Councilman’s plan for Venice includes new housing, aggressive services outreach and storing homeless people’s belongings at Westminster Senior Center
By Gary Walker
A sweeping action plan to address pandemic homelessness in Venice has energized local advocates with the promise of greater financial resources, legislative reforms and increased interagency collaboration.
During a packed town hall meeting last Tuesday at Westminster Avenue Elementary School, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin announced a multifaceted approach to aid Venice’s 1,000-plus homeless population. Dubbed “Venice Forward,” the strategy includes new affordable housing construction, quadrupling the number of social services outreach workers, allocating $1.1 million for rapid rehousing interventions and expanding access to personal hygiene facilities for those living on the streets.
Bonin also said he would support a Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority recommendation to repurpose the long-defunct Westminster Senior Center as a monitored storage facility for homeless people’s belongings, as having nowhere to secure personal possessions keeps many homeless people from participating in shelter programs.
The storage issue — particularly the building’s close proximity to residential housing — could complicate some of the plan’s initial momentum, at least judging by the large number of groans and boos voiced by a number of the 350-plus crowd.
Bonin said he’d consider alternative locations if another property became available but is prioritizing action over universal support.
“I’m sure there are some things that I’m going to say that everyone will find pleasing, and I’m equally confident that there are things others will find aggravating or frustrating,” Bonin said. “But I can’t wait any longer for consensus. The one thing that is worse than controversy is inaction.”
In addition to broader legislative reforms and affordable housing creation, Bonin’s plan for Venice involves several local nonprofits in what he called a “street strategy” to halt the proliferation of outdoor encampments and bring their inhabitants into the continuum of care.
The St. Joseph Center plays a central role. Bonin said he’s secured funding to expand LAHSA’s 13 emergency response homeless services outreach workers to as many as 60, with St. Joseph Center deploying mental health teams.
“For us this is a full-court press, and our plan is to be able to respond to all of the hotspots in Venice,” St. Joseph Center Executive Director Va Lecia Adams Kellum said. “We’re seeing more continuity and more collaboration than ever.”
Bonin also announced grants in support of outreach efforts by LAPD chaplains Regina and Steve Weller as well as a jobs program for homeless teens and young adults that will be managed by the nonprofit Safe Place for Youth (SPY).
“In my nine years here, I’ve never seen the level of connection, collaboration and coordination that I do in this plan,”
said SPY Executive Director Alison Hurst.
SPY will receive funding for an in-house specialist to help its clients find stable jobs and housing.
Bonin said he would provide surplus buses or trailers to the San Francisco nonprofit Lava Mae, which repurposes vehicles as traveling shower and lavatory stations for the homeless, if the nonprofit is able to replicate the program here.
STATIC ABOUT STORAGE
Advocates say providing homeless people a place to store their belongings overcomes a significant social services hurdle — that they give up all they have to enter shelter programs that won’t accommodate their possessions, or give up access
to shelter programs in order to secure what little they have.
Finding a location for such facilities, however, is often the rub.
Earlier this year, more than 360 people signed an online petition by Venice Chamber of Commerce President Carl Lambert opposing conversion of the former senior center property into a storage facility.
Since the city began allowing unsheltered residents to store their belongings in two freight containers on the Venice boardwalk when winter shelters are open, business owners and residents have lobbied the city to remove them, arguing that the containers simply encourage more homeless people to locate themselves in Venice.
Darryl Barnett, who helped organize efforts to create the Westminster Dog Park next to the senior center, said there are already many homeless residents who sleep near the building and moving the storage site there would likely attract more.
“I and others think putting this next to the dog park could be very detrimental,” Barnett said. “With more time and effort we could find something more appropriate than putting [a storage facility] smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood.”
Bonin said Santa Monica-based nonprofit Chrysalis, which specializes in finding employment for the homeless, would be tasked with monitoring the Westminster storage facility and turning it into a social services entry point for the homeless people who use it.
When Bonin announced in January that he would seek to repurpose the former bus yard on Main Street and Pacific Avenue as affordable housing, he promised more public properties would follow.
On Tuesday he announced that the city-owned parking lot at the corner of Dell and Pacific avenues would be next on the list, with a call for developer proposals going out as early as this summer.
In addition to housing creation, local officials have invested more than $11-million in citywide rapid rehousing funds to quickly shelter the most vulnerable homeless or those on the brink of becoming homeless — more than $1.1 million of which has been allocated to the St. Joseph Center, Bonin said.
“That equates to being able to house at least 110 people,’ Adams Kellum said of the funding.
Westside homeless advocate Booker Pearson called Bonin’s initiative “a bold move” with big potential, but noted the absence of attention on a particularly vulnerable demographic.
“Families with children are not getting any additional funding. It’s difficult to see how families with children will be better off [under this plan],” said Pearson, a commissioner with the Los Angeles Housing Authority.
The legislative aspect of the Venice Forward plan includes a long-awaited ordinance to stabilize local rents by preventing wholesale conversion of rental properties into short-term vacation rentals. Bonin said a final draft of the ordinance is heading to the city council as early as this month.
Bonin also seeks revisions to the Mello Act, a state law that seeks to preserve and create affordable housing near the coast. Advocates for the poor and homeless say the law has become riddled with loopholes and gets only lax enforcement. Bonin said he expects public hearings on the issue to happen this summer.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Other details of Venice Forward have yet to be fleshed out — namely how to increase the number of available shelter beds, the creation of a Westside substance abuse recovery “sobering center” and locating parking lots that can double as secure overnight parking for people who live in their vehicles.
Venice resident Nick Antonicello, a frequent critic of L.A. City Hall, described Bonin’s plan as thoughtful and fairly specific — except about how all this will be funded, which he found “vague, murky and lacking detail.”
To fully fund these and other proposals, Bonin said he supports calls for a city-sponsored November ballot measure that would raise $1.8 billion in new tax revenue for homeless services over 10 years.