A community garden, a jobs program, meal distribution, community clean-ups: These are the amenities and services that unhoused people and mutual aid organizations created in Los Angeles’ Echo Park after coming together in the park last fall. Alongside the lake, with its iconic swan boats, hundreds of unhoused people took shelter during the pandemic, setting up tents against the downtown skyline.

But on March 25, the community evaporated in the blink of an eye. Police choppers rumbled in the sky. The city put up chain-link fences to enclose the camp, turning the once-autonomous community into what protestors and residents of the park called an “open-air prison.” At least a dozen people were left trapped inside the park by the fencing.

Hundreds of Angelenos gathered outside the park as the police followed orders from the city council to displace more than 200 residents living in the encampment. The police’s use of “less-lethal” rubber bullets, batons, and pepper spray reportedly left at least four protestors with concussions and broken limbs. Ultimately, police detained 182 people, including at least three reporters and a group of legal observers. A handful of residents living at the park were also arrested for not agreeing to leave the homes they’d built.

Across the country, including in Los Angeles, encampments are criminalized by ordinances that make it illegal to camp in public parks. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 57 percent of cities prohibit camping in certain public spaces.

Beyond providing respite from displacement and a sense of community to the former residents of the encampment in Echo Park, the green space also offered an enormous mental health benefit, according to David Bush, a local organizer for homeless rights who has himself been unhoused for the past 20 years. “Just the setting, in nature, was so effective in addressing homeless people’s trauma and mental illness,” said Bush. “It’s the most effective mental treatment for unhoused people that I, in 20 years, have seen.”

Read the full article about green spaces and housing justice by Alexandria Herr and Adam Mahoney at Grist.