It was billed as a town hall for Venice residents to hear about the shelter for homeless people that city officials had proposed for an unused Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus yard in that coastal community. Mostly, however, it was a three-hour flogging of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Councilman Mike Bonin — whose district includes Venice — and Police Chief Michel Moore.
People packed into the auditorium of the Westminster Elementary School last Wednesday didn’t want to hear that the project would move at least 154 homeless people off the surrounding sidewalks and into ”bridge,” or interim, housing.
“Not in Venice! Not in Venice!” they chanted.
They didn’t believe Garcetti when he vowed that “your housed or unhoused condition doesn’t protect you from consequences for committing crime. I want you to hear that.”
They heard it. “LIE! LIE! LIE!” they shouted.
Residents didn’t go to that town hall to be persuaded. They went there to persuade.
And they were unmoved by Garcetti and Bonin relating stories of homeless people who got housed, such as the man with bone disease who had spent 20 years on the street before moving into the new El Pueblo shelter downtown or the woman who slept on the beach with her young son at night until she got housing.
“We don’t want to hear your stories!” a woman called from the audience.
With that, she perfectly summed up the opposition. This night was about their stories — of homeless people, described variously as meth-addicted, bicycle-stealing and mentally ill, who defecate on people’s sidewalks and grab at passersby. From their point of view, Venice residents have borne a disproportionate share of the burden of living with homeless people. Now they fear they’re being asked to accept a shelter that will, at worst, act as a magnet for more homeless people, and at best, house a fraction of the people living on Venice’s streets.
City officials say they don’t expect shelters to act as magnets. And the city has promised that every neighborhood where bridge housing is located will get frequent cleanings and aggressive enforcement of ordinances against sitting on sidewalks with volumes of belongings.
But residents didn’t go to that town hall to be persuaded. They went there to persuade. One questioner suggested having the Army Corps of Engineers set up emergency housing at Dockweiler State Beach and put Venice homeless there.
But housing needs to be near housing, Bonin told them. “We are trying to reintegrate them into society,” he said. “Dockweiler State Beach is not near anything.”
“Exactly!” someone called out.
There’s no question that living in Venice means grappling with homelessness on a scale that most of us don’t encounter daily. According to the 2018 homeless count, there are 975 homeless people in Venice. Although that’s nothing close to skid row nor as bad as Hollywood, it’s still a lot of people on the streets in a three-square-mile area.
Venice residents are right that one shelter won’t eradicate street homelessness there. But removing 154 people from the streets is worth doing, not just for Venice homeowners, but for the individuals who get a place to live for several months, services and a shot at permanent housing somewhere. And when they do move on to other housing, that opens up space to house more homeless people. That’s the way this is supposed to work.
And there are people in Venice willing to give this a try. Milissa Glen-Lambert, a schoolteacher who sat next to me during the town hall, had volunteered to canvass neighborhoods to learn people’s opinions on bridge housing. “Once I got out into the community, people were mostly in favor of it,” she said.
The bigger question is whether Garcetti can keep the bargain he has proposed to neighborhoods citywide: If you accept the housing, we will clear the sidewalks. One of the best questions of the night came from a woman who noted that Legal Aid lawyers had already warned Garcetti that zealous efforts to clear streets of homeless people’s surplus belongings could lead to a lawsuit. Would the city really enforce the law, the questioner wanted to know?
Garcetti said he was hopeful that the city could work something out with Legal Aid that would respect the rights of residents and the rights of homeless people. (“Hopeful?” someone in the audience said mockingly.) Finding that balance is going to be more difficult than putting up the bridge housing. But the city must find a way to keep the sidewalks clearer.