The LA City Council is considering a plan that could section off parts of public parks for safe and secure camping sites for people experiencing homelessness. And the news isn’t sitting well with area residents.
Westchester Park and Mar Vista Park are two of the suggested locations in a feasibility study requested by LA Councilman for District 11 Mike Bonin. Neighbors in Westchester point to picnic tables, ball fields and parking lots all cramped with tents that grew exponentially during the COVID pandemic.
“No matter where they put safe camping in Westchester Park, it’s going to affect us,” says Beth O’Rourke, a youth sports director for West Side rugby clubs. “We’ve witnessed public urination, we’ve witnessed feces on the field, around the field. The restrooms are unusable for an adult let alone a child.”
The City of LA’s Recreation and Parks Department has been renovating the fields in recent weeks but some residents say the tents that line the perimeter prove the priority is not on the kids who use the park, but on the homeless who abuse it.
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“I don’t feel like they respect that this belongs to everybody. Just to them,” says Becca Prismantis, a Westchester resident who says she’s had to take her kids to nearby cities for their lacrosse teams.
Earlier this year, Bonin requested a feasibility study for an alternative to the encampments and suggested a portion of Westchester Park and Mar Vista Park. NBC4 viewers shared photos showing encampments had taken over the softball infields.
“What we are proposing is allow those who are there now to be in a certain section,” Bonin explained during a city council meeting in May. “Give them security, sanitation, the services, get them into housing while restoring the rest of the park to general, public use.”
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But some parents say the damage is done; teams have had to move to other parks, parents have had to leave their home neighborhoods to take their kids to play – and all because they don’t feel safe in their own, local park.
“I see things being taken over, I see it’s just out of control,” Prismantis says.
But Stephanie Tatro says she has two young children she brings to the park often and feels very safe, even at night.
Tatro is co-founder of the local non-profit Grass Roots Neighbors and she says she’s gotten to know many of those who call Westchester Park home.
“I see a lot of useage happening at this park as well as I see the folks living here who are unhoused and who are trying to get onto the next step of their life and make circumstances better,” Tatro says.
She believes the park is big enough for kids and the unhoused alike and denies any danger lurking nearby.
“I don’t see how the tents are inhibiting access. Complete access is available,” she says.
But as the NBC4 I-Team first reported on May 20, crime is on the rise near LA’s parks and schools where homeless encampments abound. NBC4's cameras caught fights, weapons being used to harass and threaten homeless people and angry parents over what they say is the city’s lack of interest in addressing the root causes of homelessness.
Six days after the NBC4 report, Bonin made his pitch to city council to offer up park space to homeless neighbors.
“I will gladly take any of these things off the table if people can propose better solutions,” he challenged constituents and colleagues in that May meeting.
Parents in Westchester say they do have an idea.
“A different solution would be to send them or move them to a location which doesn’t take away from the children,” O’Rourke says. “It’s like the homeless are allowed to live here but the children are not allowed to play here.”
The results of the feasibility study are expected in early August. Some residents argue it won’t be enough because the study doesn’t take into account the community impact of such a plan, which they argue would be a non-starter.