Westchester is likely not among the first Westside communities that come to mind when thinking about places in Los Angeles where homelessness has been a major issue.
The communities of Venice and Santa Monica to the north have historically experienced larger numbers of homeless residents and have social service organizations dedicated to offering a variety of resources to the population.
But Westchester has hardly been removed from the effects of homelessness in the city of Los Angeles, which was found to have more than 23,500 homeless people in a count conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) over three nights in January.
According to a report from the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa’s Homeless and Vehicular Living Committee, a separate overnight count of the council area’s homeless population in September last year found 48 homeless people along with 50 vehicles where people appeared to be living. The count involved volunteers from LAHSA, People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), U.S. Vets, Loyola Marymount University and the community.
While other Westside neighborhoods may struggle with homelessness on a much wider scale, Westchester residents note that homelessness is not a new problem to their area and a good portion of the homeless population has been concentrated at Westchester Park in recent years.
At a meeting of the homeless and vehicular living committee early this month, some residents and representatives of park facilities spoke of ongoing concerns regarding the homeless who sleep outside at the park. Committee chair Booker Pearson said he is unsure exactly how many people are sleeping at the park, but he counted nearly a dozen one morning and a population has consistently been staying there.
“I didn’t realize just how many people were living in the park,” he said.
Some patrons of the Westchester Senior Center inside the park claim they have been verbally harassed by homeless individuals in the parking lot and some of the homeless have allegedly urinated in bottles and exposed themselves, said Greg Preer, acting director of the senior center. He added that he has picked up alcohol bottles under trees and staff have encountered homeless people sleeping in the doorways when they arrive in the morning.
Preer claimed he has also been harassed by one man, and for some patrons, the homeless presence has caused them to not want to visit the center.
“It keeps our attendance down because a lot of people don’t want to deal with that,” he said.
While there has been a presence of people living in their vehicles in Westchester similar to the issues that have impacted Venice in recent years, Pearson said the complaints from park visitors have been associated specifically with people sleeping outside near buildings and in bushes.
The community is hoping to establish a business improvement district in the Loyola Village area near Lincoln Boulevard and Manchester Avenue, and some businesses have expressed concerns of potential impacts from the homeless issues at the park, said resident John Ruhlen, who is involved in the business district effort. He said many residents might not be aware of the extent of the homelessness situation in the community and the BID plans to work with People Assisting the Homeless to address any concerns.
“I think the community is not aware of all the homeless people in our area,” Ruhlen said.
Rudy Salinas, director of community outreach for PATH, said staff spend eight hours per week in Westchester working on homeless issues but they rely heavily on staff from the senior center, library and Los Angeles Police Department to give them a better sense of the problems. PATH workers have identified between 12 and 18 homeless people at the park, some of whom are chronically homeless, and they are mostly men who struggle with mental illness or drug and alcohol addiction, Salinas said.
PATH has begun the process of making contact with the population and offering a connection to resources, but while some have agreed to get help others have declined, he said.
“Everyone we approach we offer our services to them, including beds and shelters,” Salinas said.
In response to the concerns of park visitors and patrons, the homeless and vehicular living committee recommended that a registry of the park inhabitants be conducted and that the most chronically ill be targeted for permanent supportive housing.
“What we can and should do is alleviate the concerns of the families that are using the library and the park,” Pearson said.
“We need to get the people who are causing much of the concern and get them to a better place, out of the park, where they don’t have to sleep there.”
The Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa voted Sept. 6 to send a letter to City Councilman Bill Rosendahl saying that long-term solutions should be explored in addition to the registry, including providing physical and mental health care providers, access to affordable housing and access to substance abuse programs.
“The NCWP respectfully requests that the councilman reach out to the non-profit agencies and entities of the city and county that supply the above services and request that they be engaged and mobilized as soon as possible,” the letter states.
Pearson said that county Supervisor Don Knabe’s office has offered to bring resources from the county Department of Mental Health to help in the process and PATH is another agency that plans to be involved.
To initiate the effort, PATH has scheduled a survey of the homeless at Westchester Park Sept. 29 and 30, where workers hope to collect information from each person they encounter.
“Our goal through the effort is to provide the key stakeholders as much information as we have to make the best assessment of what the needs are,” Salinas said.
Rosendahl said the survey will help provide a better idea of the homeless individuals’ backgrounds and what their needs are for specific services and he is pleased to have Knabe’s support in offering additional resources. Though the ultimate solution is permanent housing with supportive services, the city and county are currently working to identify funding to be able to open area winter shelters earlier this year, the councilman said.
Noting that homelessness is a problem for both the city and county, Rosendahl said he is confident that leaders working at both levels of government will help improve the lives of the homeless.
“The combination of the county and city working together on this issue is the solution,” he said. “It’s going to take time but with the county’s and city’s support I think together we can come a long way from where we are.”