I’ve been living in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles for the past 14 years. Echo Park Lake — which refers to both the lake and the park that surrounds it — has long been a place where I’ve found solace while walking my two dogs. During the pandemic, it was one of the few spots where I could safely socialize with other residents of the neighborhood. And that’s how I first met Valerie Zeller.
Valerie, now 53, was one of about 200 unhoused individuals living in the park. She was welcoming, talkative and had an artful swagger about her.
I barely knew Valerie when she invited me to her wedding, but I felt honored to attend such an uplifting occasion in the park during a pandemic. She was marrying Henry, a 63-year-old veteran. When I asked her how Henry had proposed, she set me straight: She had proposed to him: “I just went into the tent ... and said, ‘I want to marry you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.’ He looked down and then he looked up at me, and I knew he took me seriously because he looked at me and I could see tears in his eyes, and he said yes. And that was it.” Because Valerie proposed, Henry decided to take her last name.
They were married on March 20. But not long before their wedding, rumors had begun to swirl that the community was going to be evicted from the park. And just days after the wedding, on March 25, that was exactly what happened. Valerie was ready for battle: “My honeymoon is over and it’s time to fight,” she said. I spent 16 hours with her as she defiantly remained one of the last holdouts to leave the park.
About 170 people from the community accepted temporary housing from the city, but some, like Henry and Valerie, did not. They don’t want to live under curfews. They don’t want to be told what they can and cannot do in program housing. They feel it’s dehumanizing. Like unhoused people in cities across the country — like all of us — they want to retain their dignity.
After living on the streets, then in a motel, Valerie and Henry were given a van with 200,000 miles on it to sleep in. They parked it along a road outside Echo Park Lake.
“It feels so good,” a beaming Valerie said at the time, “to be back home.” But more recently, she and Henry have endured a difficult stretch. She moved the van from the park area to a restaurant lot and it was towed. The van is now in the pound. In addition, her beloved dog has disappeared. She and Henry have been sleeping in the streets again; they are still together, but the pressure of being in the streets has taken a toll.
Barbara Davidson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker.
Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Clare Ramirez.