Venice Family Clinic’s Health + Justice series tackles housing, homelessness, race and incarceration

By Meera Sastry

Community leaders Elizabeth Benson Forer, Chancela Al-Mansour and John Maceri discussed the need for more affordable housing post-pandemic; CBS’s Gayle King moderates VFC’s next talk on incarceration

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast new light on the need for a caring and comprehensive response to the homelessness crisis, especially in Los Angeles and on the Westside. On July 30, Venice Family Clinic hosted a conversation concerning this intersection of health, housing and justice, the first in a series of online events to honor its 50th anniversary.

The event featured three community leaders: Elizabeth Benson Forer, CEO of the Venice Family Clinic, John Maceri of The People Concern, and Chancela Al-Mansour of the Housing Rights Center. Carla Hall, a member of the LA Times editorial board, moderated.

The featured panelists primarily discussed LA County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as it concerns homelessness. They praised some of the government’s efforts — chief among them its treatment of the situation as a real crisis.

“They’ve pulled out all the stops to get things moving and to provide housing,” Forer said. “They have provided housing through quarantine and isolation for people who have symptoms of COVID and are waiting for testing, and for people who have tested positive and are homeless. They have created ‘Project Room-key’ sites using hotel rooms, so that people who are viewed as the most vulnerable — people over 65, or with multiple chronic diseases… can get [housing].”

“Project Roomkey” is a branch of the county and state’s work, executed in conjunction with Maceri and The People Concern. Over 4000 homeless people have been sheltered in otherwise unoccupied hotel rooms.

However, the temporary nature of this project and other solutions offered prompted these leaders to express concern about the long-term vision of Los Angeles’ response to homelessness. Although securing housing for the unhoused is certainly a positive endeavor, all agreed that it is imperative to ensure that none of these individuals are forced to return to the streets as hotels reopen for regular service.

“Everything is going to have to be streamlined, from identifying sites to actual construction costs to how we finance deals,” Maceri said. “If we can do all of those things, I think we have a good chance at rehousing the people that we have in ‘Project Roomkey.’ Beyond that, of course, there are going to be thousands more people that are going to need to be housed, but the same principles can be applied.”

The talk also focused on how the COVID-19 pandemic could worsen housing issues by forcing the evictions of countless people suffering from the recent economic downturn. Al-Mansour spoke on how such evictions would hurt Black and Latinx communities and how any future housing creation would have to take these neighborhoods and their histories into account.

“When I look at the type of housing [provided for people experiencing homelessness], I first make sure that if there is zoning, that it’s applied equally and that it doesn’t keep out communities of color, and allows them to engage in different ways in which to create land,” Al-Mansour said. “Black home ownership in the Black community is tied to the Black homelessness rate. There is a link between when grandmother dies, and a family has to sell that home, and nobody can afford to buy each other out, and so forth. There’s not that village; there’s not that home; there’s not that place for everybody to go back to in LA anymore.”

Despite these concerns, the talk ended on a positive note, as the speakers answered questions and advised local citizens on how they could make a difference with regard to the crisis. Noting that a prominent obstacle to long-term aid for homeless people is misguided neighborhood resistance, they placed special emphasis on the need for Westside homeowners not to fight against supportive housing in their neighborhoods. They encouraged homeowners to instead focus on how the community could be strengthened through unity and mutual aid.

“There’s quite a bit of public property in Venice that could become housing,” Al-Mansour said, “if people would just recognize that they could still have a wonderful life if they’d allow those areas to be developed, and that really nothing will change in terms of their quality of life. Instead, they will know that they have created a system of affordable housing. And then I think you’d see us flourish.”

The next conversation in Venice Family Clinic’s Health + Justice series will take place on Friday, Aug. 14, at 11 a.m. “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King will moderate a conversation with Forer and Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which helps formerly incarcerated women rebuild their lives. The talk will focus on “the trauma of incarceration.”

RSVP at A recording of the Health, Housing, and Justice talk is also available at