For homeless people on the Westside of Los Angeles, an overnight stay at a winter shelter no longer has to include concerns about the safety of their belongings left behind.
While a visit to a shelter can offer a welcomed respite from winter weather, many homeless have been discouraged from using the service out of fear of where to keep their property while they’re away, homeless advocates say.
That no longer needs to be the case, as a pilot program has taken effect offering homeless people in the Venice area who want to use the Westside winter shelter a place to store their belongings by the beach.
In partnership with City Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office, the Venice Community Housing Corporation is administering the “Check-in Storage” project through the end of the shelter program in early March.
A 10-foot-high by 30-foot-long storage container has been placed by the city near the Los Angeles Police Department substation at Windward Plaza, where shelter visitors will be able to pack their items into 65-gallon bins for safe keeping. The storage can accommodate about 25 people’s property, said Steve Clare, executive director of the Venice Community Housing Corporation.
“Particularly with the temperatures dropping into the 30s… we really wanted to try to do everything we can to give people access to the shelter,” Clare said.
Those wishing to access the locker will need to provide verification of their stay at the shelter. Volunteers will operate the program daily from 3 to 5 p.m. through March 8.
The Westside shelter, which operates out of the West Los Angeles National Guard Armory, has had approximately 25 to 30 beds available on some nights, according to a shelter supervisor. Some Venice area homeless may have been more inclined to go to the shelter if not for a rule that only allows them to take what they can put on their lap on the bus, Clare said.
Hoping to offer more security for personal property, keep the items off the street and perhaps prompt additional people in need to access the shelter, Rosendahl’s office collaborated with the housing corporation for the pilot program. Clare said his organization is also working on developing a year-round storage option and is considering potential locations for a facility.
“We don’t really know how many more people we’re going to be able to get to the (winter) shelter; this is an experiment for us,” Clare said. “We’re confident that in the long term, a storage facility would be utilized by people in the community and it would be a win-win for the community and those who are able to access the storage.”
Rosendahl believes the ultimate solution against homelessness is providing permanent housing with supportive services. The winter shelter is another measure to provide some temporary relief and connect individuals, who want to receive help, with some resources, he said.
“Why not give homeless people a chance? This is a program for those who participate in the winter shelter program to be connected with services,” the councilman said.
The Venice Neighborhood Council voted narrowly to support the winter storage project Jan. 22, but many board members argued that the community did not have the chance to weigh in on the program before the container was placed by the beach. Council Vice President Marc Saltzberg said the entire board seemed to express discontent that they were not given the opportunity to provide feedback.
“Neighborhood councils exist in the city of Los Angeles to allow the community to provide their input, suggestions and recommendations on issues facing the city. Whenever the city bypasses the neighborhood councils, to me, they are looking for trouble and shouldn’t be surprised if they get it,” Saltzberg said.
Some community members opposed the location of the storage structure by the beach, and other concerns included potential impacts to businesses and visitors with people gathering near the storage site.
Jake Kaufman, chair of the council’s Land Use and Planning Committee, felt the issue needed a more thorough discussion and says other local communities should be providing storage lockers for the homeless, not just Venice.
“I feel that Venice must not be a center of homelessness and the program should not set a precedent, or be based in Venice alone,” said Kaufman, adding that he is pleased that a report on the project will be given this spring.
Resident Karen Wolfe countered that other parts of the city are doing far more to address the problems associated with homelessness.
Rosendahl told the board that he would take the blame regarding complaints of inadequate notification.
“If anyone was to blame for not giving the Venice council enough time, I’ll take the blame,” he said. “This is just a small program that will end in a month, and anyone who wants to participate in it, we want to give them a shot of getting out of the dark and into the light, and this program does that.”
Clare said the police substation was chosen as the spot for the temporary container because it is close to the pick-up point for the shelter bus.
The pilot project has additionally been challenged by the Venice Stakeholders Association, which indicated it would file a legal complaint if the 30-foot-long storage structure were not removed.
In a letter to the city Department of Recreation and Parks, John Henning, attorney for the stakeholders group, said the metal container is classified as development under the California Coastal Act and would therefore need to obtain a coastal development permit. The structure also creates an adverse impact on scenic resources due to its appearance, he wrote.
Chuck Posner, an analyst with the California Coastal Commission, confirmed that the beach storage container is considered development under the Coastal Act and would be required to obtain a permit. Although the city has not yet acquired a permit, Posner noted that the structure will only be in place a few more weeks and the city will be urged to receive a permit if it continues the program in the future.
Clare urged against any legal challenge, saying that it is a pilot program ending March 8 and the container will not impact beach access.
“All that we’re doing is trying to help maybe 25 or 30 people get in out of the cold at night; the winter shelter program at its basic level is to help prevent hypothermia and possibly death,” he said.