Venice’s community identity depends on our reaction to bridge housing and how we vote on June 2

By Will Hawkins

Hawkins is a Venice resident, business owner and musician who was chairman of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Homeless Committee before launching the homelessness nonprofit Chamber of Hope.

Now that a judge has ruled against a legal challenge brought by the Venice Stakeholders Association, construction of the bridge housing facility on the former Metro bus yard on Main Street is expected to begin soon. City officials have long promised that this temporary housing will help to reduce homelessness in Venice and allow police to begin enforcing laws that will curtail street encampments.

And so, after a long and bitter battle, bridge housing is finally coming to Venice — but not without casualties. There’s been a lot of strife and contention between neighbors on opposite sides of the issue, with physical confrontations occurring during local community meetings and continuing protests at city outreach efforts. I’ve seen long-time friendships lost over this plan that has the potential to help save over 1,000 lives from homelessness over the next three years.

Negative press coverage of Venice’s internal struggle on the local, national and even international level has done some damage to our reputation. This has not been our community’s best moment, but we still have time to rewrite this story with a happy ending.

Mind you, the city has to shoulder some of the blame, too. Public officials failed miserably when it came to rolling out information about the bridge housing proposal, and that created a lot of mistrust and confusion. As good intentioned as Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Councilman Mike Bonin may have been, their approach left a lot of people scratching their heads. Those who opposed bridge housing had deep pockets and took full advantage of that information vacuum. They pooled their resources and strategically spread a lot of misinformation designed to create confusion and fear, which they in turn leveraged to build support and raise money for their fight to keep bridge housing out of Venice.

And because so few of the silent majority who supported the project spoke up, the majority of voices being heard in public were of those who opposed bridge housing. Members of the VSA and Venice United did their best to keep the poor at a safe distance by suggesting the homeless could be illegally shipped off to some yet-to-be-built housing project somewhere out in the desert, in an area that isn’t even in Los Angeles County.

Many of those running for Venice Neighborhood Council seats in the June 2 election are still pushing that false narrative, hoping it resonates with those who are scared of bridge housing and frustrated with the city’s long history of inaction. It’s kind of like a teenager running for class president with promises of longer recess and less homework — it appeals to the target audience, but in the end it’s simply unrealistic. Yet many of the rank-and-file in Venice continue to line up behind provocateurs who raised $200,000 to obstruct a facility that would house the people they want to get off the street and empower city officials to clean up the encampments they want to see eradicated.

Chamber of Hope’s homeless reunification program, for instance, could house around 400 people for that staggering amount, which would be close to half of the current homeless population of Venice.

Homelessness is our community’s raging forest fire, and I believe the only way to put that fire out is an all-hands-on-deck effort. Now that bridge housing is about to come online in Venice, it’s up to all of us to get involved — take personal ownership of it, volunteer, invest in the people who live there as well as the facility itself. If bridge housing fails, our whole community has failed. We all need to play a part in solving this issue that’s not only affecting Venice, but becoming a national crisis that hasn’t even begun to crest.

And so I ask: Who do we think we are?

Well, right now a mirror is being held up to each of us, and what it’s reflecting back is how we as a community respond to this humanitarian crisis unfolding on our sidewalks, back alleys and parking lots. It’s time to choose a side. And if you wait too long to get involved and fail to vote for Venice Neighborhood Council representatives who share your values, the choice of who you are might end up being made for you.

Pay attention! History is calling, and bridge housing is an amazing opportunity for Venice to step up and be a shining example of how everyday stakeholders can come together to reduce homelessness and save lives. Let’s show the rest of Los Angeles and the world how we’ve decided to make sacrifices for the greater good and make the most out of a facility that can and will save lives. Let that be the true reflection that defines who we really are and the community that Venice aspires to be.