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In A Los Angeles Park, Worrying Signs Of Rising Homelessness

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As the pandemic continues to pummel the nation's economy, there are troubling signs that more people are slipping into homelessness. NPR's Adrian Florido visited a park in Los Angeles where this is becoming more visible every day.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Echo Park is one of LA's iconic public spaces. It has a big lake lined by palm trees and a postcard view of the downtown skyline. It's always had a small homeless community. But in the last few months, people sleeping in tents have filled half of the park's 16 acres. Jesse Briandi moved in four months ago after losing his job programming office phone systems.

JESSE BRIANDI: Everything's closed. Businesses aren't putting any effort into, you know, telephone lines and programming those systems.

FLORIDO: Out of work. he couldn't afford the rent.

BRIANDI: So that left me with friends, going through - you know, house to house. And then I became a burden, so...

FLORIDO: So he came to the park and pitched a tent.

BRIANDI: There are people that have been here beforehand. But a lot of these people right here, this was because of the pandemic.

FLORIDO: Federal, state and local eviction moratoriums are supposed to be keeping people in their homes, even if they can't pay the rent during the pandemic. But Cesar, who moved into Echo Park over the summer, said a lot of people like him have left their apartments anyway rather than fall behind on rent.

CESAR: I didn't want debt hanging over me. Like, even though there was a moratorium on rent and I didn't technically have to pay it, I'm not making money, so how - why am I loading up on debt?

FLORIDO: He said an eviction over back rent would hurt him for years. He recently found a temporary job working the reception desk at a tax preparation firm. His colleagues don't know he lives in the park, which is why he asked me not to use his last name.

CESAR: Like, I met people out here that had good jobs and that could afford rent. This pandemic is just - you know, it really hit them hard. There's even families with kids here, you know.

FLORIDO: Because of the pandemic, groups that fan out to do homeless counts have put that off for now, making it hard to know how many people the pandemic has already driven to the streets.

PETE WHITE: Just because there is no academic data does not discount our own eyes.

FLORIDO: Pete White directs the LA Community Action Network, an anti-poverty organization.

WHITE: Us traveling in communities where there were no houseless people and there are now informal settlements everywhere - there is no doubt that there are more people on the streets.

FLORIDO: LA and California have had a homeless crisis for years. And while officials are using pandemic relief money to get people inside, White fears what he's seeing is just the beginning here and nationally.

WHITE: This crisis will only get worse unless we figure out how to do all we can to keep people who are barely hanging on in their homes and for folks who are houseless, figuring out cheaper and faster and innovative ways to get people inside.

FLORIDO: Brenda Moreno moved into Echo Park before Christmas and says the community has formed quickly here with weekly meetings and all.

BRENDA MORENO: We get together. We discuss our - if anything's wrong or what's going on, you know, how many kids you can have.

FLORIDO: She was standing with Gustavo Otzoy, who was manning a table accepting donations for the park's residents - shoes, toilet paper, soap, clothing.

GUSTAVO OTZOY: I feel happy about it because by doing that, I know that I'm helping some other people. And that makes me happy.

FLORIDO: Otzoy moved into the park seven months ago, homeless for the first time in his life, he said, 35 years after moving here from Guatemala. He pulled a business card out of his tent - Gustavo Otzoy, general handyman.

OTZOY: I do drywall, painting, plumbing, hardwood floor. That's what I do.

FLORIDO: Otzoy says that when the pandemic struck, work dried up. The first night in his tent, he couldn't believe it.

OTZOY: But everything happens for a reason. I'm just going to get up on my feet. I know that I can get up again after I lost everything.

FLORIDO: He has started recycling cans, he says, and scraping jobs together little by little.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.