In Los Angeles, illegal homeless encampments and city homeless shelters risk becoming coronavirus hot zones

Despite official promises and plans lawlessness remains the new normal in many neighborhoods

While public health orders have ten million Los Angeles County residents hunkered down during the coronavirus pandemic, many of the region’s homeless – officially numbering nearly 60,000 in the county but in reality significantly more – are living as though nothing has changed. Encampments remain stubborn facts of life in virtually every community in the Southland, on sidewalks and in parks and public places closed to the general public. Homeless people socialize in close quarters and congregate in small and large groups, sharing cigarettes, food, drink, and drugs. Virtually none wear facial protection in accordance with the most recent orders.

In Venice Beach a group of homeless artists even put up a “permanent” art installation called The Tiki Bar where people have congregated over the last week (UPDATE 4/2/2020: The Sanitation Department removed the Tiki Bar. It will be kept in storage, as the department considers bulky items on sidewalks “not a health hazard” under the municipal code. The department left the remaining parts of the installation intact).

VENICE BEACH (March 30, 2020) Another day in paradise: A man who identified himself as “Will M.” tends to an art installation at the Third Avenue homeless camp. He said the tiki bar is part of an “artcupation” of the camp. From a video by Rick Swinger, used with permission.

To be sure, the “homeless” are not a monolithic cohort, and people lose their housing all the time and for myriad reasons. Many are deserving of aid and assistance, and many do find it. But this surreal moment is a bona fide holiday for the criminals for whom homelessness is both cover and opportunity, as law enforcement has been ordered to stand down enforcement of all but the most serious crimes and to release thousands of “nonviolent” offenders early. Many L.A. communities were on edge even before the pandemic introduced this new level of risk, and Coronavirus has compounded people’s fear. Last week multiple Venice residents said that homeless people had “been walking up and down Paloma Avenue coughing loudly on all gates and screaming Corona.”

The All Aspect Report spent the last week documenting the situation in several communities around Los Angeles including Venice Beach, Santa Monica, downtown L.A., Hollywood, and Van Nuys. It was clear from the start that city officials are not enforcing stay at home orders against residents of shelters. There’s no enforcement of social distancing requirements in homeless encampments. In fact, from all appearances there’s no enforcement at all, at any level, of any aspect of the homeless crisis. As the pandemic cuts through Southern California, official failure puts everyone in danger, the unhoused themselves most of all.

The danger is no longer theoretical, and officials are running out of time. Last Monday, March 30 the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said two homeless people in L.A. have tested positive for coronavirus. Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reported last week that an employee of Union Rescue Mission, the largest homeless services provider in Skid Row, had tested positive.

The Mission’s Executive Director, Rev. Andy Bales, said an entire floor of the nonprofit’s five story shelter is in quarantine. And also as of Monday 24 LAPD officers had tested positive, many from the Central Division whose beats include Skid Row. Given how many 911 calls are related to homelessness it’s possible they contracted the disease that way.

All of this before the virus peaks in California sometime in the next three weeks.

Staff at homeless shelters aren’t enforcing health orders, allowing residents to come and go at will

On February 23 the City of Los Angeles opened a homeless shelter known as “A Bridge Home” in Venice. Mayor Garcetti and the City Council have promoted these temporary shelters as essential to the city’s comprehensive homeless strategy. A total of 30 locations are planned with a dozen open already. The Venice facility, which sits on an old Metro bus repair yard, houses 100 adults and 54 young adults (18-23) in a combination of modular units and a sprung structure.

The shelter’s location in the middle of a residential neighborhood and one block from an elementary school prompted strong community opposition, culminating in a lawsuit that delayed the project by nearly three years. Residents expressed fears that the shelter would attract criminals and endanger the community. As previously reported by The All Aspect Report, their worst fears were coming true before the coronavirus emergency compounded the dangers.

To take one of many examples: In mid-March a Bridge shelter resident was sentenced to 180 days in county jail for threatening two women outside the facility (including a death threat to onoe) and smashing a half dozen cars. The man, known to shelter staff as a problem, was released after just 10 days as part of the county’s coronavirus-related incarceration downsizing. He was allowed to return to the shelter and was only removed by staff when a neighbor noticed he was back and called to complain. His current whereabouts are unknown.

