Encampment sweeps, bridge housing and mounting frustration — what happens next?

{First of Two Parts}

By Joe Piasecki

Mike Bonin holds firm that permanent supportive housing is the proven solution for chronic homelessness
Photo by Maria Martin

Impeachment is big world news, but in West Los Angeles the story that really gets people going is the local homelessness crisis and the city’s response to it — or, as critics argue, the city’s complete and utter failure to mount an effective response to a growing problem.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, elected to a second term in 2017 with a resounding 71% of the vote, has since become the No. 1 target of public frustrations about homelessness in his council district west of the 405 Freeway. In public dialogue and on social media in particular, critics rip into Bonin on the regular with both political and increasingly personal attacks. Some have started referring to the proliferation of homeless encampments as “Boninville,” and (on what can be considered the lighter side of the issue these days) there’s now even a parody @Boninville Instagram account superimposing photos of Bonin onto local encampments with gleeful zingers like “if you lived here, you’d be home by now” and “it’s not bike theft, it’s bike-sharing.”

In an effort to better understand his personal beliefs, policy prescriptions and public actions on the homelessness crisis, The Argonaut sat with Bonin for an extensive conversation about commonly voiced concerns and complaints. The first half of that conversation, lightly edited for space and clarity, appears below. We’ll publish the second half in next week’s issue.

The Argonaut: You’ve become a frequent target of not just political but very personal attacks, usually regarding homelessness or the reconfiguration of Venice Boulevard, even when you’re talking about other issues. What happened?

Mike Bonin: Well, I’ll admit it’s really unpleasant to get death threats, to be the subject of homophobic slurs, to have people say racially derogatory things about my kid, to have graffiti put up outside of his preschool. And people make comments on all sorts of [social media] posts, including a recent one that was a tribute to 9/11 firefighters who responded to the World Trade Center. Part of it is just the nature of public life these days. And part of it is that I have deliberately chosen to take on tough, complex, longstanding, controversial issues — particularly homelessness and transit and climate change. And we’ve done a lot on them while at the same time delivering some big stuff for the district, including huge boosts in public safety resources.

I made a very conscious decision to take on these tough problems. When I first ran I made a promise to voters that I would not be a seat warmer or an empty suit — that I would actually tackle the real chronic problems in Los Angeles, and delve into them even if they were going to be tough ones that people generally shy away from because they’re difficult. And the other reason I do it is because I have a young kid. I have a 5½-year-old, and I feel like I have a time in office and my obligation is to make the world better for him and for his generation, as well as for the people who voted for me. I have a sense of urgency about it. And I decided that when it comes to really horrific problems — homelessness being one of them, the climate crisis being another — that inaction is worse than controversy. So I’ve thrown myself into it for good or bad, come hell or high water.

The lack of civility is really troubling for all elected officials, but it’s more than just for elected officials. There has been bullying of community leaders and of neighborhood council members who wound up resigning because of some of the bullying they’d gotten, the nasty stuff. And these are volunteers, just giving their time for the neighborhoods. There’ve been posts I’ve seen on social media, particularly Nextdoor, that have talked about throwing bleach at homeless people or spraying them with hoses. There’s an ugliness out there, and it’s not particularly local. It’s nationwide. It’s part of the discourse. And it’s tough sometimes, but I’m certainly not giving in because of it.

Do you think anger about the spread of homelessness and related quality of life or public health impacts is justified?

Anger over the homelessness crisis is absolutely justified. I’m angry about it. I mean, I’m angry when I drive home at night and I see a new encampment. I’m angry when I walk my kid to dinner and we walk by an encampment. I’m angry when I read that someone died living on the street. And I think everybody should be angry at that. But what we need to be angry at is inaction. What we need to be angry at is generations of elected officials who decided to skirt the issue or take the easy path or provide false solutions. A decade and a half ago, elected officials in Los Angeles said we will give people a right to the sidewalk instead of a right to shelter. And so now we’re in this crisis.

We should also be mad at the people who are constantly suing to slow down or stop any project that addresses homelessness. And we have a lot of that in this [council] district and elsewhere around the city. We should be mad at the federal government, which has been cutting housing vouchers. Less than 20% of the people in Los Angeles who qualify for a federal housing voucher get one. It’s like a lottery. The federal government is even failing to provide for vets at the VA, and the city of L.A. is stepping in. There are lots of reasons to be angry, but anger does not lead to good policy and frustration does not lead to effective solutions.

When it comes to a big crisis like homelessness, you have to use evidence-based solutions. And we know what works for homelessness. You can’t emote your way out of it. You can’t legislate your way out of it. You have to house your way out of it, and you have to serve your way out of it. And what we know in Los Angeles is that we need to move from the angry conversation about homelessness to the on-point conversations about how we house people faster and less expensively, and how we prevent homelessness in the first place — because we’re going to keep digging a hole unless we can prevent people from falling into homelessness.

