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Homeless camping at beaches and parks? L.A. proposal stirs outcry from some neighbors

Stephanie Popescu and her son head to the playground as a homeless woman walks by in Westchester Park.
Stephanie Popescu and her 2-year-old son Dacian head to a playground as a homeless woman walks by with her belongings in Westchester Park. Popescu, cofounder of the group Grass Roots Neighbors, supports the idea of allowing a “safe camping” area within the park.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

For nearly 20 years, Matt Stayner and his wife have been sending their children to Westchester Park — Easter egg hunts in the spring, swimming pool trips in the summer, the big community parade on the Fourth of July.

But after seeing dozens of tents go up across the park last year, Stayner decided he no longer wants his daughters going there unaccompanied. He grew even more alarmed after learning the park is one of several recreation areas being considered for “safe camping,” a program that allows homeless people to pitch their tents and receive social services.

Now, Stayner is volunteering with a group looking to recall Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who came up with the idea. And he’s been asking neighbors to oppose Bonin’s proposal.

“Parents are frustrated. We’ve lost our park,” said the 54-year-old father of four. “We’ve lost our park and I would like to see action.”

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L.A.'s struggle to get a handle on its growing homelessness crisis is running up against Angelenos’ love of their outdoor recreation spaces, which served as a lifeline for many during the stay-at-home orders of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Echo Park, many residents demanded, and are now receiving, a cleanup around Echo Park Lake, where nearly 200 tents and an assortment of furniture lined walkways and landscaped areas for much of last year. That effort drew hundreds of protesters and for now, the park remains closed.

On the Westside, Bonin has gone in a different direction, proposing that two parks, three beach parking lots and a waterfront parking lot in Marina del Rey be evaluated as possible locations for sanctioned overnight camping, tiny homes or overnight parking for people living in their vehicles, depending on the location.

The proposal, which heads to a City Council vote later this month, has sparked an outcry in parts of Bonin’s district, which stretches from Los Angeles International Airport to Pacific Palisades.

Tents at Westchester Park.
Councilman Mike Bonin wants to explore whether to set up sanctioned overnight camping in a section of Westchester Park, where dozens of tents have sprung up in recent years.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Some opponents warned the proposal will limit public access to beaches and parkland. Others said they fear their communities could become the next Venice, a neighborhood in Bonin’s district with multiple encampments that has experienced rising crime and a rash of fires.

In Pacific Palisades, a virtual meeting on the proposal drew about 475 people, with speaker after speaker denouncing the idea of tiny homes or overnight camping at the Will Rogers parking lot. The Pacific Palisades Community Council overwhelmingly opposed the idea.

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The Brentwood Community Council took its own vote a few days later, calling for any mention of parks or recreation spaces to be stripped from Bonin’s proposal. During that evening, several voiced alarm over the recent murder of a homeless man at an encampment alongside the federal Veterans Administration property.

Supporters of Bonin’s proposal have grown frustrated by the pushback, saying recreational activities are still happening in Westchester Park and that homeless people, there and elsewhere, are as concerned for their safety as anyone else.

The way to reduce the number of encampments is to first give homeless people a stable place to live — motel rooms, designated camping areas with security, or other locations — so they can eventually make their way into permanent housing, said Stephanie Popescu, a Playa del Rey resident and co-founder of the nonprofit Grass Roots Neighbors.

“If we don’t want to become like Venice, then we need to be engaging this problem head on,” said Popescu, whose group delivers food and supplies to people living in Westchester Park. “Just saying no to any solution, without having an alternative plan that’s reasonable, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”

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Sara Chapman, who has lived in Westchester for 25 years and also favors Bonin’s proposal, said the city “has to start somewhere” given the magnitude of the crisis.

“I think a lot of people are thinking if we create safe camping locations, that more people will come,” she said. “Well guess what? They’re already here. So not dealing with them and not doing something is not the answer.”

Bonin, in an interview, said he’s determined to make sure his district provides its fair share in the fight against homelessness. Opponents are drawing negative conclusions, he said, before the city has even examined the details for how a campsite, RV park or tiny home community might work.

Kenneth Flinchum, 38, in Westchester Park
Kenneth Flinchum, 38, said Westchester Park is much safer than the Venice Boardwalk. Flinchum has been living in the park since last summer.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

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The proposal calls for an evaluation of possible homeless services at Westchester Park and Mar Vista Park; beach parking lots at Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey and at Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades; a waterfront parking lot in Marina del Rey and property at LAX.