Over the course of several days last week, constant flows of people were observed entering and exiting the shelter. They came and went singly, in pairs, and in small groups. Most used the main entrance, where a security guard let them in and out through the gate, coming into close and in many cases direct contact with everyone. She was not equipped with any protective gear and was not wearing gloves or a mask. She remained on duty and did not appear to wash or sanitize her hands. There also is a second gate farther down the block which some residents used to let people in and out on their own accord.

While Angelenos (a few scofflaws aside) restrict their movements to the “Essential Activities” defined in the state public heath department’s orders, in a single afternoont Venice Bridge residents walked the streets freely and interacted with people living in nearby encampments. They smoked cigarettes and cannabis and socialized in close quarters with each other and shelter staff. They engaged in black market transactions. There were physical altercations and shouting arguments. Suffice it to say no one engaged in social distancing.

An email to the executive director of Safe Place for Youth (SPY), the organization responsible for the shelter’s young adult (18-24) population, was not returned.

The scene was similar at the Bridge shelters at El Pueblo de Los Angeles downtown and on Schrader Boulevard in Hollywood. At el Pueblo dozens of homeless people congregated in close proximity in the park and sidewalk near the shelter. As in Venice, shelter residents came and went at will. A pair of individuals walked across the street and into Union Station. Again there was no evidence of social distancing and no washing stations or other prophylactic measures. Also as in Venice there are hundreds of tents and temporary shelters on the sidewalks and overpasses around the shelter.

One of the core premises of the A Bridge Home program is that it targets local hardcore homeless and gets them off the street. Large encampments covered public spaces around all three of the observed shelters.

Officials promised that “A Bridge Home” shelters would reduce street living in communities. The Mayor’s website says, “As the new shelters open their doors, City Sanitation teams will work to restore spaces that were previously encampments into open and clear public spaces.” So far they appear to be having the opposite effect: Encampments are as sprawling as ever in public spaces immediately adjacent to all three Bridge shelters. People live in tents on a lawn directly adjacent the el Pueblo shelter, tents and campers occupy streets and sidewalks around the Hollywood site, and Venice Beach is virtually at war. If anything street living has increased in proximity to the “A Bridge Home” shelters and brought danger with it.

Officials are enforcing public safety orders against everyone but the homeless, endangering everyone

MAR VISTA (March 31, 2020) The homeless encampment under the 405 freeway near Sawtelle Boulevard remains full, people camping and congregating in close proximity. From a video by George Frem, used with permission

In a pattern that has become distressingly familiar to Angelenos, there are two sets of rules during the coronavirus emergency: One for the homeless population and one for everyone else.

Current emergency orders from the county and state health departments restrict people’s activities to things like grocery shopping, going to the doctor, pharmacy, or veterinarian, caring for relatives or vulnerable persons, and legally mandated activities. It strains credulity to believe that the scores of homeless people at the two Bridge shelters were engaged in these “Essential Activities” even part of the time. The shelters are open 24 hours a day, meaning people come and go at all hours.

Meanwhile, the city and county of Los Angeles shuttered public access to beaches and parks last week. Mayor Eric Garcetti admonished Angelenos, “Too many people, too close together, too often. The longer we do that, the more people will get sick, and the more people will die. There’s no way to sugarcoat that.” He’s threatened to cut off water and power to “nonessential businesses” that violate the city’s closure orders, and encouraged neighbors to report each other. “You know the old expression about snitches?” he said last Tuesday. “Well, in this case, snitches get rewards.”

Yet thousands of homeless people remain concentrated in parks and other public spaces, unmolested by the same authorities threatening everyone else with penalties and fines. The danger to them is palpable, while the danger to the general public grows by the day.

The city’s disjointed and inconsistent efforts endanger everyone, including city employees and contractors

VENICE BEACH (March 23, 2020) An employee with Urban Alchemy tends to a wash station at the Third Street homeless camp. From a video by Rick Swinger, used with permission

Two weeks ago Mayor Garcetti announced the city would accelerate the “Pit Stop” program that provides temporary daytime (7a.m. to 7p.m.) porta-potties, hand washing stations, and drinking fountains at homeless encampments. Equipment is contracted with United Site Services and some (though far from all) of the sites are staffed by employees of a San Francisco nonprofit called Urban Alchemy. According to its website, the company employs former long-term felons and assists them on their path back into society.

