Westside projects to combat homelessness face logistical and financial challenges

By Kellie Chudzinski

Numbers recorded at the start of 2020 show 41,290 people experiencing homelessness in LA.

Despite state, city and countywide efforts to house those living on the streets, the picture of homelessness on the Westside continues to look bleak with rising numbers, more and larger encampments, increased incidents with residents and stalled permanent housing projects. The need for more housing is growing rapidly every year. The numbers recorded at the start of 2020 show 41,290 people experiencing homelessness in LA and 70% are unsheltered and struggling to survive in tents, encampments, vehicles and other locations.

In 2019, the Westside saw the greatest increase in homelessness in the county, growing by 19%. Though, that number is likely higher now, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the states two months after the most recent count, with estimates suggesting homelessness is 16% higher since the pandemic began. Observationally, residents are feeling growth in the unhoused population living on the streets.

Recent numbers by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) show that Council District 11 on the Westside has one of the highest numbers of unsheltered people at just under 3,200. Those numbers may not fully reflect the true number as the pandemic has sent more people to the street with high visibility of homeless encampments in Venice. One resident who spoke with The Argonaut estimated that there are nearly 2,500 people on the streets and beaches of Venice as it remains the largest portion of District 11’s homeless count.

Residents’ experiences

Along with higher numbers, many Westside residents are at their wits end with the daily impacts they’re facing with their unhoused counterparts and are pleading with the city and Councilman Mike Bonin to take more action for everyone’s sake. Nextdoor feeds, social groups and locals report a bleak scene in the area as they individually say they see more incidents of crime, unsafe health conditions among the unhoused and disturbing interactions.

Mar Vista resident Diana Sieker, whose home is located near one of the Westside’s major homeless encampments on Venice Boulevard and Globe Avenue under the 405 freeway, has witnessed everything from drug dealings and overdoses to public urination, masturbation, defecation, physical abuse, psychotic episodes and even a suicide attempt in the alleyway nearby by people who live in the encampment. Recently,
she witnessed an explosion at the site.

“I walked to my back bedroom window, which faces the alley, and I saw an eruption, like, truly like a Mount Vesuvius eruption!” she recalls. “It erupted in flames that looked like a volcano went off underneath the 405.” She says the encampment situation near her home has only worsened over the last five years, becoming even more acute in 2019, and then absolutely exploding after the pandemic with “wall-to-wall” bulky items crowding the site and mystery cars coming and going to drop off suitcases and duffle bags. “It’s just unchecked,” she says. “This
has completely proliferated to the point that it’s just like the Wild West.”

“It’s never been like this,” echoes Nick Antonicello, who has lived in Venice for nearly 30 years. “I’ve never seen it this bad, this severe, this dysfunctional, and nothing being done about it.”

A man who has been living on the sand and near homes on the beach in Playa del Rey was caught on camera exposing himself to passersby, including children. Resident Lorelei Shellist captured the video and shared it with the Argonaut. “I am sick and tired of this disgusting situation,” Shellist says as she added nothing had been done.

On the streets outside of Westside Neighborhood School in Playa Vista, RVs line the streets and debris is strewn on the grass. While only a few students physically attend the school due to the pandemic, one parent shared that a man was standing naked as he drove by with his young children in tow, echoing stories of other encounters with those who are unhoused or are vehicle dwellers.

Tents have also become common on Westchester streets and in Westchester Park, near a Safe Parking location that allows a specific safe place for those living in vehicles to park and sleep overnight. Residents remain troubled by the tents and using the park as a Safe Parking location, despite the program rules and time limits.

Crime in Venice has seen spikes since the pandemic began, with data provided to the LA Times through July showing violent crimes peaking in April and June with 27 and 34 incidents respectively. Additionally, fires related to homelessness are up 82% from last year, NBC I-team reported. Multiple fires have consumed encampments in Venice, two at the tents outside of Penmar Golf Course, one near the pier and another in a tent stationed in a boardwalk parking lot.

The fires caught the attention of Bonin and the encampment outside of the golf course was emptied as part of his new Encampment to Home program. The new program has already housed over 40 people, with a goal of 100, from the encampment near Rose and Penmar, which was formerly noted as the “largest encampment on the Westside.”

