Column: Anger over homelessness shapes council race

Traci Park, one of many candidates vying to replace Westside LA Councilman Mike Bonin, vividly remembers the raucous community gathering in Venice in October 2018, when locals landed on Mayor Bonin Eric Garcetti and LAPD Chief Michel Moore.

“It was very hot and frankly uncomfortable in a lot of ways,” said Park, who told me she turned to a guy yelling at Moore and told him to stop.

And yet Park, like others, was at breaking point.

The conversation about homelessness in Venice and the rest of Los Angeles had been going on for years, with increasing numbers of encampments, blocked sidewalks and a general sense of greater chaos, human suffering and public safety concerns. And Park didn’t trust Bonin and City Hall’s latest promise: that a planned facility known as Bridge Housing, one of more than two dozen citywide, would help change the things in Venice.

“The community was angry that this was being brought to a place where there are children present, and right in the heart of central Venice,” Park said.

She rated Bonin’s response to her detractors like this: “Just a palpable disregard for valid concerns, and little or nothing to address the real questions about children and public access to our beach and the safety of our community. .”

Now half a dozen candidates are set to run for Bonin’s seat. Bonin pushed hard to get people into various types of housing, with some success as well as periodic opposition from the neighborhood. A recent recall effort failed but showed dwindling support, and Bonin said several days ago he was not interested in a third term, citing depression as one of the reasons.

In some ways, that 2018 reunion was a window into things to come, with frustration growing across the city on all fronts and the homeless death toll exceeding three a day. Advocates are still crying out for the homeless to get more help. Residents still want their sidewalks back.

“It’s number one, two and three,” said Greg Good, a candidate to replace Bonin.

The same goes for the mayoral campaign. Early on, councilman and mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino used a Venice Beach tent city as the backdrop for a call to crack down on camping. Critics have cried out for the criminalization of homelessness, but only Bonin and Councilwoman Nithya Raman voted last summer against a move to ban camping near parks, libraries, schools and other places.

US Rep. Karen Bass, considered a favorite in the mayoral race, is a tough liberal. But even she drew a line on encampments when she announced her race.

“The bottom line is that people will not be allowed to live on the streets,” Bass said. “There are just some things you don’t do outside, and sleeping is one of them.”

The eternal question, of course, is how to deliver on such a promise.

When I visited Venice the other day, the beach scene was in stark contrast to what it was when tents lined a long stretch of the promenade. Bonin partnered with the nonprofit St. Joseph Center last year to refer more than 200 people to various forms of housing, according to his tally.

But as my colleague Doug Smith pointed out in a story, not everyone stayed housed. And as candidates for the Bonin seat have told me, some of the scattered beach residents have simply pitched tents elsewhere.

“One of the things that was seen at the time of the cleanup was a corresponding increase” in the number of tents in parks and residential neighborhoods, Park said. As for the much-contested bridge housing facility, Park said, the immediate effect was more problems with homeless people on the streets rather than fewer, which served to reinforce calls for ousting of Bonin.

Some of these issues have been resolved since those early days, but a few blocks away, in an area just south of Rose Avenue, tents line the streets with posted warnings that tents cannot be erected between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., and “no sidewalk blocking” is allowed.

“I don’t think it’s inappropriate for the city or the public to expect any rules to apply,” contestant Good said, adding that encampments aren’t good for the homeless or lodges.

So what would Bonin’s future successors do?

In addition to Park (lawyer) and Good (former head of legislative and external affairs for Garcetti), I spoke to Council District 11 candidates Allison Holdorff Polhill (lawyer and former educator) and James Murez (farmer’s market manager of Venice). All four said they support the anti-camping ordinance and will enforce it.

“I don’t think it goes far enough,” said Murez, who added that large swaths of land available near the airport and elsewhere should be established as legal campsites and managed until people can be directed to more permanent accommodation. He said he tried to persuade Bonin to consider such ideas but got nowhere.

“I believe Mike’s philosophy of letting them stay on the sidewalks until we have housing for them is fundamentally broken” and inhumane, Murez said.

For years, critics have said temporary shelters are a tool used to drive people off the streets without addressing long-term needs. But the candidates said nothing is so bad, for the homeless or the housed, as leaving people outside where public health and safety concerns are mounting.

“We need temporary shelter, 100%,” said Polhill, who cited several studies identifying available buildings and assets that could be used. Polhill told me she decided to run for council after dozens of hypodermic needles were found on the perimeter of a school in Venice, and she wants to focus more on preventing homelessness and housing and mental health services.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, left, and Councilman Mike Bonin at a 2018 town hall in Venice.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Two candidates told me they thought Good’s attachment to the Garcetti administration would be a liability, given the lack of trust in city hall. Good, who was at that 2018 reunion where anger at Garcetti and Bonin boiled over, said more people had been housed across the city in recent years than ever before, and he had contributed to the successes.

In a look at Bonin, he also said District 11 needs a leader who engages everyone rather than moving forward without reaching consensus.

Whoever succeeds Bonin will find the fractured, multi-agency bureaucracy of homeless services to be an incorrigible beast. Then there is the housing crisis, abject poverty, failures in mental health services and other forces beyond a council member’s direct control. In many cases, helping someone can be complicated, especially given the scarcity of multiple essential medical and housing resources.

A few blocks from the beach, I met a woman named Gwen who told me she had been in federally subsidized housing, a shelter, and a Project Roomkey hotel. But still, there she was, living in a tent and getting around with the help of a cane and a walker. She said she would rather be on the streets because inside she had been mugged and robbed, and she feared catching COVID-19 in a shelter or hotel.

As I spoke to her, a visibly distressed young woman sat next to her tent, about 25 feet away from us. She then got up, lowered her pants and relieved herself on the sidewalk.

It was a snapshot of the disaster.

A sad young woman, in need of help she may or may not get, rooted in a beleaguered seaside neighborhood that is a repository of unmet challenges.

We will know soon enough if any of the candidates are ready to meet them.

Los Angeles Times

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