Over the weekend UA employees at two sites on the westside described their responsibilities as part janitorial and part security. One said that in addition to keeping the units clean, “We make sure no one’s doing any funny stuff in there, doing drugs, sexual, anything like that.” They said they had received basic hygiene training and been told to practice social distancing. They were supplied with spray bottles, bleach, and paper towels. One of the workers had just come back from eating lunch in his car. “Takes an extra few minutes now, because I disinfect the whole interior every time I get out.”

All agreed that camp residents are grateful for the services, though one added, “A lot of people want to vent to us. Some are crazy, some just don’t have anyone else to talk to.” As if on cue, a woman walked up to the attendant and demanded to know why the city had closed the bathrooms and showers at the beach. “That’s the only place we got to go, and they’re shutting it down!” She yelled for several minutes as he tried to explain closing the bathrooms wasn’t in his control.

It was difficult not to wonder whether these employees are properly trained and equipped for the tasks they’re being paid $16.50 an hour to do. They are outside for the duration of their shift and are exposed to filthy environments. They wear rudimentary protective gear like standard surgical masks and latex gloves. One of the employees was visibly wearing her mask improperly, and the mask itself appeared to have been reused several times. As coronavirus makes its inevitable way through the homeless population these workers will be a new front line. They do not appear prepared.

United Site Services employees set up the Pit Stops each morning and pick them up in the evning. At the Third Avenue camp on Monday a single worker from United Site Services – who was aware he was being filmed – hauled two regular porta-potties, a handicap accessible porta-pottie, and a mobile sink onto a flatbed trailer, presumably either to be moved to another location or returned to a company facility. He wore no protective gear save for a pair of gloves and had only a standard size dolly to assist him.

He began by emptying liquid from one of the porta-potties onto the sidewalk. The liquid ran onto the street and toward the storm drain. It also immersed the wheels and platform of the dolly the worker was using, and he stepped through it repeatedly. Over the next 15 minutes he loaded the other structures onto the flatbed. He was in direct contact with the structures nearly at all times. Several times he struggled with the weight, rocking the porta-potties back and forth and at one point jumping onto the dolly to tilt a unit backward. Virtually his entire body came into contact with the plastic surfaces of the units. Scientists have determined coronavirus can remain on plastic for two to three days.

An email to United Site Services was not returned.

The city also has set up water fountains at homeless camps. The fountains, which are not tended by UA or other employees, quickly become filthy. Down the street from the Third Avenue Pit Stop a man brushed his teeth at a temporary fountain the Department of Water and Power had connected to a fire hydrant. He repeatedly spat into the sink, washed his hands and face, and touched virtually every surface of the fountain.

City homeless workers not observing social distancing

Even the city-county agency responsible for homeless services has been part of the problem. Members of the Facebook Group Fight Back Venice! captured video of LAHSA workers handing out water bottles and other supplies to homeless people at the Third Avenue encampment. Like the residents and workers at the Bridge facilities, the LAHSA workers did not observe social distancing and came into proximate and direct contact with homeless people. The workers were not wearing protective gear, though one man appeared to have a bandana tied around his face.

A similar video was posted from the boardwalk of homeless people lined up (again in close quarters) to receive bottles of water from a LAHSA worker. That worker was not wearing protective gear or gloves.

VENICE BEACH (March 30, 2020) A city sanitation team performs a cleanup on Third Avenue. They wore no protective gear save gloves, and worked in close proximity as they moved through the camp. From a video by Fight Back Venice!, used with permission

Some nonprofit and faith groups also are putting themselves in harm’s way. Two volunteers with an organization called Bread of Life spent Saturday morning handing out sandwiches and bottles of water to homeless people in Venice.

The problem is getting worse, not better

The dynamics of homelessness endanger the wider population as well. A decade ago the chronically unhoused, for better or worse, congregated in a few neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Skid Row in Los Angeles, and north Bakersfield. Things were bad but still manageable, particularly given the billions of dollars in homeless-related public spending.

