Mention homelessness on the Westside and Venice, Santa Monica and pockets of Del Rey come to mind. The first two communities are often more visible with the problem as they have large populations of people without shelter or who are forced to take refuge in cars or recreational vehicles.
But there is another community where homelessness has become a growing concern in recent years, away from the beautiful campus of Loyola Marymount University and the multi-million dollar homes on the bluff.
Westchester also has a homeless population, and to date, no one seems to know how large or widespread it has become.
The homeless usually take refuge near Westchester Park or on side streets off Manchester Avenue. Unlike Santa Monica or Venice, they are not typically visible during daylight hours. But Booker Pearson, a longtime advocate of helping families and individuals find shelter, knows that they’re there.
“There are homeless families in Westchester and Playa del Rey. Not as many as in Venice, but we know they’re here,” Pearson, who chairs the homelessness committee of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, told The Argonaut.
On Tuesday, Sept. 28 and Wednesday, Sept. 29, Pearson and a group of volunteers joined People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) to survey the homeless population in Westchester and nearby Playa del Rey with the intent of compiling data on the number of families, children and others within the neighborhood council’s area who are without permanent shelter.
The community effort, launched by the neighborhood council with the backing of Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, is also designed to give Westchester an idea of where those without a roof over their heads are in order to take the next step towards transitional and perhaps eventual permanent housing.
“We’re trying to get out in front of this problem,” said Pearson, who is a board member of Upward Bound House, a nonprofit social service organization that works with homeless families with minors and low-income seniors.
Before PATH n which has done a great deal of work in downtown Los Angeles and other areas of the city with providing assistance and housing to the homeless n came to Westchester two years ago, few imagined that they would find a population of homeless families and individuals there.
“I must admit that we were surprised and taken aback to see people along Sepulveda (Boulevard) and Manchester (Avenue),” PATH Director of Community Outreach Rodolfo Salinas admitted.
“When we think of Westchester, we usually think about Loyola Marymount University and the business community. It’s been an experience learning that there really are homeless in Westchester.”
PATH divided Westchester-Playa’s council area into 14 sectors and attempted to reach as many of the region’s homeless population on the night of Sept. 28. Another effort on the morning of Sept. 29 took place in the Ballona Wetlands, where several homeless encampments have been discovered over the last decade.
LMU students, who are encouraged upon enrollment to engage in social justice activities, helped PATH with the homeless count.
“PATH has been informing us about the project and offering instruction on how to interact with the homeless population,” junior Robert Santilli, a business major and student director of LMU’s initiative Feed the Hungry, explained. “They are showing us how to be sensitive.”
Another LMU student, senior Carlos Rodriguez, added, “This is something of a challenge to LMU. It’s a challenge to look out for those people in need right in our own neighborhood.
“It was a wake-up call for me; I was informed about homelessness, but I wasn’t aware of the presence of homeless people in our own neighborhood.”
Neighborhood council President Cyndi Hench had a similar “wake-up call” after discussing the problems that Venice is undergoing with homeless with members of that community’s local board and later learning that there are pockets of families and single men and women in her community.
“It made me realize not only that we have homeless people in our council district, but that the state of our economy is driving more people onto the streets,” she said.
Rosendahl, who represents Venice and Westchester, is working to implement a “Streets to Homes” initiative that seeks to move those without shelter into housing. The program will consist of identifying parking lots throughout Council District 11 and allow those who follow certain regulations to sleep in vehicles there, where they will be away from residential areas.
Social services will be offered for those who enter the program and the councilman has also involved a variety of city departments to help implement the initiative.
Santa Barbara and Eugene, Ore. have had large degrees of success with this venture, and based on their recommendations, Rosendahl has high hopes to replicate it in his district.
In Westchester, three parking lots have been recommended, said Pearson, an advocate of the “Streets to Homes” project.
“What we’ve done and will continue to do fits very nicely with the ‘Streets to Homes’ program,” he said.
To assist with the homeless count effort, the neighborhood council appropriated $5,000 and Rosendahl matched it with an equal amount last month. The funds came from an officeholder account from an earlier reelection campaign.
“I saw the merits of the initiative and I thought this was the least that I could do,” the councilman said. “I’m really proud of my neighborhood council. It shows that they really appreciate this issue and that they care.”
Pearson said it took “great political courage” for Rosendahl to donate his own money to Westchester-Playa council’s action.
Neighborhood councils exist to assist with local challenges and community efforts, and the homeless count is tailormade for the local council’s attention, Hench said.
“It’s the type of stuff that neighborhood councils should be using their money for,” she reiterated. “This is a local concern, and we don’t want it to blossom into a larger problem.”
Rosendahl credited Pearson and his committee for helping to spearhead the community effort.
“Booker impressed me with his determination and his class,” he said. “He’s done great work with Upward Bound, and I think they’ve got a great group in PATH to work with.”
Salinas said the local council is being proactive in addressing the number of people without homes now instead of at a later date. “They’ve been very open and willing to take action,” he said.
Rosendahl thinks the homeless count is a good start for Westchester and Playa del Rey to chronicle the number of homeless residents locally. He believes that as a legislator, it is within his purview to take on the complicated and emotionally charged topic of homelessness and to attempt to find solutions for the benefit of all of his constituents.
“It’s in our moral imperative to look for solutions to this terrible problem,” he said.
The results of the study will be revealed later this year.