A temporary Westside emergency shelter program has been initiated six weeks ahead of schedule as a way to provide more immediate assistance to the homeless in Venice, Westchester and other parts of the Westside.

In response to an unusually large number of homeless people, many of whom are young adults, sleeping on the Venice Boardwalk, as well as a population in Westchester Park, Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sought to open a temporary shelter prior to the winter. While the Westside has no year-round emergency shelter beds, the program is intended to provide the homeless some relief in the weeks prior to when the annual Winter Shelter Program begins Dec. 1.

The mayor and councilman were able to secure the funding needed to open the shelter earlier by reprogramming $90,000 in savings from federal block grant money and with $20,000 from the councilman’s Roadmap to Housing program, which works to house people living in their vehicles. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) Commission voted Oct. 4 to approve a contract with First to Serve for the temporary emergency shelter.

Under the contract, 50 shelter beds will be provided each night at the West Los Angeles Armory, beginning Saturday, Oct. 15 and continuing through Nov. 30. The full Winter Shelter Program will then take over, offering at least 160 beds at the West L.A. and Culver City armories through March 15.

“Opening this shelter early will provide relief to an increasing number of people who have found themselves without a place to sleep at night,” Villaraigosa said. “I expect some additional support will be allocated for outreach workers and other social service providers to make this effort more meaningful in the long term.”

Rosendahl said the temporary shelter will help address concerns where the recent proliferation of homelessness on the Westside has been most apparent, Venice Beach and Westchester Park. Through the shelter program, homeless in those areas can be picked up and transported to the armory, he said.

During a visit to the boardwalk one recent morning, Rosendahl said he saw hundreds of people sleeping, including young men and women.

“There was a whole range of homeless I saw sleeping on the beach,” the councilman recalled.

“This moment in time we have an emergency situation in Venice Beach where things are out of control,” Rosendahl said prior to the LAHSA Commission vote. “We want to give the people who are sleeping there the opportunity to get a good night’s sleep and a have a good meal.”

Peter Griffith, communications director for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), said between Sept. 18 and 27, emergency response teams encountered up to 202 homeless people on the boardwalk in one outreach effort, many of whom were young adults under the age of 30 and nearly 70 percent were from out of state.

Though shelters do not provide a long-term solution to the homeless problem, they can help resolve the most immediate needs of the individuals and get them off the streets as the weather becomes colder, Griffith said.

“The temporary emergency shelter, while not a perfect solution, will provide those most vulnerable with an alternate place to go to that’s safe and where they can get a hot meal,” he said.

Law enforcement officials have reported an uptick in crime in areas with high numbers of unsheltered homeless, and offering a temporary shelter for the most vulnerable can allow police to focus on other community issues, Griffith added.

People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), an organization that has worked with homeless on the Westside, most recently with those living in vehicles, is primarily focused on efforts to create affordable housing opportunities, but believes shelters can provide another resource for taking care of some basic needs, said Jeremy Sidell, PATH communication officer.

“We support any effort in (Council District) 11 to serve the homeless population and we’re certainly hopeful this will help to provide some assistance, especially to those youth living down on the boardwalk,” he said of the shelter program.

After noticing a situation that became “out of control” on the boardwalk with hundreds of homeless sleeping outside, Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks said she approached city officials about having the Westside shelter open earlier than usual. Lucks noted that it was a challenging political effort for the city to identify funding and get approval for the early shelter, and she credited Rosendahl and the mayor with helping to make it happen.

“I’m delighted that city and county officials saw the need and rose to the occasion, and that they came up with the money and had the political will to deal with an emergency situation on the Westside of L.A.,” Lucks said.

“This is happening now because it’s gotten to the crisis point.”

Aside from the ongoing economic crisis, one factor that might be contributing to the influx of homeless on the boardwalk is the lack of an enforceable vending ordinance, Lucks surmised. An amended version of the ordinance was approved by the Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners Oct. 5 and if it is later approved by the City Council, it could help improve the situation on the boardwalk, she said.

Westchester Park has also had issues in recent months with a homeless population sleeping outside near buildings and in bushes. Some patrons of the Westchester Senior Center inside the park claim they have been verbally harassed by homeless individuals in the parking lot and staff have encountered homeless people sleeping in the doorways when they arrive in the morning.

A PATH outreach spokesman said some of the individuals are chronically homeless and most are men who struggle with mental illness or drug and alcohol addiction.

Booker Pearson, chair of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa’s homeless committee, said a survey conducted by PATH last month counted 13 homeless people sleeping outside and 27 vehicles that appeared to be occupied. Offering shelter services may not be the ultimate solution, but it can help take care of some of the homeless’ needs while officials seek long-term solutions such as permanent housing with supportive services, he said.

“Of the people we interviewed most said they would like to be able to access a shelter to have a shower and a warm meal,” Pearson said.

Following the survey at the park, PATH can begin to assess the needs of those living in the park and representatives of the county Department of Mental Health can also provide some assistance, he said.

Sidell of PATH agreed, saying the survey has provided a blueprint of the people in the park and the agency can begin working on connecting them to services.

“The survey gives us a sense of exactly who’s there and gives us a good strategy on how to serve them,” he said. “It’s a challenging area because there are a lot of stakeholders there, and we want to provide solutions that are sensitive to the stakeholders and respectful to the people living in the park.”

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