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L.A. transit officials consider Metro-owned sites in Valley, Venice to aid homeless

L.A. transit officials consider Metro-owned sites in Valley, Venice to aid homeless
Metro transit security guard Tracey Houston rouses a man sleeping on the Metro Red Line subway. Early-morning and late-night trains are often a refuge for homeless people looking for a warm place to sit or sleep. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County transportation officials have identified five properties, including parking lots in the San Fernando Valley and a former bus yard in Venice Beach, that could be used to provide services or temporary housing for Los Angeles County's growing homeless population.

The properties, owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, are either vacant or underused, officials said. It is unclear what services would be provided at the sites or how Metro would address public health, safety and liability concerns.

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The list of proposed properties was assembled for Metro's directors, who have pushed to expand the agency's role in addressing the county's homelessness crisis. Riders' negative perceptions of safety and cleanliness on the system are leading reasons behind a decline in ridership, officials have said.

"This is an unprecedented crisis in Los Angeles, and we all — all levels of government, all neighborhoods — need to be treating this as if it were a natural disaster," said Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, the chair of Metro's customer experience committee, during a downtown meeting Thursday.

Similar efforts are underway in the city of Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti is pursuing a $20-million initiative to build temporary homeless shelters on city-owned parking lots. The first proposed facility, a 65-bed shelter near Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, has sparked an outcry from Koreatown residents.

Metro is a major county landowner, with a portfolio that includes dozens of train stations, parking lots and bus yards, as well as parcels adjacent to rail lines that were acquired during construction.

The agency's real estate staff identified 40 possible properties, then eliminated sites slated for construction or development within 18 months. The agency also ruled out heavily used park-and-ride lots as well as sites that are "isolated" and removed from transit and social services, Metro Deputy Executive Officer John Potts said.

Commuters rarely fill the park-and-ride lots at the Orange Line busway stations in Van Nuys, Tarzana and Canoga Park, which would be prime candidates for homeless services, Metro said. The lots are adjacent to the Orange Line bike path, where Valley residents have frequently complained of homeless encampments.

A former bus yard in Venice Beach that closed in 2015 is also on the list. The 3.15-acre lot on Sunset Avenue is three blocks from the Pacific Ocean and a short walk from Abbot Kinney Boulevard, where homes sell for more than $3 million.

Metro closed the bus facility after fielding multiple offers from buyers who wanted to develop the site, but no deal is expected within a year and a half. The building that formerly housed the bus yard's facilities would require some environmental remediation before people could work inside, Potts said.

Sources: Google Earth, OpenStreetMap, Nextzen
Sources: Google Earth, OpenStreetMap, Nextzen (Kyle Kim/Los Angeles Times)

The final site runs along San Fernando Road in northeast Los Angeles, sandwiched between the street and Metrolink tracks. A trucking company recently terminated its lease there for cab parking, freeing up 34,000 square feet that could be used for overnight parking for people living in cars and camper vans.

Metro's directors took no steps Thursday to move forward with the homeless services plan, and they raised a number of questions about how Metro would provide and fund the programs. They also questioned how long services that are described as "temporary" could be provided.

The hope, Potts said, is that Metro will hire an outside service provider and draft a contract with a "firewall" that protects the agency from any public safety, security and liability concerns.

All five sites are in the city of Los Angeles, and elected officials and their constituents should be notified, said Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. She also raised questions about how a safe overnight parking program would work.

Directors did not mention mobile showers or bathrooms, a service that Garcetti previously described as "very appropriate" for land near Metro stations. The vast majority of the rail and bus system has no bathroom access, because officials have traditionally said the facilities could be magnets for drug use and prostitution.

The city of L.A. operates a hygiene trailer with showers and laundry machines in a city-owned parking lot on skid row. Security officers and a maintenance crew monitor the facility, and people who come in can speak with a homeless outreach worker.

Metro directors also supported a proposal to expand Metro's homeless outreach program, which began a year ago.

Currently, two teams of outreach workers walk through subway stations and ride trains on weekday mornings and afternoons, helping people find housing and other services. The expanded program would provide six more outreach teams, including workers who would ride the system on Saturdays, Sundays and overnight.

One team of outreach workers would be assigned exclusively to L.A.'s all-night buses, which carry so many sleeping homeless people that riders sometimes call them "rolling motels."

The expansion, which still needs a full Metro board vote, would increase the annual cost of the program from $1.2 million to $4.2 million.

For more transportation news, follow @laura_nelson on Twitter.

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