Griffith Park arrests reignite debate over homeless camping


Six weeks ago, Los Angeles City park rangers descended on a small group of tents in Griffith Park, arresting a homeless man and at least two community activists who had traveled there to show their support.

Park rangers said they took the action because the campsite posed a major fire hazard in Griffith Park and because the group refused to dismantle their tents, which is prohibited by law in city parks. The group was taken into custody even though an aide from Councilor Nithya Raman showed up and asked the rangers not to make any arrests.

The Griffith Park incident received little attention at the time, especially in relation to the outcry that greeted the city’s decision to clear a massive encampment at Echo Park Lake in March. But it has emerged as another source of conflict over the city’s management of its recreation areas during a massive homelessness crisis.

Since the confrontation, Los Feliz owners have contacted Raman’s office to express fears about the fire danger posed by the Griffith Park settlements, which saw a massive fire in 2007 that sparked evacuations and burned hundreds acres.

Activists targeted park rangers, accusing them of failing to follow proper protocols to deal with the homeless. The head of the union that represents the park rangers criticized Raman, saying his aide interfered with their work at Griffith Park that night – a claim one Raman aide called “hyperbolic.”

Raman told The Times she supports the city’s law against park camping, but also sees incarceration as unproductive, saying it makes it harder to build trust with homeless people. and, ultimately, get them home.

“Arrests should also only be used as a last resort to keep the community safe after the exhaustion of a service-oriented approach,” she said in an email.

Ayman Ahmed, one of those arrested that night, said he, another homeless person and activists went to the park believing Raman, who had previously spoken about the closure of Echo Park, would leave them stay.

Ahmed was one of the last two resisters at Echo Park and sought to create “something beautiful, clean, lasting”.

“Thank goodness I didn’t bring anyone else from the park there who was actually homeless. It would just have been more traumatic for them, ”said the 27-year-old, who now lives in a van.

As the park space becomes more and more contested, tensions are likely to increase.

City crews recently reopened Echo Park Lake to the public, after cleaning up a camp that had nearly 200 tents and produced 35 tons of trash. Homeless advocates have denounced City Councilor Mitch O’Farrell for calling for the cleanup and city officials for assigning police to patrol the area.

On the West Side, Councilor Mike Bonin sparked an uproar after identifying several parks and recreation areas in his district as potential sites for temporary homeless facilities. At the same time, some of his constituents demanded that the grassy areas along the Venice promenade receive a similar camp clean-up to that of Echo Park.

In downtown Los Angeles, the grassy part of Grand Park has been closed for eight months, since sheriff’s deputies dismantled a camp there to promote black unity. The closure disappointed defenders of the park, who say the city center already lacks open space.

A fence was erected around the grassy area of ​​Grand Park in September, after the LA County Sheriff’s Department raided a protest camp.

(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)

Meanwhile, some in the San Fernando Valley are upset that City Councilor Paul Krekorian has converted part of Alexandria Park into a small home village for around 200 homeless people. Walter Hall, who sits on the Greater Valley Glen Neighborhood Council, said residents have been told the village will stay for at least three years.

“We have fewer trees, less grass, fewer places for people to get out of their apartments and enjoy the outdoors,” he said.

Homelessness activists don’t seem much happier, saying the installation of the tiny houses has provided the city with an excuse to kick homeless people out of public spaces in North Hollywood. When the original small village opened its doors, these activists stopped cutting the ribbon.

The park debates come as no surprise Carolyn Ramsay, executive director of the Los Angeles Parks Foundation, which is raising funds for new park facilities. During the pandemic, residents who felt stuck at home found relief in recreation areas in Los Angeles, she said.

“Being in a park has been one of the best parts of COVID for them, so they feel protected from their park spaces,” Ramsay said.

In Raman’s neighborhood, the confrontation in Griffith Park last month continued to resonate. On April 12, park rangers approached a half-dozen tents that had been set up near the old zoo by a small group of activists and homeless people, according to a prepared report on the incident. , a copy of which has been reviewed by The Times.

