Last week, the city of Los Angeles conducted a heavy-handed homeless sweep at Echo Park Lake, which turned into a national controversy. Trying to deflect community outrage directed at him, L.A. City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, who organized the sweep, went into spin mode. In an exclusive interview with Housing Is A Human Right, David Busch-Lilly, an unhoused resident of Echo Park Lake, pushes back against the city’s dubious narrative.
On March 26, Busch-Lilly was approached by several Los Angeles Police Department officers and homeless services workers at Echo Park Lake. When he refused to leave the park, he was handcuffed with plastic ties, brought to the police station, processed, and released. He was one of two unhoused people who stayed at Echo Park Lake that were arrested. In the interview below, he talks with Susie Shannon, policy director at Housing Is A Human Right.
Susie Shannon: David, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Can you tell me about your background and goals?
David Busch-Lilly: I am a native of Southern California. I moved around a lot when I was young. We chased rising home values and moved into bigger and bigger homes. I worked for the city of Los Angeles as a bus mechanic and for seven or eight years worked for grassroots organizations. In 1998, I became homeless.
My goal is to help train people so we can organize ourselves and help broaden an understanding that there is organizing capability out here. And to help people get accustomed to the idea of cross-class organizing. There is a definite class divide between the homeless and the housed.
Susie: Tell me about the Echo Park Lake community of people who were living there unhoused.
David: I came down to Echo Park Lake and pitched a tent last year. It was a community. A kind of community where everyone had their own autonomy, and where you had your own tent, you had your own life, you had your own political views, but you realized you were part of a neighborhood and everybody pitched in for neighborhood things. For us, the neighborhood things included straightening things up, trying to keep the peace among ourselves and to settle fights with our neighbors, helping to provide community amenities that you can’t have in a tent, like a shower. A place to cook. And a place to gather. And a community garden. It was a community just like any other neighborhood in Los Angeles.
We had a centralized place for groups to drop off food — and we made sure the food was healthy. And we made sure that people were not just dumping food on us, but they were bringing things we actually needed and were helpful. We made a lot of effort to keep it clean. We even arranged to get our own dumpster when the city denied us dumpsters. The community built a beautiful garden with herbs and flowers and decorations and a peaceful little meditative place. The community provided a power-up station, where three times a week people could charge up their cell phones, which was a lifeline since coffee shops were shutting down their outlets.
Mitch O’Farrell (the City Councilmember who represents Echo Park) wasn’t interested in seeing the model of community empowerment that was going on down there. Mitch decided to ignore the equal aspirations of homeless people who have self-determination in Los Angeles. And he tried to shut it down and characterize it as a failure when it’s been anything but. Today, I think the proof that it’s been successful is the very capable people in this community, progressive groups throughout L.A., who have been going out there, been supporting the work. Groups who have been working hand in hand with homeless people to build and support that community, is proof that it’s a model that works when you quit boxing homeless people into this category that they can’t help themselves.
Susie: What were some of the amenities that were available to everyone that we typically don’t see in these unhoused communities?
David: Well, first the outdoor setting. It’s very healing. It has a dramatic effect on people’s mental outlook and mood. When you’re out there in nature and looking around and seeing ducks and seeing a pond and seeing people relaxing and having recreation, rather than having four walls around you and feeling like your mind is being pressured to jump though a bunch of programmatic hoops. So, I think just the setting was one of the basic amenities homeless people deserve. You look at the homeless shelters and they’re concrete and sterile. And you can’t expect people’s mental attitudes who have gone through trauma to not be affected even more dramatically than a healthy minded person is when they are in such an inhospitable surrounding such as shelters tend to be. Look at shelters — they are a lot of rabble, asphalt, a lot of uniformity, sterile walls. And look at what we had in Echo Park — a beautiful contrast.
I found it such an idyllic spot. I don’t know of another place in Los Angeles where you had such a large homeless community, right in the middle of the city, that had such an idyllic outdoor setting.
People are not trying to buck the system. They are trying to make the system work for all of us. And more and more people are realizing at an early age that it’s not. That it’s not doing anything for you but driving you into a level of poverty. No pension, no savings, no insurance on your car, breaking down automobiles, and buying into a housing equity system that is not designed to house the middle class anymore, it’s designed to create an upper class. Automation will replace 40 percent of the workforce, and we’ll either be living luxurious lifestyles in houses or selling oranges by the side of the freeway unless we create the political and social will to create an equitable society for everybody who works — that provides them with decent food, clothing, and shelter.
Susie: There were some reports of violence happening in the community. What can you say about that?
