- Former Westminster Senior Center. Venice residents are divided over Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority's proposal, supported by City Councilmember Mike Bonin, to turn this vacant city-owned building into a storage facility for homeless property.
Mike Bonin Gets the Ball Rolling on Aiding the Homeless in Venice
Mike Bonin, Los Angeles City Council member for District 11, which is centered on Venice, tabled four motions before the council April 15 calling for specific actions to aid Venice's homeless. The City and County in February each adopted ambitious plans to end homelessness. But as these would cost several billion dollars that doesn't exist in the current budgets, nothing has so far been done. Mike Bonin has moved to change that with four low-cost initiatives that can make important improvements in the lives of those still living on the streets.
There are currently a little more than 1,100 unsheltered people living in Venice, including about 60 families.
Here is what Bonin asks the City Council to approve:
1. That as part of an already approved city plan to build a parking structure on one of the city-owned lots in Venice, that one of the existing lots, at 200 North Venice Blvd., include low-cost housing for the homeless at the ground level.
2. That the city approve a proposal from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) to remodel an existing city-owned building, the long-vacant Westminster Senior Center, at 1234 Pacific Avenue, to become a storage facility for homeless property. The building would also house a case manager and be operated by Chrysalis, a nonprofit that currently runs the city's only large homeless storage facility, located in Downtown's Skid Row. This could be funded by leftover monies set aside to contend with the expected El Nino flooding, which never took place.
3. That the city transfer $50,000 from the Venice Area Surplus Real Property Fund to Venice Forward, a collaborative effort of Venice organizations, importantly the St. Joseph Center and the work of LAPD chaplains Steven and Regina Weller. Last year Venice Forward and the Wellers found housing for 201 homeless individuals and reunited 50 with their families. They also place people with drug and alcohol treatment facilities and arrange medical care.
4. That the City Council instruct the Department of Recreation and Parks "to identify what financial and personnel resources would be required to open and maintain the public restroom facilities at Venice Beach around the clock," and that the Department of General Services survey city buildings in Venice to see what other restroom facilities could be provided. At present public restrooms are closed between midnight and 6:00 am.
Mike Bonin presented this plan at a packed March 29 public meeting at the Westminster Avenue Elementary School before taking it to the City Council. Proposals 3 and 4 met with no opposition, but the audience was divided on 1 and 2. The most vocal opposition came from the Venice Stakeholders Association, headed by Mark Ryavec. Clearly they didn't want homeless people living in housing in part of a city parking structure, but they were particularly against the proposed storage facility at the former Westminster Senior Center.
Ryavec and his supporters objected that the Pacific Avenue property is in a residential neighborhood and any homeless storage should be in an industrial zone. Bonin and other supporters of the project responded that this is what is available. Homeless people who have any belongings usually refuse to go to shelters, as the shelters will not take them unless they leave everything behind. The homeless with belongings are also afraid to leave them, as they may be thrown away or stolen. This make it difficult for them to go to the doctor, seek a job, or even go to the restroom.
At root, the differences come down to those, such as the Venice Stakeholders Association members, who hope that by denying local services the homeless will go somewhere else, and those who either support the homeless or who just don't think the homeless are going anywhere before real housing is available. This last group, which expects the homeless to be a long-term element in the community, aim to reduce their impact by having accessible toilets, to stop peeing and defecating on the streets, showers so they have a chance at getting a job, and a place to get some of their belongings off the streets, so, in addition to benefit for the homeless, that the city ordinance allowing camping only between 9:00 pm and 6:00 am might become enforceable.
Other Programs for the Homeless in Venice
Mike Bonin, apart from his motions to the City Council, has secured funding, in collaboration with the St. Joseph Center, to expand LAHSA's 13 emergency response outreach workers to as many as 60, including mental health teams.
He has supported a jobs program for homeless teens and young adults managed by the nonprofit Safe Place for Youth.
And negotiations are underway with Lava Mae, a San Francisco nonprofit, which converts buses into mobile showers and toilets. If Lava Mae can do the same thing in Venice, Bonin has said he can supply them with surplus city buses and trailers.
Federal Injunction Restricts L.A. Seizure of Homeless Property
U.S. District Court Judge S. James Otero on April 13 issued an injunction limiting the kind of homeless property that can be confiscated by city agencies. He approved taking of material that poses a public health issue, contraband, and crime evidence. But he ruled that "The city, in many instances, appears to be confiscating all property, without differentiating the types of property at issue or giving homeless people a meaningful opportunity to separate essential medications or medical equipment from their other property."
The injunction was in response to a lawsuit filed in March by several homeless people represented by attorneys for the L.A. Community Action Network and the L.A. Catholic Worker. City Attorney Mike Feuer's office responded by showing videos taken by the police that showed them offering the plaintiffs adequate time to recover important belongings.
