This story was originally published in Circling the News. It has been republished with permission from the editor/publisher, Sue Pascoe. 

WESTSIDE -Across Los Angeles, children have suffered most during the pandemic shutdowns. First public schools were closed and then some neighborhood parks became unusable because of City policies.

Westchester residents, who share Councilman Mike Bonin with Pacific Palisades, reached out to Circling the News in an effort to help save their recreation center —  a public space for children and families that has been overrun by unlawful homeless encampments.

These Westchester neighbors said that three years ago, the three playing fields at their park were constantly used by Westchester Little League, Del Rey Little League, the Santa Monica Rugby League and the Lacrosse League.

The fields were so heavily used that it was difficult to reserve practice times. Rec and Parks had a person on site to manage the fields, operate the lights and make sure the team with a reservation got the field they reserved. Now the fields are fallow.

The senior center was open and served meals — and it was supposed to remain open during Covid, so that seniors could pick up meals. Then the parking lot became so filled with homeless people that seniors were afraid to go inside, and the program was eventually shut down. Now, the parking lot for the center is filled with campers and vans. The senior center remains closed.

The Westchester recreation center was a lively place, and the swimming pool was open in the summer.  Kids from the local tennis camp, hosted by LA Tennis, used the park’s bathrooms.

The swimming pool, which was surrounded by homeless tents, opened on June 14. After the pool was filled, the outer fence was cut and homeless began using the pool for bathing. The once vital swimming lesson program is now used by only a few kids, whose parents are willing to arrange for a separate swim lesson, and the kids are individually escorted to the pool by a Rec and Parks staff member, a resident told CTN.

Homeless tents surround the Westchester Park swimming pool.

Residents have complained to Councilman Bonin’s office that in two separate incidents, a teenage girl and a woman were physically attacked by two homeless men in the ladies’ restroom.

One female transient has on several occasions claimed that a child playing is hers and tried to take the child from the mother(s).

Children taking tennis lessons have seen men urinating on the courts through the chain-link fence. Several homeless men have been accused of trying to engage teenage girls playing in a conversation. And girls have been followed to the parking lot after activities. Now tennis signups are down by 50 percent.

Since March 2020, according to local residents, LAPD officers have been under instruction not to arrest people, except for serious crimes, which have included a homicide (homeless on homeless) and an incident where one homeless person attacked another with a baseball bat.

On May 2, there was a gang-involved shooting of three people at the park. LAPD Chief Michael Moore said on video that gangs take over homeless encampments to gain control of the drug trade.

Westchester residents told CNN that drug use, such as meth and heroin, is rampant in the park.

Residents say it is not safe to walk around without good shoes because of needles and that there is an organization that feels they are helping the homeless by supplying clean needles.

Drug use is not considered a deadly crime and children and families, who live in apartments and use the park as a “front lawn,” can watch the transients shoot up; they also are exposed to those who urinate and defecate on the park grounds.

Residents say that the park has not been maintained over the past year — the expanse of grass is brown, and the fields have not been kept up. Perhaps some of the transients can be blamed, given that they have damaged sprinkler heads, so their tent/belongings don’t get wet.

A tent and the owner’s belongings were burnt at this site in Westchester park, near the tennis courts. There are still other homeless tents that surround the courts. Fires occur frequently.

There have also been numerous fires in the park, some caused by transients burning their trash, others the result of cooking accidents.

Residents said that on May 4, they met virtually with Councilman Bonin’s District Deputy Hannah Levien and members of Westchester RAP. After the meeting Levien [who in an email asked how she could have a homeless man moved from in front of her office] wrote:

“First off, I want to thank the RAP staff on this email. David [Gadelha], you have been incredibly helpful and communicative with members of the Westchester community. Cristina and Kim — thank you for all that you do to keep our parks running!

“I am writing this note to make sure we are all connected and can be in contact about permits at the park moving forward. Cristina & Kimberly — Heather on this email is a member of the community who is connected to all the sports teams in the area applying for permits.

“I wanted to make sure that we have open lines of communication to discuss the issuance of the permits and usage of the space.”

During that meeting, lacrosse, Little League and rugby presidents were told it was unclear if permits would be issued for community youth athletics, or if the fields and lights would be maintained, so the fields would be safe for children.

CTN sent this information to Recreation and Parks General Manager Michael Shull, this morning (July 6). Shortly afterwards, David Gadelha, Director of L.A. Municipal Parks, contacted the Westchester resident, explaining that he was aware that someone from RAP told people in September 2020 that no permits would be issued for the fields in 2020 or 2021. He said that was “a mistake” and it has now been corrected.

The resident also explained that the fields were unsafe for children because of dry grass and gopher holes. “David said there would be less of a gopher hole problem if the fields were watered and maintained, but he didn’t know why they weren’t being watered and maintained. He said he didn’t know about security,” the resident said.

The resident was then told to contact the maintenance supervisor of the Westchester Park to ask why the fields are not being watered.

Gadelha said RAP has issued one permit for the fields at Westchester Park this year, and that is to a travel baseball team, for 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Friday. No other permits have been issued. He said he thinks it’s possible that maybe a flag football group and a travel team will apply for permits.

He told the resident that in the past, RAP has permitted lacrosse, Little League, soccer, adult rugby, adult baseball and more at Westchester Park. He doesn’t know why those teams haven’t applied for permits this year.

The resident was told by Gadelha that “the Council office” is aware of the situation at the park.

CTN contacted Gadelha on July 6 and asked if the large homeless encampment in the park had something to do with permits not being granted for public spaces for children and families. He was also asked if the City was going to try and reclaim the senior center for its elderly.

CTN was told any statements would have to come through RAP spokesperson Rose Watson, who was then contacted. When we hear back, we’ll update the story.

CTN also asked Shull about the practice of taking away public park spaces from children and families. When he responds, we’ll include his statement.

Large tents like these have taken over spaces intended for children and families at public parks.