That’s all changed. These days L.A.’s homeless population is diffused throughout the region, a translucent parallel population superimposed upon communities. Encampments have developed social orders and some even have rudimentary economies and self-government. As previously reported by City Journal‘s Chris Rufo and others, once autonomous encampments are becoming interconnected and even interdependent. Mass transit and the profusion of scooters, e-bikes, bike share, and other “micro-mobility” programs provide ample opportunity for people to move among camps. Bike and scooter chopshops are commonplace in encampments. Last summer a resident of a homeless camp in Lake Balboa told The All Aspect Report that people know where to go to get which drugs and where to barter for electronics, bicycles, clothing, food, even sexual favors

This mobility presents an urgent challenge to public health officials during the pandemic. As the virus’s spread approaches its apex in the southland homeless people will be among the hardest hit: They live already with risk factors like poor sanitation, close contact, substance abuse, preexisting conditions, and compromised immune systems. A study released last week by researchers at UCLA, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania estimates that as many as 1,200 homeless people might die of the virus in the L.A. area alone. Unhoused victims could overwhelm the county’s medical resources, yet another source of danger for themselves and the wider community.

Whittier represents a prime example of this new dynamic. As soon as the first coronavirus cases were identified last week on Skid Row those who could began to flee. According to Paul Ramirez, founder of Whittier Town Hall, “Unfortunately, [the homeless] are not following any CDC or Public Health guidelines. They are congregating, sharing sleep areas, tents and needles. Local [homeless] are actually welcoming new arrivals, coaching them on our watch habits and directing them to our parks and vacated buildings. On Monday I spoke to a local homeless man and appealed to him to self-isolate, to seek assistance from his family and to take the Covid-19 crisis seriously. His response, ‘FU – If I die, I die.'”

It is well past time for city and county leaders to treat the homeless crisis with the urgency it requires during the coronavirus pandemic. The anemic response to date, the slow-motion rollout, is no longer acceptable. The challenge is compounded by years of poor planning, waste, and fraud.

Angelenos are doing their part. It’s time for the political class to do theirs.

UPDATED: Spate of crime at new Venice Beach “A Bridge Home” homeless shelter has neighbors on edge

“I feel like a prisoner in my own home”

VENICE BEACH, Ca (March 4, 2020) The scene outside the Venice Beach “A Bridge Home” shelter. The men in custody are accused of smashing car windows and threatening a woman. Note the graffiti on the gate. Screen shot from Citizen app.

They said it wouldn’t be like this. Officials including Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Mike Bonin promised that the “A Bridge Home” initiative, which provides temporary housing and services to the chronically homeless, would bring vulnerable people indoors while providing relief to communities from the street crime, drug use, and public endangerment that often accompany illegal encampments. They’re betting hundreds of millions of the public’s money on it.

In one Venice Beach neighborhood, unfortunately, A Bridge Home shelter has had the opposite effect.

In the week since officials celebrated the opening of a new Bridge facility at the old Metro bus maintenance facility on Main Street in the heart of a residential neighborhood three blocks from the Venice boardwalk, people have reported and documented dozens of crimes and public disturbances. The incidents occur at all hours of the day and night and include assault, sexual assault, fights, vandalism, graffiti, illegal camping, public defecation, drug use, and disturbances of the peace. On social media and via email residents have shared frightening experiences, videos, and pictures. A tense email thread between some 60 neighbors and Councilman Mike Bonin’s Venice Bridge Home Deputy, Allison Wilhite, began the day the facility opened.

Single women and mothers are among the most vocal residents. They’ve expressed fear for their personal safety and even their lives, and collectively their experiences reveal a worrying degree of lawlessness.

On March 3 at 8:20pm, resident Soledad Ursura wrote to Ms. Wilhite, “I was just on a nightly walk with my dog which I do at the same hour every night. There were three male youths coming from Bridge Housing walking towards me and they asked if they could get a cigarette off me. I said no, and as they passed me they started telling me things they wished they could do to me and that I was a bitch for not talking to them, and to keep my head down and keep pretending to talk to my dog. Something similar happened last night as well.” As a legal matter this amounts to a sexual assault.

On the morning of March 4 another neighbor wrote, “I’m a single woman 2 blocks away. It’s now unsafe for me to step out of my house without my dog and mace. And I’ve been here for 20 years and never experienced this before.” Within minutes yet another echoed her experience, “I too am a single woman living across the street and I don’t feel safe. I have already been followed twice. I can’t enjoy my life in Venice anymore.”

An hour later yet another woman wrote, “I am starting to feel like a prisoner in my own home while these vagrants harass and assault people, shoot up on our door steps, vandalize our homes, start fires and invade our properties! I have had several incidents when I am afraid to leave my home, another incident with someone very high and mentally unstable on my driveway when I came home from grocery shopping that I was afraid to get out of my car and unload my groceries into my OWN HOME. I fear for my life. I have had vagrants ring my door bell at 2:45 am and 12:15 a.m.”

