Op-Ed: How I learned to love homeless housing in my neighborhood
I live on Sunset Avenue in Venice, right across the street from three of the most contested empty acres in the city. You might have read about it: A couple of weeks ago at a town hall meeting, dozens of angry Venetians shouted down Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Mike Bonin. Some in my neighborhood really don’t want the city to build transitional housing for the homeless on those 3 acres. I get their reasons, but I can’t join them. My daughter won’t let me.
Five years ago, I couldn’t believe our luck when my wife said she’d found us a tiny but adorable house in Venice. Annoyingly, I’d bring up where we lived within seconds of meeting someone. During down time, I’d pull up Google maps, astonished to see our tiny bit of property, so close to the historic boardwalk and Abbot Kinney and Muscle Beach and all the rest.
Less thrilling, however, was the bus depot across the street. As they had for 50 years, hundreds of city buses noisily parked there every night, and every morning, those same buses noisily left again. When friends came over at night for dinner, squinting in the glare of the hundreds of watts of high-powered lights shining on the hundreds of buses across the street, I know a few of them felt sorry for us. We struggled to sleep amid the sound of engines revving and reverse signals shrieking. It was, to be clear, pretty awful.
Empathy is something you want your kids to know about, but allowing empathy to put up a homeless shelter across the street?
But I was determined to make the best of it. It was an honor to have the depot across the street, I told our 6-year-old daughter. It was noisy and an eyesore, but it offered us a good way to think about what was required to make a city work. I even believed my story, at least during the day. Cars were awful! Buses were great! And they had to park somewhere.
Then something crazy happened: I woke up one morning to an eerie calm. My daughter and I looked outside and the buses was gone
I allowed myself to get excited, to be relieved: The lot was quiet. I heard rumors about a $50-million price tag. I pictured a shiny new Google campus going in, or a mixed-use block with a cool shop or restaurant I would find essential.
My daughter, however, was glum. The absence of those buses wasn’t all that exciting for her. Where did they park now? she wanted to know. What about that story I had told her? I mentioned other lots, other parts of the city. It didn’t help much. It took me a minute to understand: She had gotten used to the idea of us having a role in city life, the one I had repeated so often and then forgotten when I could.
After a few weeks, she came around with her own mixed-use idea. A library, an ice cream shop and a swimming pool. But years would go by and the bus depot did not become a library-ice-cream-pool — or anything else. The lot stayed empty, while our neighborhood changed. A homeless encampment on Third Street and Sunset grew rowdy and then mostly disappeared, in part replaced by planters that made sidewalk living impossible. A tent city that took up the grassy median between the boardwalk and bike path got more populated, and then spread to the beach. Trash piled up, residents got outraged. It wasn’t unusual to hear someone without a place to sleep screaming late into the night. Human feces piled up along a nearby curb. Someone stole our bike pump. Then my daughter’s bike helmet.
What story about city life could I tell her now? She was upset that her helmet was gone, but she also wondered aloud if maybe someone needed it more than she did. My heart hardened, but not always. I tried to keep fruit in the car so that, at stoplights, we could hand out a banana or apple. When a woman put up a tent on the sidewalk in front of our stairs, I filled all her water bottles with ice and water.
And then I found out what was planned for the bus depot, an outpost of the city’s attempt to deal with the homeless. My gut tightened. I thought about our front gate, the height of our bushes and the strength of our locks. I imagined all kinds of things I couldn’t protect us from. I thought, Why us?
I didn’t say anything to our daughter at first. Empathy is something you want your kids to know about, but allowing empathy to put up a homeless shelter across the street? I had to be convinced. The plan, I finally pieced together, called for a couple hundred beds in a temporary compound, designed for stays of a few months at a time, with social areas, exercise equipment and, most importantly, access to a network of social services.
Sometimes I can make the most sense of the world when I talk with my now 9-year-old daughter. When I finally told her about the “bridge housing” going in across the street, a big smile spread across her face. She wasn’t thinking about how strong the locks were on the front door, or her bike helmet. Her first reaction wasn’t fear or selfishness. She understood instantly how special it was that the bus depot would become a place for people to live who needed just that.
Cities require compromises, human tolerance. Pending a few more hurdles, we’ll have a couple hundred new neighbors, and I’ll be telling anyone who will listen what an honor it is to be live across the street from A Bridge Home on Sunset Avenue in Venice. Without my daughter, I might not have come to the same conclusion.
Nathan Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”
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