With 36,000 homeless in the city and construction costs for permanent supportive housing exceeding $500,000 per unit, $1.2 billion in Proposition HHH funds won’t get the job done. Why is the city so deeply fixated on the slow and costly process of building traditional supportive housing?

I have been a consistent advocate for faster and less expensive solutions. I’ve been an advocate for having multiple solutions and multiple strategies, because that’s what you need for homelessness. It’s why I have so aggressively been promoting shared housing and the idea of master-leasing units so people with vouchers can find housing; why I’ve been interested in modular units and family reunification. I believe we have to do everything possible.

Permanent supportive housing is not the city’s only strategy. It’s the one that gets all the attention because it’s expensive. But what we know about permanent supportive housing is that it works for one segment of the homeless population. Permanent supportive housing is the solution for chronic homelessness. That’s people who’ve been homeless for a long time or have some sort of disability, and that’s about 25% of the homeless population. It is expensive but it is 90% successful, one of the best models in the country. Everybody agrees that it’s an evidence-based solution that in the long-term saves money. It’s a lot cheaper to take somebody off the street and put them into housing than it is to leave them on the street.

So I’ve been a big proponent of building as much permanent supportive housing as possible, and we’re doing a lot in my district. But we also need to be focusing on strategies for the rest of the homeless population — the majority of the homeless population that is not chronically homeless — because they’re easier and less expensive to help, and if you get them off the street quickly the homeless population reduces instead of grows. So the role I’ve tried to take on at City Hall and in among elected officials is to try to shift the conversation to multiple strategies and faster and quicker ones.

Is City Hall being receptive?

We are finally starting to make progress on this. I think my colleagues have grown as impatient as I have been for a number of years, and every time I discuss shared housing there’s another member of the council who gets up and endorses the idea. I’m hoping that with the next chunk of state money that we get we will spend a significant share of it on shared housing. Not everybody needs their own [housing] unit, and not everybody needs wraparound services. And shared housing has been an effective solution in my district. I’ve demonstrated it with a pilot project, and I think if we invest in it significantly we will be able to get 10,000 people off the street pretty quickly.

Why has permanent supportive housing been so expensive to build?

Building anything in Los Angeles takes a long time. We actually had an ordinance that would have expedited it, but someone sued and now it’s in court. Someone who did not want a project built in their neighborhood slowed things down for the entire city. The state recently passed a bill that would expedite [projects] and it’s sitting on the governor’s desk. I’m a vigorous proponent and have called on the governor to sign it.

But we have now earmarked the money that voters have set aside, and it will get us over 8,600 units of Prop HHH-funded housing. About 500 of them will be in my district, and we’ll have more permanent supportive housing to come after that. As this starts getting built over the next couple of years, we need to be shifting to other [funding] sources — the county has sources of money, the state has sources of money — and we also need to be shifting to prevention strategies. And that means stopping evictions. That means preserving and creating more affordable housing in the Coastal Zone. We have learned that there are multiple pipelines into homelessness, and it can happen really fast. And there are very few pipelines out, and they’re slow and sclerotic. And the thing I’m trying to do is focus on creating more pipelines out and closing some of the pipelines in.

Could all that money be utilized more effectively?

The HHH money approved by the voters is limited to brick-and-mortar — to permanent supportive housing and to affordable housing, because that’s what the city’s taxing authority was. Now, the average city investment in each of these projects — the city is not spending $500,000 per unit; the city is spending about $120,000 per unit, which is not bad. Everybody asks, ‘Why don’t you just rehab buildings instead?’ Well, we actually have. We’re rehabbing three buildings at the West Los Angeles V.A. campus because the federal government won’t do it … and it turns out rehabbing these buildings was more expensive than units that we’ve done from scratch.

Why are you against the proposal to ban encampments within 500 feet of parks or schools and within 10 feet of a building entrance, and are there limitations you’d support?

I oppose the proposal because it’s BS, and I don’t take kindly to people BS-ing the people I represent. Homelessness is an enormous crisis and it demands honesty from elected officials, not false promises. And this proposal is a series of false promises. It promises people who want encampments to disappear that it will make them disappear, but it won’t. One, it won’t be legally enforceable. And we don’t have enough cops to make every encampment in Los Angeles disappear. It makes a false promise to people who are homeless by saying we will define where you can sleep and where you can’t sleep, when the cumulative effect is essentially making it that you can’t sleep almost anywhere. It’s sort of a wink-wink, nudge-nudge saying it’s complying with the court decision [allowing encampments] when it is directly flying in the face of it.