There have been multiple instances virtually every day since the facility opened. For example, in a span of three hours on Wednesday, March 4:

  • At around 4pm Venice resident Vicki Halliday called police to report that a man had threatened to kill her. The incident took place across the street from the Bridge facility’s entrance. After confronting Ms. Halliday he went on a spree and smashed the windows, hoods, and roofs of at least half a dozen cars – with his body. LAPD arrested the man, whom The All Aspect Report confirmed is a resident of the Bridge facility.
  • An hour later another woman reported that her 14-pound dog was attacked by a resident’s much larger dog as they walked past the shelter entrance. Fortunately, her dog was uninjured.
  • An hour after that, yet another woman reported a man defecating in her front yard.

These incidents occurred over just three hours on a single day. According to interviews with dozens of residents, it’s a typical afternoon in this neighborhood since the shelter opened.

There have been incidents inside the shelter as well. On Monday a resident posted a picture and message on the Facebook group Venice United: “Around 10:30 on Monday, March 2, at least five LAPD patrol cars were spotted responding to an apparent fight inside the shelter. Later that same night a man filmed several apparently intoxicated individuals walking down his street having a screaming fight.”

The community’s experience in the first week has been a far cry from official promises. On Councilman Bonin’s Bridge Home Venice webpage is the promise, “RESIDENTS WILL BE GOOD NEIGHBORS – Each temporary housing facility built as part of the Bridge Home initiative will be required to abide by rules that protect neighbors from any nuisance. There will be on-site management and on-site security, and opportunities for neighbors to discuss other operational rules before the facility is opened.”

Likewise, at a February 25 ceremony celebrating the shelter’s opening, Mayor Eric Garcetti declared, “Today’s opening is a reminder that people across Los Angeles are saying `yes’ to delivering the housing, healing and hope our unhoused neighbors need and deserve.”

It’s a safe bet that few people in Venice believed they were saying yes to this kind of “housing, healing and hope.” Other documented disturbances in the facility’s first week have included individuals passed out on sidewalks, in driveways, carports, and front yards. Individuals have been reported pounding on front doors and ringing doorbells in the middle of the night. On the shelter’s opening night a resident filmed traffic including a Metro bus stopped in front of the shelter as a group of individuals fought in the street.

Officials promise help is on the way, but concerns remain

City officials including Ms. Wilhite assure neighbors matters will improve once the LAPD sets up a Special Enforcement and Cleaning Zone (SECZ) in the area. SECZs include dedicated LAPD foot patrols, four days a week of bulky item pick-up, a weekly dedicated cleaning, and additional outreach by personnel from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).

However, the city will not establish the zone until March 9, nearly two weeks after the bridge shelter opened. In response to queries from residents Ms. Wilhite sent a statement to neighbors and members of the media:

The decision to wait until March 9 was made after having conversations with the Unified Homeless Response Center (aka UHRC, the Mayor’s Office team that coordinates the enhanced services), LAHSA, LAPD Pacific Division, and other Council District Offices that have opened an A Bridge Home. Each have different perspectives on the best timing, and all for good reasons.

The experience in other Council Districts has been that starting the SECZ the same day as intake can cause a lot of movement and frustration among unhoused people and make it harder for our outreach teams to bring people to site for their intake appointment. We know residents have waited a long time for these enhanced services to start, and we want to honor that as soon as possible, while also ensuring we can effectively and efficiently open the site to our unhoused neighbors. There are requests from the community that we delay it longer, even upwards of 90 days, but we are hopeful these two weeks will let our outreach teams and on site service providers do their work to open the site successfully.

In the meantime she told neighbors to call 911 for emergencies, 1-800-ASK-LAPD and the local LAPD Senior Lead Officers for non-emergencies, and the city’s 311 neighborhood services line for issues like graffiti removal.

UPDATE 3/7: The All Aspect Report reached out to Ms. Wilhite via email on Thursday afternoon to ask about services, security, and rules at the Venice Bridge housing facility. She forwarded those questions to representatives at PATH, SPY, and LAHSA. As of the end of the day on Friday none had responded.

