“I feel like a prisoner in my own home”
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.
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.