So I think it’s a bad and irresponsible proposal, and I think it’s actually a counterproductive discussion. The city council has repeatedly spent its time and its energy and its resources talking
about ways to legislate its way out of homelessness instead of having a conversation about how you make housing happen faster and quicker. Instead of focusing on how to get people out of encampments, we keep focusing on how to get them out of sight and out of mind. And it doesn’t work. When I first came into office, I was much more accepting of this approach, and it didn’t work. So I’ve moved on to trying to find evidence-based real solutions.

I think that there are reasonable restrictions the city could legally get away with to prevent encampments near schools and near some of the new shelters and housing that we’re trying to build, in order to get additional public support for them. The way to deal with it is not by legislating where people can be … but legislating where you can have an encampment. Make it about the materials. … The encampments to home program on Skid Row has been an effective strategy, and that’s where we should be focusing our energy — getting people out of encampments and into housing, instead of pretending that we’re going to legislate them away.

What’s going on with the bridge housing planned for Main Street?

The bridge housing is likely to open before the end of the year, hopefully between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I think the tents and the trailers will be arriving in the next couple of weeks. This is a program which is designed to be a win-win. It is designed to be an alternative for people who are living on the street to get them a better, surer pathway from the sidewalk into housing. And it’s designed to reduce sidewalk encampments and provide relief for neighborhoods that don’t want sidewalk encampments.

Ours [in Venice] is going to be something special. It’s going to be 154 beds. It will be run by two different providers who have lots of successful experience on the Westside: PATH [People Assisting the Homeless] and SPY [Safe Place for Youth]. One hundred beds for adults and 54 beds for youth — the only youth-specific beds in the bridge housing program, which is appropriate because we have a more youthful population here in this part of town.

And my goal is to have it not in Venice but of Venice. So we’re working on creating partnerships with different organizations and entities in Venice to be a part of it — to help provide services or programming so it can be better integrated, and so that people are actually rooting for it to succeed because they have a stake in it.

Another thing that I think is important to note about the bridge housing program is it came about largely as a result of me and a few others saying that we can’t wait for permanent supportive housing to get people off the street. It was part of my attempt to shift the conversation to more immediate solutions. In doing so, what we did was we listened very carefully to people who were homeless about what was wrong with the current shelter system. And so we’ve designed something which experience has taught us is a lot more effective than what we were doing before.

What was ineffective before?

The old shelter system was only open part of the day. You could not go with your spouse or your family. You couldn’t bring your pet if you had one, and you couldn’t bring more than a backpack of belongings. What effectively the old shelter system said is leave your tribe — leave your belongings and your family and your animals — to be among strangers for 12 hours, and then we’re going to throw your butt out at 5 a.m. … It was a 12-hour warehouse, and it didn’t solve any problems.

You were once homeless. How does that experience inform your perspective?

From being on the edge of homelessness and sleeping in my car, I developed a really deep appreciation for how fragile and broken we all are, and how easy it is to fall down. … [Read more of this response next week.]

Not all homeless are drug abusers, but some are. Not all are mentally ill, but some are. Not all are responsive to help. Where do services end and enforcement begin?

Part of the problem we now face in Los Angeles is a public perception that almost everybody who is homeless is a drug-addicted or mentally ill, service-resistant, criminally inclined person. And that isn’t the reality out there. Only 30%, by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s count, suffer from some form of mental illness or some form of addiction. And the vast majority of people are homeless because of economic insecurity, rising housing prices. We know that domestic violence is a huge contributor to homelessness. That 50% of the women who are homeless are victims of domestic violence. That if you age out of the foster care system, there’s a 40% to 50% chance of becoming homeless. Seniors are an increasingly large population of homelessness in Los Angeles. What we need to be doing is focusing on each individual segment and subpopulation with a different strategy.

If you’re riding the Expo Line, for instance, and you see someone who is visibly mentally ill or on drugs, you identify that person as being homeless and that’s your image of homelessness. What you don’t see at the same time is other people on the train who are homeless and are not exhibiting those behaviors.

And we also need to remember that drugs and mental health is a bit of a chicken or an egg situation. There are people who become homeless because they’re addicted to drugs or because they’re suffering from mental illness, and there are people who become addicted to drugs or fall into mental illness because they’re homeless. And what we know is that the common denominator for helping people who are economically homeless or people who are homeless because of mental or physical illness or because of an addiction is housing. The nationally proven model is housing first.

There are some people who say we shouldn’t give a person a place to live until they get sober or until they’ve got their mental health issues under control. What housing first recognizes is that it is a lot easier to get sober when there’s a roof over your head than when you’re living on the street. It’s a lot easier to get mentally healthy if you have access to medication on a regular basis and you have counselors present. And it’s also more cost-effective overall to get people off the street and start getting them into services. So there still is a common denominator of needing to provide housing, even for people who look and act disruptive when they’re on the street.

The anonymous Instagram parody account @Boninville is part of a broader effort criticizing the city in general — and Mike Bonin in particular — for the proliferation of homeless encampments in Westside neighborhoods