The guards informed the group that the tents were in an “area of ​​very high fire severity” and gave instructions to dismantle them, according to the report.

Caleb Crowder, an activist arrested that night, said he and others told rangers that Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised government agencies to leave camps in place during the COVID pandemic -19 if accommodation options are not available.

“We’ve told them time and time again that you’re not supposed to move people,” said Crowder, who said he was in the park to show solidarity with the homeless.

Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association.

Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association, the union that represents park wardens, accused an aide from Councilor Nithya Raman of interfering with the work of park wardens in Los Angeles at Griffith Park.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Crowder volunteers with Ground Game Los Angeles, a progressive advocacy group that has strongly criticized the city’s handling of homelessness and a big supporter of Raman. In recent weeks, the leader of this group has criticized park rangers, saying they should have contacted Raman’s office and homeless outreach workers immediately after finding the tents, so that a shelter can be offered.

Homeless people shouldn’t be arrested for simply pitching tents in parks, said Bill Przylucki, executive director of Ground Game. And even if a outreach worker offered a bed in a shelter or hotel room, they should have the right to say no and stay where they are, he said.

“If the offer is not accommodation – not shelter, not voucher, but accommodation – then unequivocally yes, they should be allowed to stay in the park,” said Przylucki, who said his group was supporting the action at Griffith Park but did not. organize it.

The Los Feliz Improvement Association, a neighborhood group in the area, offered a different response, telling Raman in a letter last month that the settlements pose a major fire threat to the park. Chris Laib, the group’s former chairman, said cigarettes, matches and barbecue equipment can easily ignite a flame in the dry brush.

“I don’t think the rangers had a choice,” he says. “God forbid if there had been a fire there. The council office would have been guilty.

Ahmed, 27, now living in a van, said he was told staying in the park was “a sure thing”. He also said there were two homeless people in the campground that night – and that he was the only homeless arrested.

“We understood that she would support homeless people more and that we could develop our community there,” Ahmed said. “But I guess the park rangers had a different plan.”

Ahmed, Crowder and a third person were arrested on suspicion of erecting tents in the park, which can result in a fine of up to $ 1,000 or six months in prison. A spokesperson for City Atty. Mike Feuer said earlier this month that prosecutors have not decided whether or not to lay charges. The town’s chief forest ranger refused a request for an interview.

Jesse Zwick, a spokesperson for Raman, said no one in the council office had suggested it would be OK for the homeless to sleep in Griffith Park. He confirmed that one of Raman’s staff, Field Officer Tabatha Yelós, asked the rangers not to make arrests that night – a request that was ignored.

Los Angeles City Councilor Nithya Raman, pictured last year.

Los Angeles City Councilor Nithya Raman said she supports laws against park camping, but said arrests should only be used as a last resort to “keep the community safe.”

(Los Angeles Times)

The head of the park wardens ‘union had sharp words on this front, accusing Raman’s aide of interfering with the guards’ work. Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association, said he also believed Raman staff blurred the lines between their government duties and Ground Game activism.

Documents filed by state-owned companies show that Yelós served as the managing director of Ground Game last year. Yelós also co-hosted an episode of the Ground Game Knock @ Nite video production in December, discussing police brutality, the defund movement and the international use of the acronym ACAB – “All Cops Are Bastards”.

“The police suck here and they suck in Latin America,” said Yelós, who was not employed by the city at the time.

McClain wondered if such remarks would make it harder for park rangers to work with Raman’s office. “If you employ people with that kind of mindset, where does that take us?” He asked.

Yelós resigned from Ground Game in January, before becoming a council assistant, according to Raman’s spokesperson. Asked about McClain’s remarks, Raman said her office has had a productive relationship with park rangers.

Yet the adviser also said that Yelós’ actions in Griffith Park were “not representative” of the office’s broader approach to homelessness. And she said she did not share the opinion expressed by Yelós on video last year.

“These are not my opinions, nor those of this office,” Raman said.

Raman’s office also provided a separate statement from Yelós on the video, which read: “My intention was simply to point out that the issue of police brutality is not isolated in the United States, but one that generates feelings. strong across the world. “

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