTACH calls for community-controlled, permanent housing. Pointing to the expanding gulf between wages and rent and real estate’s tightening grip on the state, the group demands that the city’s new, nearly $1 billion homelessness budget serve a whole new system rather than a carceral fix. But the first step in solving homelessness, as Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project emphasized, is to stop making unhoused people disappear.

Brenda (who declined to give her last name) spent most of her 62 years within a few square miles of Echo Park Lake. Unhoused for around eight years, she’d lived at the park from November 2020 until the sweep. Always accessorized with gifts from her “street kids,” Brenda was known at the encampment as a peacekeeper and a fixer, negotiating conflicts and locating resources. (“I’ll give up when Gustavo gives up,” Brenda once told me at an UTACH gathering. Otzoy laughed. “I’m never giving up,” he said.) After the park’s clearance, Brenda didn’t make it into Project Roomkey, though she told me she’d wanted a room. Instead, she settled on a hillside between a residential street and the on-ramp of a freeway.

When Annie Powers and I arrived at her tent in January 2022, sanitation workers were across the street, coaxing trash bags from residents and pointing at areas they said impeded pedestrians’ right of way—a spot clean. But that side of the street was the property of the California Department of Transportation. On Brenda’s side, city land, different rules applied. The city planned a “Major Cleaning”: All shelters and belongings would be removed or destroyed. Brenda herded her two cats into a carrier and placed them in the shade cast by a squad car. An officer insisted she’d already taken enough of her things, that she’d had 24 hours’ notice, that it was time to go. She wrangled clothes, canned food, and personal documents, then lugged her possessions up the hill, sweating from effort. No one was allowed to cross the police barrier to help.

The two on-site officers, not LAHSA or the Urban Alchemy outreach workers who lingered down the hill, offered Brenda a spot in the Westlake Tiny Homes. “They’re really nice,” Officer Ramirez told her. “I would live there.... For you to come across another opportunity like that, it’s going to be difficult.... You’re at that age that you need to be inside a shelter.” (Ramirez had been a member of the LAPD’s Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement, a program invented and then disbanded within a few years—another in a series of overhauls that privilege public relations over new policies or personnel. That morning, he also handcuffed and ticketed me for jaywalking.)

Sanitation workers in hazmat suits pulled Brenda’s items out with pole pickers and tossed them to the ground. “I’m just doing my job,” one worker told me.

“All my jewelry is in there,” Brenda said, near tears, “and my daughter’s painting stuff that I bought her.”

“Are you crying?” Ramirez asked at one point. “Don’t feel bad. You’re going to make me feel bad.”

When Brenda promised she would go if they let her get a few more of her things, he agreed. He said she could even bring her two cats along.

Brenda and I watched a bulldozer tear through her shelter and those of her neighbors. The city had been bound by court order to collect unhoused people’s property during an encampment sweep and store it for their retrieval—unless sanitation workers declare their belongings hazardous; the discretionary process for making that determination is now subject to another lawsuit. When I asked why nothing could be saved, a worker said it was contaminated. He tossed a folding chair toward the truck. One suitcase unzipped in the air, landing in a tangle of sweater sleeves.

“I wouldn’t want this in front of my house,” the other officer told me. “I pay my taxes.”

Brenda didn’t think the sheds would be so bad, but she worried about staying in touch with her community outside, and she mourned all she’d lost to the dumpster. Twenty minutes later, her shelter mostly razed, Brenda was told by an O’Farrell staffer that he’d just received new information: The Tiny Home site she’d been offered was under quarantine. He said LAHSA had her information; it would be in touch. They didn’t offer replacements for the tents or tarps they’d destroyed, or any advice for where to go.