The judge was skeptical of the city's claims, but in any case the legal ruling that agencies must allow homeless people to retrieve their important belongings before other materials in their camp are disposed of can only be to the good. Judge Otero also insisted that the city produce on its long promised creation of additional storage areas for confiscated homeless belongings. So far there is only a single storage facility, located in downtown's Skid Row, for the whole city. This makes it impractical for homeless individuals who are located a long way from there to recover their property.
Between the time the lawsuit was filed in March and the April 13 injunction the City Council finalized an ordinance that limits homeless property to the amount that can fit in a 60-gallon trash can. Judge Otero's injunction applies only to Skid Row and the surrounding area.
City Giving Back Tiny Houses It Took from the Homeless
After several protests, including a demonstration at City Hall, Los Angeles announced April 21 that it would give back the three Tiny Houses it seized from homeless people in February. Initially it had said it would destroy them, while the City Attorney's office had ruled that they did not meet code as habitations either on city streets or on private property. The three were among 37 built and given to the homeless by Elvis Summers. They are to be returned to Summers, who has said he will store them on a church lot in Compton.
It remains to be seen how this will play out. Summers and his supporters have been asking the city to donate a piece of land, preferably including a building with electricity, toilet, and shower facilities, to establish a Tiny House village on the pattern of such villages in 11 other cities. Connie Llanos, Mayor Garcetti's press secretary, as part of the announcement that the structures would be returned, said that the Mayor does not support creating a village. She left the door open by adding that this refusal was "Not at this time," and that the city is working with nonprofits and will share information on this with Elvis Summers.
The more successful of the Tiny House homeless villages in other cities are operated by strong nonprofits. In the meantime, Summers is looking for a donation of private land to found a village. In other cities, often under the aegis of the city government, the Tiny House villages have gotten around the building code restrictions "for not having plumbing or electricity" by having them approved as camp grounds with a central building for plumbing and cooking facilities.
L.A. Coming Up a Day Late and a Dollar Short on Plans to End Homelessness
Mayor Garcetti on April 20 called for allocating $138 million in the 2016-2017 city budget to ameliorate homelessness. The City Council is also working on a measure for the November ballot to raise 1.8 billion to finance a ten-year program to build or buy housing for 15,000 of the city's homeless. These are the first serious initiatives in years and should be applauded and supported.
L.A., with the largest homeless population in the country, has long been criticized for the stinginess of its outlays. Even with this new large commitment, out of a budget of $8.76 billion the $138 million amounts to only .016%. Even that comparatively small amount depends on funding sources that are at the least shaky. In September 2015 the City Council announced that it would commit $100 million to combat homelessness in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. In actuality they came up with only $38 million. The sources for next year's plan look equally ephemeral. The L.A. Times commented that "half of the mayor's proposed homelessness spending depends on uncertain sources of revenue."
Where Is the Money Coming From?
$20 million is to come from a levy on real estate developers, which has yet to come before the City Council for discussion. $47 million is to come from the sale of city property or its use to build housing for the homeless. The city government has chosen 8 mostly unused properties. Four of these are on the Westside, in CD 11, centered on Venice, where there is already strong NIMBY opposition to Councilmember Mike Bonin's proposal to use one as a storage facility for homeless people's property.
As for the $1.85 billion ballot measure for a tax increase or bond issue, passage requires a 66.6% majority. While large majorities in a poll released April 22 ranked homelessness as the top city problem, only 49% of L.A. voters said they would approve these financing options. An exception would be if the tax was only on millionaires, which 76% said they would approve.
This is typical of American voters, where people vote to have services but vote against paying for them ‰ÛÒ though they are happy to have somebody else pay. California already has a millionaires' tax, approved by voters in 2012, when the state tax rate for those earning $1 million was raised from 10.3% to 13.3%, a 29% increase.
One night this month I took my dogs out for their regular pre-bedtime walk. A light rain was falling. On the way back I noticed a shopping cart pulled up against the parking strip next to my house. When I got closer I saw there was a young black woman sitting on the parkway, huddled under a blanket. I told her, as kindly as I could, that this was a garden, but that at the end of the block up against Adams Blvd. there was a short commercial stretch between a storefront church and a closed strip mall where no one would bother her. She appeared forlorn, as though the effort to move was more than she could endure.
I looked in my wallet and saw I had six dollars. I gave her the five and said take care. I took in the dogs and went out to sit on my porch, concerned to see what she would do. I could hear her crying softly. I got up to speak to her again, to walk with her down to the corner where a building or a bougainvillea overhang could provide a minimal shelter. By the time I got to the curb she had started off with her cart, wandering down the street in the rain, in the opposite direction.