Venice is divided over letting the homeless stash their stuff at Westminster Senior Center

By Gary Walker

There’s no shortage of frustration in Venice about stockpiles of homeless people’s belongings in public spaces, but a plan to let homeless people stash their stuff at the long-vacant Westminster Senior Center is facing considerable pushback from some locals.

Proponents, including L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, say a regulated storage facility would help homeless people transition into overnight shelters and other social services programs that don’t accommodate personal belongings.

Others worry that the facility will become a magnet for transients in a residential neighborhood adjacent to a dog park and two blocks from Westminster Avenue Elementary School.

Representatives from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and the Santa Monica jobs-trainin g nonprofit Chrysalis, which is being tapped to
run the center, heard plenty of the latter during a Sept. 15 community meeting at the elementary school.

“How are you going to prevent people from camping out all night like they do on Skid Row? What are you doing to protect our children?” asked Penny Dennis, a Venice parent among the roughly 80 people who attended.

“My fear is that it will bring more homeless people into the park,” said Darryl Barnett,a longtime Venice resident who was part of the local effort to create the popular Westminster Dog Park. “This is just a Band-Aid approach.”

Between frequent interruptions, speakers from Chrysalis, LAHSA and the city said there’s no evidence a storage facility would facilitate criminal or nuisance behaviors, and they emphasized that local homeless encampments aren’t going to disappear on their own.

“There is not going to be a process where [the homeless] are going to be moved to another community. They
are going to be here until they are housed,” LAHSA Executive Director Peter Lynn told the audience.

Reactivating the former senior center as a storage facility would also act to prevent homeless encampments there and in the park, said L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks Assistant General Manager Kevin Regan.

“There will be no overnight camping allowed, and no sleeping in the park after hours,” Regan said.

While there are not currently plans for a special security detail at the storage facility, that could be a possibility, said Debbie Dyner-Harris, Bonin’s district director.

The facility would allow homeless people to securely store their possessions inside 60-gallon plastic bins.

It isn’t clear exactly how many bins would fit inside the former Westminster Senior Center building, but an information leaflet passed out during the meeting estimates 124.

The annual winter storage program for the homeless on the Venice boardwalk, which the senior center building would replace, accommodates only about 26 storage bins.

A similar storage facility that Chrysalis currently operates on Downtown L.A.’s Skid Row contains 1,426 bins — but that facility is at least five times larger than the one planned in Venice.

The storage facility in Venice would also host social services caseworkers from a nonprofit provider to be determined.

Venice community activist David Ewing supports using the former senior center for storage, but he’s critical that city officials haven’t done enough neighborhood outreach about the potential benefits.

“I think the process has been extremely top-down and extremely opaque. As far as I know, Westminster is the best place that anyone has come up with,” Ewing said. “I don’t think that means that it’s the only possible place, but I think that it was a betrayal of process not to bring other choices to the community.”

Venice Neighborhood Council Homeless Committee Chair William Hawkins, meanwhile, has taken to social media to argue for a mobile storage concept instead of using the former Westminster Senior Center.

The neighborhood council voted in August to oppose the storage facility but has yet to take a formal vote on the mobile storage concept, which would employ retrofitted buses to store and secure homeless people’s belongings.

Michael Lindley, who runs the winter storage program on the boardwalk, doesn’t think the mobile storage plan is feasible.

“You’re talking about 100, 200 [storage] units,” Lindley said. “This would mean that the city would have to come up with five or six vehicles, and that’s going to cost the city more money. And then you have to pay for the drivers, the gas and the people inside.”

Bonin, who on Sept. 8 hosted a town hall on homeless in Venice that drew some 400 people — many of them also concerned about plans for the former Westminster Senior Center — emphasized that the primary reason for opening a storage facility is to connect the homeless with services that can get them off the street.

“It is important to challenge the suggestion that the proposed mobile program is the only option to provide caseworkers, services and an opportunity to employ people who are homeless or formerly homeless,” Bonin said. “On the contrary, any storage program offered by the city would that. In fact, that is an element of the city’s comprehensive homeless strategy that I proposed.”

There will be at least two more community meetings about the proposed storage facility at Westminster Senior Center, according to Chrysalis and LAHSA representatives.