Monday, October 26, 2020
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Angela McGregor

On February 22, 2020, Safe Place for Youth’s (SPY) Executive Director, Allison Hurst, lead a group of interested neighbors on a tour of the soon-to-open Bridge Housing facility at the corner of Sunset and Main.  As the group made its way through the trailers at the former MTA bus yard, which in just a week would be housing 54 of SPY’s 18-25 year old, formerly homeless clients, Hurst happily fielded questions.

 

This was SPY’s first foray into this type of temporary shelter; the organization did not even file for 501(c)(3) — tax-exempt, non-profit status — until May, 2019.   When asked about security and rules for residents at the facility, Hurst noted that SPY would be taking their cues from People Assisting The Homeless (PATH), who would be co-managing the facility with them, and “have done this many times”.

 

Opening day was just a week away, but Hurst was open about the work yet to be done:  SPY was still in the process of hiring an  “education and employment specialist” and case managers for the residents.  As for weapons and drugs, residents would not be searched, but would be trusted to make use of an “amnesty box” where they could voluntarily relinquish these items.  “As soon as a young person has a place to safely sleep at night, a lot of the other behaviors fall away,” she stated. “They can focus on education and jobs and, of course, transitioning into housing. ” Bridge Housing was meant to be three to six months, but we know that sometimes it’s gonna take a little bit longer because there’s a housing shortage and we’re working hard to have the permanent housing ready and waiting for the folks that come in here.  We’ll be working with our partners at SHARE!; Brian’s over there,”  she gestured toward Brian Ulf, President and Board Chairman of the collaborative housing organization, who was on the tour, “They’ll be coming onsite and working with the case managers, and we’ll be looking at all the resources that are available.”

‘Pacific Sunset’ broken promises

The Facility — named “Pacific Sunset” and surrounded on three sides by residences —  had been a difficult sell. Opposition from local organizations such as the Venice Stakeholders Association, Venice United and Fight Back Venice had been well-organized and fierce.

 

Opponents claimed the facility, which cost $8 million to build and $5.6 million to operate for three years, would ultimately result in more encampments crowding the sidewalks of Venice, as well as an increase in crime.

 

At community outreach meetings in September of 2019, SPY and PATH staffers as well as representatives from Councilman Bonin’s office had assured residents that the City would provide increased security in the form of LAPD Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement (HOPE) officers during daytime hours and specially trained law enforcement officers in the area — and enhanced sanitation within a four block radius of the facility known as the Security Enforcement Zone, or SECZ.

 

In addition, there would be at least 30 staff members on site to provide new arrivals with guidance and instruction, and security at the facility would be very tight, with absolutely no access or services for non-residents.

 

On Tuesday, February 25th, the facility opened its doors, eventually housing 154 residents.  According to statistics provided to the VNC Board by CD-11 Venice Field Deputy Nisa Kove, after six months in operation Pacific Sunset has transitioned only 7 residents into permanent housing.  50 of the original occupants either chose to leave or were evicted for behavioral or criminal issues, and 70 original residents were still waiting on placement into housing six months after opening day.   Recent reporting at LAist indicates that, of three Bridge Home sites operated by PATH, only about 24% of all program exits have been due to a transition into permanent housing, with the remaining 76% due to voluntary discharge or eviction.

 

According to Brian Ulf, as of mid August, SHARE! is still in the process of negotiating to become one of the organizations providing housing alternatives to the facility, despite the fact that Councilman Mike Bonin’s Opening Day Announcement states that, by late February, SHARE! had “already agreed to offer services” at Pacific Sunset.  Ulf says SHARE! and staff from Councilmember Bonin’s office had met with City officials and submitted a detailed budget (including letters of support from both PATH & SPY) and planed to house a minimum of 154 people per year from Pacific Sunset.  But despite public praise, so far Councilman Bonin’s actual, monetary support for SHARE! has amounted to just a $50,000 grant made in 2016 for a pilot program in which SHARE! was asked by Bonin to house 15 homeless Venetians (they ultimately housed 34 people within 3 months).

 

In a late 2019 motion entitled “Self-Help And Recovery Exchange (SHARE!) / Shared Housing Pilot Program / Council Invitation” Bonin proposed to re-direct existing funds to rapid re-rehousing projects such as SHARE!. The motion was passed in mid-October and so far, according to Ulf, no additional funding has gone to any shared housing program, including the one for which the motion was named.