While many applauded Bonin’s work to clear the large encampment it came later than locals would have liked, and some residents remain unimpressed.

“Is Venice better off today than it was four years ago or three years ago or two years ago or one year ago?” Antonicello said. “The answer was no. Absolutely. Positively no. And there lies the problem. People want solutions. The pandemic can’t make this situation be ignored.”

Those who have been housed were placed in shelter beds, permanent supportive housing placement, shared housing, given rapid rehousing vouchers or in Project Roomkey hotel rooms. Though, the use of Project Roomkey units seems to be a Band-Aid solution that may raise more questions as the program winds down and again looks to move those in the program.

During the pandemic, LA participated in California’s Project Roomkey, partnering with hotels and motels to house high-risk people experiencing homelessness. In late September, LAHSA announced that the project would slowly shutter hotel rooms monthly until the program was completely closed by early 2021. Three sites had closed by the end of September.

While Project Roomkey aimed to house the 15,000 people LAHSA has on record in the high-risk group and 65 or older, the project peaked at just 30% of that goal with just over 4,300 people in the program. Currently, 3,592 people are housed in 3,485 rooms across all of Los Angeles County and only two locations on the Westside provide 183 rooms servicing 169 people. So far, over a third of 6,600 people housed in Project Roomkey across the state have moved out with only 10% going to permanent housing and 3% into shelters. At least 20% went back to the street and the rest were unaccounted for, in a numbers report obtained by the LA Times.

Bridge Housing locations in Venice have also been the center of focus for residents with encampments popping up on the street outside of the building and reports of an increase in crime and police calls in the area. Councilman Joe Buscaino authored a motion asking the city attorney to draft a motion banning tents outside of all city shelters, including Bridge Housing locations, and removing encampments that are already in these locations. Councilmembers Bob Blumenfield, Monica Rodriguez and Paul Krekorian co-authored the motion with Buscaino and three others seconded that motion that was submitted in October.

Bonin opposed the proposal, which was delayed until November 24, instead offering a counter measure with a “more aggressive approach to providing housing, shelter and services.”

“Without those housing alternatives, the ban on sleeping presented by the city attorney would only serve to push encampments deeper into residential neighborhoods,” Bonin says. “This is an emergency situation and it requires emergency action and using the hotels and motels will provide fast options for getting people off the streets and into housing.”

“We need an urgent, focused response that can show rapid results,” Bonin said in an earlier statement on the state of homelessness.

Life on the streets

Experiencing homelessness has always brought challenges, but a pandemic and lockdowns have made the situation even more uncertain. For a period in Venice, the common pre-pandemic encampment sweeps by police were stopped, but they have since resumed. During the reprieve people from other parts of L.A. were drawn to the beach city, some even just to keep their belongings.

And for those who have long been living on or around Venice beach, the empty boardwalks, closed indoor businesses and lack of tourists have provided unique challenges to get by. One woman shares that while grocery stores or fast-food chains had long been a place to “wash up” or use the restroom, closed dine-in options and pandemic guidelines made finding an open facility nearly impossible.

Many others struggled with the basics of food and water as volunteers all but stopped early into the pandemic and with them went water and snacks.

“We’ve had to minimize our services,” Mischa DiBattiste, CES Regional Manager with a Safe Place for Youth that provides services to homeless youth in Venice, said through social media. “The pandemic has really made people realize how dangerous it is to be out on the streets.”

DiBattiste adds that while SPY has tried to identify and continue to provide essential items of food, clothing and water, the organization’s doors are closed and the unhoused community in need continues to struggle for the most basic items.

“We’re all told to stay home but not everybody has that luxury in this city,” she said. “Not all of our neighbors have homes. They don’t have bathrooms. They don’t have access to sinks or soap.”

As fires rose, people who are homeless in the area told NBC Los Angeles that the flames were likely retaliation after two people in the encampment got into an argument. “Every day, there’s fires, guns, knives,” Jack Rivers, who lives on the Venice Boardwalk in an encampment, told NBC LA.

And while there is no data on the involvement of people experiencing homelessness in crimes this year, crimes against the homeless rose 24% in 2019, and crimes with homeless suspects rose 50% in 2018, across the city.