There are reasons to question whether the new services, when the do start, will have an impact. Thanks to laws like Prop 47 and initiatives like restorative justice many of the crimes neighbors are enduring in Venice Beach are no longer priorities for police, much less prosecutors. What can police do when politicians tie their hands? Across the City of Los Angeles it has become depressingly familiar to see homeless people and vagrants engage in lawless behavior in plain full of law enforcement, with no consequences. Those who are arrest all too often are back on the streets in a matter of days, often hours. How can neighbors trust officials who have already broken so many promises when they say this time will be different?

Indeed, Ms. Halliday told The All Aspect Report crimes already are being ignored. She wrote in an email, “All weekend, shelter residents hung out and smoked weed or did their meth doses. A dealer is conveniently located in an RV on Main Street across from the Google building.” However, she added, “LAPD has had a problem dealing with the dealer for some reason even though many of them have witnessed the exchanges.” She said she has personally witnessed transactions.

VENICE BEACH, Ca (March 1, 2020) Dozens of RVs, campers, vans, and cars occupied by homeless people, including drug dealers, line Main Street near the new bridge shelter.

It has taken less than a week for three years’ worth of promises to be broken, with devastating consequences for countless neighbors. Meanwhile, officials are forging ahead with dozens more Bridge facilities throughout the City of Los Angeles.

It’s almost as if they have priorities besides helping the homeless.

UPDATE 3/17: Disruptions continued outside the bridge facility a week after the SECZ allegedly began: Video shows several young men fighting at the entrance to the bridge facility, several of whom subsequently approached and accosted a journalist covering the incident.

VENICE BEACH (March 17, 2020) Men in front of the A Bridge Home facility in Venice Beach. Three of them accosted and threatened a journalist. Screen shot from a video by Christopher LeGras

Out of control spending and lack of oversight impedes progress in L.A.’s homeless crisis

The official rendering of the planned bridge housing site in Venice Beach.

How much does a bed cost? In Los Angeles, it’s more than $50,000. Despite a a lawsuit brought by residents of Venice Beach, the city has started construction of a so-called “bridge housing” facility located at a former Metro bus yard at 100 Sunset Avenue. The facility, which when finished will provide beds and some services to 100 adults and 54 children, costs $8,000,000, which works out to $51,948 per person. That’s in addition to the annual cost of maintaining and operating the facility.

The per bed cost is consistent in bridge facilities citywide. The Schraeder shelter in Hollywood cost $3.3 million to construct and has 72 beds, or $45,833 per bed. The first bridge housing facility to open, in downtown L.A.’s historic El Pueblo district, contains 45 beds and cost $2.4 million, which works out to $53,333 per bed. And a recently-opened bridge housing facility for 100 homeless veterans on the West Side cost $5 million, or $50,000 per bed. What’s more, that facility is temporary and consists of two “tension membrane structures” as well as modular trailers. Translation: Los Angeles spent $5 million on two tents and some campers.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) recently released the results of the 2019 homeless count. To the surprise of no one besides Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city council (who were shocked, shocked!) the number of homeless people in the city increased over last year, by 16%. Officially that means there are nearly 36,300 homeless in the city, though the actual number is much higher. If studies from organizations like the Economic Roundtable are accurate, the number of people experiencing homelessness – and therefore needing a bed – over the course of a year in Los Angeles is closer to 100,000 (even that number may be low; according to a 2014 report from the American Institutes for Research, that year as many as 130,000 children may have experienced homelessness in L.A.).

Even accepting the official number, existing bridge housing projects reveal how utterly unserious L.A.’s political class is about solving the homeless crisis. Assume the average cost per bed is $50,000. To provide $50,000 beds for 36,300 people would cost more than $1.8 billion. And if the Economic Roundtable is correct it would cost $5 billion to provide beds to everyone who will experience homelessness for any amount of time in L.A.

This is what $100,000 buys in Eric Garcetti’s Los Angeles.

Bridge housing by definition provides temporary shelter for people awaiting permanent supportive housing, meaning that $1.8 (or $5) billion would fund only an interim solution. Which is bad enough. But where you really see the rub is in the city’s approach to permanent housing for the homeless. Contrary to politicians’ promises during the campaigns for Measure H and HHH, the city currently is spending between $400,000 and $500,000 per unit of permanent supportive housing. To provide housing to 36,300 people at an average of $450,000 per unit would cost $16.5 billion. A more recent analysis suggested that the per unit cost of permanent supportive housing may top $900,000, for a total of $36.7 billion.

