By Gary Walker

At times demanding and at other times pleading, Mar Vista residents who attended a Nov. 6 town hall on homelessness pressed city officials to remedy a burgeoning local presence of encampments that many described as making them feel under siege.

Complaints about public urination, drug dealing and other public safety and quality of life impacts underscored the emotional tone of the night as more than 250 people engaged in a Q&A session with local government and social services agency representatives in the Daniel Webster Middle School Auditorium.

While many in the audience disparaged city and county agencies tasked with providing housing and services for the homeless and complained that Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin is neglecting Mar Vista, others called for new approaches to the crisis.

Dr. Robert Watkins, a spine surgeon who lives in Mar Vista, proposed building a massive public shelter offering drug rehabilitation, job training and other social services.

“Sleeping on the street needs to be illegal because of the threat to the health and safety of the unhoused and housed,” he said. “We have conservatorships for people who develop dementia and lose the ability to care for themselves. Society needs to take control of the lives of people who have a mental illness or drug addiction that has contributed to them sleeping on the street, having demonstrated that they are unable to care for themselves and are a threat to their own health and the health of others.”

A man who did not identify himself expressed concern that voter-approved laws which reclassified nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors and expedited parole for low-risk prisoners had exacerbated local homelessness.

“Why aren’t we talking about the damage that Proposition 47 and Proposition 57 have done to our neighborhoods?” he asked.

Los Angeles County Department of Social Public Services Assistant Director Phil Ansell noted that although the county reported finding housing for a record number of homeless people last year, more people than were housed became newly homeless, nullifying net progress.

“In 2018, every day 133 people exited homelessness, but 150 fell into homelessness,” he said. “We need to stop the flow of people becoming homeless.”

Ansell added that the county is weighing policies that would encourage homeowners to rent accessory dwelling units, often called granny flats, to the homeless — “an excellent opportunity to increase the value of your property, to increase your monthly income and to help in solving the region’s housing crisis,” he said.

Bonin, whose office organized the town hall, talked about the need for a variety of housing solutions for the homeless, including rapid rehousing programs for people who have recently lost their homes. He also touted a shared housing pilot program in Venice in partnership with the nonprofit SHARE, and spoke about expanding similar efforts throughout the city.

The city has so far focused Proposition HHH funding on construction of permanent supportive housing, which Bonin said “is the solution for only about 25% of the homeless population.”

Not everyone was critical of the city’s efforts, however.

“How can I, as a privileged white male who lives on the Westside, help address the NIMBYism, racism and classism that led to this homeless crisis?” asked a man who did not identify himself, eliciting a mixture of catcalls and applause.

Alison Hurst, who runs the Venice-based nonprofit Safe Place for Youth, urged concerned residents to volunteer at a homeless shelter or services organization.

Watkins described the town hall as “uninspiring” overall.

“The panel did not directly answer many of the questions,” including some related to law enforcement and public safety responses to encampments, he said. “Mr. Bonin stated that we only have two options: let them stay on the street or build them housing. I disagree. There is another option.”

Deputy Mayor Christina Miller, who heads the Mayor’s Office of City Homeless Initiatives, acknowledged that the homeless and housing crises have worsened but said more housing — and more patience — is needed.

“It’s going to take a very long time to get out of this [housing] deficit,” she said.