Project Homekey and recovery housing

As Project Roomkey is shuttered, the city now turns to Project Homekey, which aims to provide long-term housing. From the statewide fund, Los Angeles has been awarded nearly $78 million after submitting 16 applications, according to Mayor Eric Garcetti. Funds from HomeKey will support LAHSA’s transition from RoomKey to COVID Recovery. In transition, LAHSA is aiming to house those in the program in “long-term housing solutions,” largely newly leased “Recovery Housing.”

Pre-existing buildings, hotels and motels will be purchased and will be “deeply” subsidized for those in need, while also providing supportive services. Most will move into the hotels and motels for interim housing for one year, while some move into supportive units. After a year, those in the greatest of need will move into permanent housing, others will go into a “long-term shallow subsidy program.”

The county approved $43 million for the project, and LAHSA hopes to receive another $80 million from the County Emergency Solutions Grants and $15 million in Measure H funding once the grant funds run out. By March, LAHSA aims to move 400 to 1,000 homeless individuals, per month, from 37 emergency shelter sites into housing, with a minimum of 4,900.

Across LA City 10 mostly vacant hotels have been approved by the City Administrative Officer to be purchased through the program, for a total of $105 million, though none of the properties are on the Westside. Combined, the locations will provide shelter for 536 people and are expected to open 90 days after purchase.

LAHSA is also set to pilot the COVID-19 Street Recovery program, which is working off an order from Judge David O. Carter that ordered housing for those living under freeways or overpasses. The pilot will focus on six districts across the city including District 11, where large encampments have taken shape near the 405 and the 10 freeways.

With anywhere from 6,000 to 7,000 people living near freeways in LA County, Judge Carter, the city and county came to an agreement for that population in June. By April, 5,300 new beds must be provided, rising to 6,000 over the next year and a half. In exchange, LA County will provide $300 million in funding.

According to the new agreement, LA County will pay the city up to $60 million each year for the next five years and a one-time bonus of $8 million if it reaches its 5,300-bed target by April. To combat crime on Ocean Front Walk, Bonin recently announced that 21 security cameras will be installed along the boardwalk, near certain restrooms and on certain parts of Speedway.

Bonin continues to push for more Safe Parking locations, “safe camping” sites and places for tiny home villages that could offer safer alternatives for those living on the streets and for residents, but are still only an interim measure as the city continues to try and tackle the homeless crisis on the streets.

“The homelessness crisis in Los Angeles is unprecedented and we need fast, inexpensive and outside-the-box solutions,” Bonin says in a Facebook post.

“To truly end inflow to homelessness, our region must make similar investments to address LA’s shortage of 509,000 affordable housing units,” LAHSA Executive Director Heidi Marston said in a statement. “And reform the systems that are pushing new people into homelessness faster than we can move them out. Until then, we will continue to improve the effectiveness of our rehousing system, which is moving people out of homelessness at historic speed and scale.”

Reality check: Proposition HHH’s struggling efforts

While city and county officials aim to achieve ambitious goals and mandates, LA has struggled to build units and house those living on the streets.

In 2016, LA voters overwhelmingly approved Prop. HHH authorizing city officials up to $1.2 billion to reduce homelessness through housing with a goal of 10,000 units.

City Controller Ron Galperin wrote in a recent report that only three projects have been completed to date from Prop. HHH funds, including 179 supportive units and 49 non-supportive units. (Multiple affordable housing projects are in the pipeline for Venice including Safe Place

For Youth’s Lincoln Apartments, the Rose Apartments—both HHH-backed properties—and Reese Davidson at the Venice Median, all of which have faced backlash for different reasons from the locals), Galperin also noted that only 19% of projects will be completed by 2022.

Efforts to house the homeless population under the ambitious proposition are not only falling behind the growing need for those unhoused, the majority of units are coming in at a higher cost than expected, with 69% coming in over $500,000 per unit. Residents remain frustrated with the lack of housing that has materialized from the prop’s funds, as the city seems to get further behind the rapidly growing crisis, with Galperin even agreeing, “We can and must do better.”

For residents like Sieker, housing relief for her unhoused neighbors can’t come soon enough. “We don’t have any more time,” she says. “We need housing options. We need bridge housing, we need shelters, safe camping sites, the parking sites. We need everything, like all hands on deck. This is a crisis. And people are just endlessly suffering. And it shouldn’t have to be this way.”

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