Of course, that all assumes the city ever builds any units. As of this writing, officials have completed none at all.

What’s more, construction costs are only the beginning of the tally. While annual operating costs are difficult to come by – perhaps by design – the L.A. Daily News reported in 2016 that permanent supportive housing costs $22,000 per resident annually, meaning that annual costs to support 36,300 people would be $800 million. Once again that number may be on the low side: Last month L.A. Downtown News reported that the cost of LAPD patrols at the El Pueblo facility run to $96,171 per month, or more than $1.15 million annually, in addition to annual operating costs of $1.3 million. And that’s just one, small facility with 43 temporary beds. That works out to $56,976 per bed per year. Annual operating costs at the Schraeder shelter are $4.7 million, or $65,277 per bed. For perspective, that’s nearly two and a half times the average annual rent in the City of Los Angeles. It works out to $5,440 per month. That’s how much it costs to rent a 1,500 square foot, two bedroom new construction apartment four blocks from the beach in Venice.

In L.A., $5,400 a month pays for this….
…or this.

These aren’t real numbers. Only in the bureaucracy-addled imaginations of politicians do they even begin to make sense. To be sure, bridge facilities offer general services for the homeless, not just to the people staying there. Nevertheless, the construction and operating costs are eye-watering. Yet no one seems to be asking where the money is going to come from.

Not every one of the city’s homeless people will need permanent supportive housing. But given that the city’s official count is a massive underestimate it’s reasonable to use 36,300 as a working number. If the real number is closer to 100,000 it’s fair to assume that a third will need some form of permanent support in perpetuity. Indeed, according to the Economic Roundtable’s report, of the 100,000 people estimated to experience homelessness in L.A. in a given year, a third will remain homeless for a year or more, meaning they likely will need a permanent solution.

Like so much of life in Eric Garcetti’s Los Angeles, the more the city spends on homelessness the worse the problem gets. Two and a half years after voters did their part by overwhelmingly approving Measure HHH, not a single unit of supportive housing has opened. The first are expected in December, which will be more than three years since the vote.

Then again, perhaps we should have read Measure HHH more carefully: It promises to deliver 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing over the next ten years, for $1.8 billion. A thousand units a year won’t even staunch the bleeding. 10,000 units is enough housing for less than a third of the city’s current chronic and hardcore homeless population (the real number, not the city’s fanciful official one) over a decade. Apparently we’ll get to the other two thirds at some later date.

The numbers aren’t real. The money isn’t real. The time frame is utterly unrealistic. Officials routinely shoot down any alternatives as “impracticable.” And all the while tens of thousands of people languish in post-apocalyptic conditions, with more joining them every single day. This is life in the wealthiest city in wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history.

Trying to spin failure, Mike Bonin sends out bizarre fundraising email

Less thank a week after a homeless man died on the streets of his district, Mr. Bonin has settled on a strategy of doublespeak, obfuscation, and attack

MAR VISTA – There’s an old saying that the definition of chutzpah is the man who murders his parents then asks the court for sympathy because he’s an orphan. Today, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin displayed his own version of chutzpah with a fundraising email in which he once again lashes out at his own constituents and other Angelenos for having the temerity to point out the failings of his stewardship.

Last week a video that captured him turning his back on a mentally ill homeless man who was starting a fire went viral. It exposed not just the reality of the ongoing homeless crisis in Los Angeles, but also the reality of the city’s elected officials and their response. It captured in 90 seconds what Angelenos have suspected for two years, that the people we elected to handle the crisis are out of their depth, lost, and increasingly inconsequential to the spiraling catastrophe they themselves created. The homeless man was arrested two days later for brandishing a large hunting knife and threatening passersby (LAPD case no. 191422115).

Mr. Bonin already responded to the negative publicity last week by attacking his own constituents. Through a spokesman (Mr. Bonin himself has yet to speak publicly on the issue) he told local blog Yo!Venice, “It is shameful that opponents of bridge housing in Venice have manipulated the incident and turned into a right-wing smear attack, aided by talk radio shock jocks and internet trolls.” On his personal Facebook page, Mr. Bonin redoubled his attacks, dismissing the concerned citizens who captured the videos as, “People who have filmed, photographed, mocked and sometimes taunted people living on the streets,” and called them trolls.

High political discourse, Mike Bonin-style.

This is the same elected official who previously argued, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.”