David: We saw these tactics in Santa Monica and Venice, too. There is a time-tested, well-established procedure in communities where you gather together a bunch of NIMBYs and a pliable politician — what they do is start sending out news media to create a false narrative. The false narrative was that what was going on in other parts of the park with homeless people was part of the organized homeless community we had created. That wasn’t true.
Susie: Can you tell me about the process for removing people and what the story is on where people ended up?
David: First, they put on heavy-handed tactics and a distraction campaign, which included offers of hotels. But the hotels are underfunded and people know they will likely be there for two to four months and then back out onto the street. The shelters they are sending them to are inadequate and they know they are not livable.
The law says that given a scarce resource like hotels for homeless people, they should go to the most needy.
But for political reasons, to give cover for his political wish to disempower homeless in his district, Mitch O’Farrell, I believe, colluded with government agencies to say rather than help the most needy person on Alvarado or over on Union Street, we are going to take these relatively comfortable and acclimated homeless people and do everything we can to entice them into taking these programs and we are basically robbing those who are suffering more.
That was the number one reason I wouldn’t take it (shelter or motel room). You want to make me do this in the face of brothers and sisters on the street who are more needy than I? That is not an adequate alternative to homelessness.
I was disgusted at how Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell took all of those resources, just to make a political point, and to disempower a thriving, promising homeless community that deserved as much recognition for its aspirations as every other community in Los Angeles.
Susie: When did you first start hearing they were going to move people out?
David: Mitch O’Farrell had announced it last October at a community meeting on the Internet. He was promising the anti-homeless in Echo Park that he would have the homeless out of Echo Park Lake in 2021. We thought that it would be after the county shelter-in-place health restrictions were lifted. It violated the county health order and he claimed there was a loophole for parks. He didn’t care about the number of people who were shelter resistant and who fled. He doesn’t care that the promises of housing were in illusion and that in three months, after the media attention dies down, those people will be back out on the street because the funds for those hotels are going to dry up. I think he should be prosecuted for this.
Susie: How many people were out there and where did they go?
David: There were just under 200. Over and over, we heard anecdotes of people who were offered motel rooms and some were sent to motels out in the desert. One motel was poorly staffed with no program out there. There was a lot of tension and conflicts. During the rain, the roof of the motel room where one couple was staying caved in with water flooding the room and the hotel told them they had to leave. Their case manager told them to go wherever they could find. They slept back out on the street. A couple of weeks later, the case manager called and told them they had a room available for them out there. They went all the way back to Palmdale only to find there was no room. They have been back out on the street since then. These miscommunications between shelters and case managers are all too common. You have these private hotel operators and these city agencies and the rooms are so scarce and all of these case workers are trying to get the most needy into. It’s just a “shelter shuffle.” And what it does is break down homeless people’s trust in anybody and anything.
In another instance, people were told to, “hurry up, we have a hotel room for you.” They got on the bus and when they arrived at the location that the worker had described as a hotel, they found it was a congregate shelter. As they were a couple, they refused to go in. You don’t want to live in a congregate setting for six months.
A year ago, in Venice, I met a woman who was in the late stage of AIDS. She looked like a refugee from a concentration camp. Her face was sunken and she was skin and bones. She had broken her hip and could hardly walk. And, it took them three months to find her housing, and she was getting on a bus and going to St. Joseph’s Center every day to show up to get housing. That is how far away people are today from housing. And in the meantime, you go through this shelter shuffle. I sheltered her in my tent for three months and helped her change her diapers. I helped her get dressed and change her clothes and get her on the bus every day. She was so depressed she wanted to run in traffic.
Susie: What do you think is the solution?
David: I think we need a massive Word War II-style mobilization of industrial and social wealth to fix the housing market and achieve a goal. Vouchers. Rent Control. We need to claim back public housing and stop flooding the market with nothing but private luxury condos. Convert skyscrapers into housing. It’s going to take 10 years even moving full speed ahead. It’s going to take an economy that incentivizes politicians and the business community to focus on the Human Development Index (HDI is a measure of human health and opportunity) and not on the GDP (a measure used by economists to see how many people are getting rich). We are in a struggle for our humanity, and it’s bigger than World War II.
At the center of it is having a safe home. Having a home you feel welcome in. Having a home where you feel autonomous and your dignity as a human being and your ability to have free relationships with your community is respected. And you have access to gardens, lakes, and recreation, and that’s considered part of your citizenship and you get to be a full human being and not a “client.”
(Top photo: David Busch-Lilly, center and facing camera, at press conference at L.A. City Hall after the homeless sweep at Echo Park Lake.)