 

Uptick in crime

Vicki Halliday, a VNC Board member and member of the VNC’s Homeless Committee, lives within a block of Pacific Sunset.  While she was walking by the facility less than a week after opening day, a resident and SPY client ran out of the facility and threatened to kill her, then threatened to sexually assault another woman walking past.  He then proceeded to smash the windows, hoods, and roofs of at least half a dozen cars on Main Street with his body.  When LAPD arrived, he ran back into the facility, where he was ultimately arrested.  A couple of days later, due to Covid, he was released and promptly re-entered Bridge Housing where he stayed for an entire day until LAPD had an angry confrontation with SPY staff and took him back into custody.  Ultimately, he received 180 days in jail for felony vandalism and criminal threats.

 

Since then, she’s also gotten to know a few of the other residents of Pacific Sunset, who congregate on her block during the day.  She described them as “scared and pissed off” — scared because their deadline to transition out of the facility — which has been extended to the end of the year — is fast approaching with no discussions of possible housing alternatives, and angry because they’d been given none of the counseling or job training they were promised.

 

“Since it opened, we live in a sea of crime, constant alarms going off, it’s insanity,” she said.  During one week in late August, there were five calls to the LAPD from her once bucolic block, for knife threats, for breaking and entering, and for a man who took a sledgehammer to every gate on her walk street.

 

The promised SECZ has never been enforced despite the fact that the City Council voted 10-4 to reinstate cleanups around Bridge Home facilities in late July (Councilman Bonin was among the votes against the motion).  In six months within what would have been the SECZ, there have been 41 violent crimes, 94 property crimes and 95 Part II crimes (defined as “less serious” crimes that includes simple assault and drug use).  During that period there have also been 114 calls for service from both LAPD and LAFD to the Bridge Home itself, including 8 calls due to violent crimes within the facility.

 

In June, at a meeting of the VNC’s Homeless Committee, Nisa Kove announced that Allison Wilhite, who had served for less than a year as Field Deputy to CD11 for Bridge Housing, serving as a vial conduit between the community and the facility, had “moved on” (she has since been replaced by former VNC Board member, Dexter O’Connor).  In mid-August, the city’s head of the Mayor’s Office of City Homelessness Initiatives, Deputy Mayor Christina Miller, also resigned.  She had been guiding the implementation of the Bridge Home program since December, 2018.

 

Kove also stated that she had just had a meeting with the Mayor’s office regarding neighborhood concerns about drug use in and around the facility, crime, and people coming in and out, and said the City was “taking this very seriously”.  She acknowledged that Bridge Home residents weren’t getting the services they’d been promised, and blamed this on Covid-19 concerns about social distancing which prevented face to face contact with counselors.

 

Since then, conditions around Pacific Sunset have not improved.  In  the first 18 days of August there have been 2 violent crimes within the facility, out of 9 total calls for service there from both the LAFD and LAPD.  Nevertheless, the City is suspending the promised additional LAPD patrols, due to what Senior Lead Officer Acosta described to the VNC at their August meeting as “budget cutbacks”.  At their August meeting, the VNC Board voted to approve a resolution of no confidence in LA Metro, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Councilmember Mike Bonin, and service providers PATH and SPY, holding them accountable for the lack of adequate management of Pacific Sunset.  The vote was divided, with 9 in favor, 6 opposed and three abstentions.

 

SHARE’s Brian Ulf said that he feels one answer to the problems posed by the Facility would be for the community to come together and create a “Community Benefits Agreement” with reasonable, enforceable requests and an oversight committee comprised of 12 people chosen from Venice’s community organizations, with monthly meetings & reports.

 

At their September 15th meeting, the VNC Board voted to approve a motion that would allow the creation of a new, ad-hoc Committee to oversee Pacific Sunset which would be comprised mainly of stakeholders living within 500 feet of the facility.  The motion demanded “real and reliable accountability be offered to all that includes crime statistics, duration of stay of program individuals and the percentage of those individuals who…matriculate to permanent housing”.  It will be taken up at the VNC’s AdComm meeting in October.

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