This morning’s email continues Mr. Bonin’s desperate efforts spin his way out of the inescapable facts captured in the videos, and the undeniable realities on the streets of his district. Using his own failures to try and raise money with a self-pitying email is Mr. Bonin’s ultimate act of chutzpah. He pleads for donations to help him fight reality – or rather, what he calls “an unprecedented onslaught of bizarre and baseless attacks.” Apparently three different videos capturing the same shameful scene, an elected official abandoning one of the most vulnerable members of society while that person endangers himself and his community, constitutes a “bizarre and baseless attack.”

Is it “bizarre and baseless” to assert that Councilman Bonin has all but lost control of the myriad problems and crises in his district, and that everyone is suffering every day as a result?

This week in CD11

The reality is that the carnage continued unabated in the week since the videos hit social media. There was crime, chaos, and death on the streets of Councilman Bonin’s West Los Angeles district, particularly in Venice Beach and Mar Vista. Mr. Bonin, too busy attacking average Angelenos and using his own failures to raise campaign money, has remained thus far remained silent on the issues that are threatening to destroy his councilship.

Last Friday night, three days after Mr. Bonin’s encounter on Culver Boulevard, a homeless individual died at a small encampment that has formed next to the Mar Vista Post Office on Venice Boulevard. According to people living in the camp Nicolas Newberry overdosed on heroin. There was dispute among camp inhabitants as to whether it was accidental or intentional, and the death remains under investigation with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.

Homeless people living in Mar Vista scrolled messages on the Post Office wall near where the body of Nicolas Newberry was discovered Friday night

In conversations with a number of those residents, however, there was no dispute that Councilman Bonin has been MIA as the crisis spirals. Newberry’s body was discovered nearly a week ago and yet there’s been nary a word from the councilman’s office. One would think that a tragic, avoidable death would elicit a response, that Mr. Bonin would acknowledge Newberry’s passing.

The camp’s inhabitants described Newberry as a generous, gregarious individual. They said he had begun transitioning from male to female. They described him as an inveterate jokester, and said that he had recently starting asking people to refer to him as “Tits.” Newberry’s death – which was not reported on the Citizen app – is another tragic example of the continuing downward spiral in Los Angeles’s Council District 11.

Mr. Bonin’s silence helps explain why several people at the encampment, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the city, blamed Mr. Bonin for allowing the camp and dozens more like it to fester. “He’s lost control,” said one last night. The fact is that the very people Mr. Bonin constantly claims to be championing have come to view him as a central part of the problem (check back with the all aspect report for in-depth interviews with camp inhabitants about the changing dynamics of homelessness in L.A. as officials continue to lose control).

There was a reported violent assault at the camp less than 15 minutes after we left.

There were other violent incidents in Mar Vista and Venice last week. On Saturday, a man was stabbed on the Venice Boardwalk near Windward Avenue (LAPD case no. 191422302). According to crimemapping.com, there were fourteen car break-ins, six assaults (including four with a deadly weapon), six burglaries, five thefts, four stolen vehicles, and three robberies. And these are just the crimes that made it into the official system; the true number likely is substantially higher.

In response to the video and subsequent media coverage Mr. Bonin has lashed out at his constituents. Through a spokesman, he told local blog Yo!Venice, “It is shameful that opponents of bridge housing in Venice have manipulated the incident and turned into a right-wing smear attack, aided by talk radio shock jocks and internet trolls.” On his personal Facebook page, Mr. Bonin doubled down on his attacks, dismissing the concerned citizens who captured the videos as, “People who have filmed, photographed, mocked and sometimes taunted people living on the streets,” and dismissed them again as trolls.

This is the same elected official who previously argued, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.”

There were other violent incidents in Mar Vista and Venice in the week after he tried downplaying the incident. On Saturday, a man was stabbed on the Venice Boardwalk near Windward Avenue (LAPD case no. 191422302). According to crimemapping.com, there were also:

  • 15 car break-ins
  • 6 assaults (including 4 with a deadly weapon)
  • 6 burglaries
  • 5 thefts
  • 4 stolen vehicles
  • 3 robberies.

These are the data from a single week in a small part of Mike Bonin’s district. And these are just the crimes that made it into the official system; the true number likely is substantially higher.

In light of this data, and people’s experiences on the streets of CD11, is it “bizarre and baseless” to suggest that Mike Bonin is out of his depth?