LOS ANGELES — A newly installed fence surrounded a popular Los Angeles park Thursday after authorities moved in to evict residents of a large homeless encampment despite protests by the people who live there and their supporters.
Only a few tents and about a dozen people remained by evening along the grassy banks of Echo Park Lake, where tents had proliferated for months during the coronavirus pandemic, sparking concerns about trash, drugs and violence.
Residents argued that the complaints were overblown and the encampment offered a community setting for people without means who have nowhere else to live.
Police gave people until 10:30 p.m. Thursday to leave so that the city could perform what officials said were necessary repairs to the site. Those who leave have been offered temporary housing, and at least 166 people had already been sheltered, said Mitch O'Farrell, a city councilman whose district includes the park.
"We have had a very successful housing operation that began in January," O'Farrell told reporters earlier Thursday. He said the city has contracted with the nonprofit Urban Alchemy to help homeless residents clean up their campsites and move.
A couple hundred demonstrators gathered peacefully Thursday evening outside O'Farrell's nearby office with a large banner that said "services not sweeps." Late Thursday night, police declared an unlawful assembly and began arresting those who refused to leave.
KTLA-TV reported that about two busloads of demonstrators were being arrested.
The gathering followed a confrontation late Wednesday night, when authorities showed up to install the fencing. Several hundred people, including advocates and homeless residents, faced off against a line of police wearing riot helmets. Protesters carried signs that said "dignity, not displacement" and "we need long term solutions."
A police statement said there were verbal confrontations but that the protest was largely peaceful and demonstrators voluntarily departed. One person was arrested for failing to comply with an officer's orders, and officers twice used force that was characterized as minor, police said.
The encampment had overtaken areas surrounding the lake, an oasis-like locale where locals and tourists normally stroll and picnic on the lake's banks, which include a towering fountain and a view of the downtown skyline. The lake has been featured in many movies, including the Oscar-winning "Chinatown" in 1974.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said its outreach workers had moved 44 people into housing on Monday and Tuesday, mostly into hotel rooms under the state-funded Project Roomkey program aimed at providing shelter for those most at risk during the coronavirus pandemic.
Antonia Ramirez, who said she has been homeless for 20 years, vowed to stay at her camp site at Echo Park Lake and risk being arrested. Ramirez, who said she has lived at parks in Los Angeles and in neighboring Orange County, said she moved in days earlier.
"I'm not leaving. I will be arrested, and I will spend my time in jail," said Ramirez, 60.
Her fellow tent-dwelling residents argued the growing encampment had provided a secure place for homeless people during the public health crisis.
Valerie Zeller said she doesn't want to accept assistance from the city because of shelter restrictions that include curfews.
"I care a lot about this park," she told ABC 7. "I pick up trash every day for two hours at least."
Zeller said she plans to move onto a nearby sidewalk.
Kelvin Martinez, an organizer with the advocacy group Street Watch LA, accused city officials of "bad faith communication." He said requests for services during the past year were largely ignored until the sudden announcement that the park would be closed.
"The city's strategy is to displace these people into dark corners, into hiding, under overpasses. As long as they're not visible in a public place like a park," Martinez said.
No timeline was provided for the closure, which O'Farrell's office said was necessary to make "extensive repairs" to lighting and plumbing at the park and for general "public safety improvements."
The encampment has been the site of drug overdoses, assaults and shootings, with four deaths in the park over the past year, according to a statement from O'Farrell's office.
The location of the encampment in the fast-gentrifying Echo Park neighborhood gave it a high profile, but it was not unique for the metro Los Angeles area. Tents can be found throughout the city and region despite an array of state and local programs aimed at sheltering people and transitioning them to permanent housing.
A January 2020 count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported that there were more than 66,400 homeless people living in Los Angeles County — by far the largest single concentration in the state.
That included more than 41,000 people within Los Angeles city limits. Both figures were up more than 12% from the previous year. The annual count was canceled for 2021 because of the pandemic.
Among the major legal actions on the issue is a federal court lawsuit filed by a group of business owners, residents and community leaders called the LA Alliance for Human Rights.
The lawsuit accuses the city and county of failing to comprehensively address the desperation that homeless people face — including hunger, crime, squalor and the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. District Judge David Carter, who is overseeing the case, called parties to a hearing in a Skid Row parking lot last month and said that if politicians can't provide solutions, he wants to explore what powers the court has to order and oversee remedies.
Invoking the 1950s civil rights case Brown vs. Board of Education, Carter said there is strong precedence of the federal courts acting "after a long period of inaction by local government officials."
Associated Press photojournalists Damian Dovarganes and Marcio Sanchez and AP writer John Antczak contributed to this report.