If the motion is approved, city analysts will evaluate each location to determine whether it makes sense and if so, how many homeless people it would serve, Bonin said. And if one section of a park is ultimately chosen for overnight homeless camping, the remainder of that same park would have enforcement of city laws on camping and tents, Bonin said.

“What I have proposed is designed to reduce encampments, so that our public spaces can return to full public use,” Bonin said in an email to constituents this week.

So far, critics of the proposal have found at least one ally at City Hall — Councilman Joe Buscaino, who also represents coastal neighborhoods. When Bonin’s proposal went before the council’s homelessness committee Thursday, Buscaino cast the lone opposing vote, saying city leaders should be capable of addressing the crisis without depriving residents of recreational open space.

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“We should be looking at taking vacant lots, vacant buildings, not some of the most popular, most crowded parks and famous beaches in the world,” Buscaino said.

Bonin’s proposal has a long road ahead.

The process of evaluating locations and proposing projects is expected to take several months. Some sites may need the support of Los Angeles County Supervisors Janice Hahn or Sheila Kuehl, who have responsibility for county-owned beach parking lots.

The Coastal Commission also may have to weigh in. Some are already arguing that a reduction in beach parking spaces, which can cost $7 on weekdays during the off season, would reduce beach access for working-class families who live further inland.

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“Will Rogers beach is a place for everybody, for the entire city of Los Angeles, to congregate,” said Reza Akef, who sits on the Pacific Palisades Community Council. “For $7 you get to park and literally walk to the beach in two minutes.”

In Westchester, Bonin’s proposal dominated two virtual meetings of the local neighborhood council, which also represents the neighborhoods of Playa del Rey and Playa Vista. During one session, attended by about 450 people on Zoom, activists from Venice called in and warned the council not to trust Bonin, saying new homeless facilities would be accompanied by an increase in violent crime.

Matt Stayner and his family in Westchester Park
“Parents are frustrated,” said Westchester resident Matt Stayner, sitting in the park with his wife Kay Yang-Stayner and daughters Rachel, 9, Hannah, 14, and Sarah, 10.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

The neighborhood council voted 18 to 3 to oppose safe camping or other new homeless initiatives in Westchester Park, Dockweiler Beach and elsewhere. Shortly before the vote, board member David Voss said he had not seen residents so united against a proposal since the councilman introduced “road diets” — a reduction the number of vehicle lanes — on key boulevards in his district.

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“I have today, as many of you have, received hundreds of emails,” he said. “I can’t go to the grocery store without people accosting me and saying, ‘What are you doing about this?’”

Westchester Park has been a community hub for generations of families, offering not just playing fields but a library, senior center, skate park and tennis courts. The park is also one of the city’s safe parking locations, allowing homeless people who live in their cars to stay overnight in a lot next to the public pool.

Those who have set up camp within the park itself described it as far more peaceful than a freeway overpass or other outdoor locations.

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Lisa Hope, 51, said she moved into Westchester Park after concluding that her previous campsite in the Ballona Wetlands was too dangerous.

Hope has been looking to get out of the park and into Project Roomkey, the program that provides hotel and motel rooms for the city’s unhoused. Still, she described safe camping as a reasonable compromise, letting the housed and homeless co-exist in Westchester.

“There has to be some place for us to go,” she said.

Kenneth Flinchum, who lives near the tennis courts, said he too would be open to a safe camping program. Flinchum, an electrician who moved to L.A. last year, said he found Venice to be too chaotic. And he acknowledged that some parents don’t want their kids near the park’s homeless residents.

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A safe camping program “keeps us away from them, and them away from us,” he said. “I hate to put it like that.”

Bonin, for his part, intends to keep searching for additional sites. But he argued that an ongoing federal lawsuit over homelessness makes the need for interim shelter more urgent. Because Westside real estate is so expensive, he said, the city must consider its public spaces.

“I’m not an enthusiastic booster of any of these locations,” he added. “But there isn’t a better alternative on the Westside. And if there is, I am definitely eager to hear it.”

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VIDEO | 06:07
LA Times Today: L.A. proposal for homeless camping stirs outcry from some neighbors

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.

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Staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.


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