By Gary Walker
It survived a lawsuit last year, a bomb scare in January and significant local resistance every step of the way.
Now the real challenge begins.
One year, eight months and 25 days after the idea first became public, the city-funded bridge housing campus in Venice opened its doors on Tuesday. For the next three years, the former Metro bus yard at Pacific and Sunset avenues — just two blocks from the beach — will provide shelter for as many as 100 adults and 54 youth plucked from nearby homeless encampments at any given time, with high turnover rates expected as residents find permanent housing.
“Getting 154 people off the street and into a more dignified place to live — that’s a success. But I’m setting a higher bar: I want to see several hundred people get moved to the next step,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who has championed bridge housing in Venice as part of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s plan for more than two dozen similar sites spanning every council district.
“From all perspectives, people have been frustrated by a lack of visible progress on homelessness, and this is an opportunity for people to begin to see things happening in their neighborhood: moving people out of encampments, off the streets and into housing,” Bonin said. “If you feel that this is a human crisis and you want to save people from dying on the streets, or if you think shelters are unsightly, dangerous and a blight in your neighborhood, this is a way to address those concerns.”
Named “Pacific Sunset” after the intersection outside its entrance, the 3.15-acre site is being operated by two area homeless services nonprofits that are also recruiting its tenants: People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) and Venice-based Safe Place for Youth (SPY). Other local organizations offering onsite services include Venice Family Clinic, St. Joseph Center, Chrysalis, Chamber of Hope, A Window Between Worlds and housing provider SHARE.
PATH Executive Director Jennifer Hark-Dietz and SPY Executive Director Alison Hurst led the first public tours of the facility last Saturday, with volunteers from those organizations and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority fielding questions near the entrance.
Adults and youth have separate living quarters, with adults sleeping in an expansive “sprung structure” tent and youth being housed in separate pre-fabricated trailers. There are also separate restroom, shower and laundry facilities.
Gunmetal gray partitions make for sleeping compartments that resemble office cubicles with lockers, but buildings throughout the campus are brightened by murals of rabbits, dolphins, ducks, wolves, birds and bears, mostly in calming shades of blue, gray and green — the contributions of local artists, including Francisco Letelier and Patrick Marston.
Caseworkers and counselors operate from a trailer near the entrance. The grounds also contain a computer room and community healing garden for residents, as well as a covered outdoor dining patio to host meal service three times a day.
Unlike traditional homeless shelters, residents are allowed to keep pets and there’s even a small dog-walking area adjacent to the garden.
Another difference is that there are fewer restrictions on residents’ freedom of movement.
“People can come and go, as the facility will be open 24 hours,” Hurst explained while leading a tour, but “guests are required to let us know by 11 p.m. if they will not be returning that night.”
Bridge housing opponents have raised fears about security on site and that bridge housing may draw additional homeless encampments to surrounding areas, and Hurst answered related questions during the tour.
Hurst said the facility will have four roaming security guards on duty 24 hours a day, and Bonin’s office has promised that an LAPD foot patrol will maintain a special enforcement zone around the temporary housing facility and that this police detail will enforce a “tents down” rule between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. daily.
Venice resident Jim Simmons, whose wife is a nurse who works with homeless patients, came away from the tour feeling encouraged.
“This seems like an example that can be replicated at other locations. It looks like a good first start,” he said.
“It doesn’t offer a lot of privacy,” commented bridge housing supporter Sherry Scheer, “but if you’re used to living on the street then you’re not used to a lot of privacy anyway.”
Scheer took a tour with daughter Helen Hood Scheer, who lives just a few blocks away and left unconvinced that facility managers have a solid grasp on all the operational details that could impact neighbors.
“Conceptually I think it’s a great idea, but there is a lot of practical information that is not being communicated,” she said. “One example of a lack of clear practical logical answers is how trash will be handled. … The fact that no one was able to tell me how the refuse will be picked up and disposed of is shocking to me.”
Tour participant Kolani Whittington, a Mar Vista resident, supports the concept of bridge housing but remains convinced the city should build housing for the homeless outside “posher areas like Venice,” she said. “I believe that we could house more people if we build housing on the outskirts of town because there would be less controversy and less pushback,”
Venice Neighborhood Council member Jim Murez, who lives a short distance away and attended the open house, is among a vocal contingent of locals who argue that windfall profits from selling the bus yard could be used to fund a much greater quantity of housing in less-pricey areas.
“The Venice project is not going to solve the problems of homeless for Council District 11 or even for all of Venice. There are solutions, but the mayor and Councilman Bonin are not interested in back-peddling their game plans, admitting they made a mistake and moving forward to providing a solution,” Murez said. “I believe the councilman is fueling the fire to create a more polarized community by not providing a solution, but rather by being a very poor neighbor during construction and by not addressing everyone’s problem with a solution.”
Bonin said he’s always known a temporary homeless housing facility in Venice would not be an easy sell.
“Having lived in Venice and worked on issues in Venice, I had seen the issue of homelessness get discussed and debated and that nothing happened because of a lack of consensus and bureaucracy,” he said. “I just came to the conclusion that inaction was much worse than controversy, and that having neighborhoods suffer and having people dying on the streets was far worse than people being angry at me. The gamble that I took was while there might be controversy in the short term, people will ultimately be satisfied if we house people and restore sanity and normalcy to neighborhoods.
“There’s been a lot of attention paid to who is opposed, but there are plenty of people who are in support of bridge housing in Venice. They’re not as loud or as visible, but they exist and I still believe they outnumber those who are opposed to it,” Bonin continued. “It’s no secret that there are some people who are rooting for this to fail, who are invested in that. I’m eager to see the people who are getting off the streets and into housing succeed.”