St. Joseph's outreach workers

St. Joseph's outreach workers walk the Boardwalk (Venice Current Staff)

VENICE -Today marks the start of Councilmember Mike Bonin's initiative to offer all people living in encampments along Ocean Front Walk a pathway to permanent housing.

Bonin asked the St. Joseph's Center outreach team to lead the charge. The efforts are supposed to be funded with an additional $5 million that Bonin asked the LA City Council for last week. A vote for the funding was delayed until July 1 for procedural reasons.  

Questions surround the $5 million, like why St. Joseph's needs additional funding when it already receives $30 million a year from the government and is already responsible for outreach on the boardwalk. There are also questions surrounding the most recent encampment to home program that Bonin and St. Joseph's are touting a success even though recent reports show a majority of the people in the program are back camping on the streets, many along Ocean Front Walk.

For Brian Averill, Mike Bonin's request for the $5 million came as no surprise.  In late January, Averill worked with a broad coalition of Venice groups, including his own Venice Boardwalk Action Committee, Friends of the Venice Boardwalk and Team Venice, to pressure local government to do something about the catastrophic conditions on Ocean Front Walk. 

On March 25th, a letter they drafted and sent to a panoply of local politicians (including the entire city council) and the Los Angeles Times garnered a great deal of press coverage.  Reporters from news organizations both local and national descended on the Boardwalk, capturing the increasingly dangerous conditions on film and requesting that Bonin explain why he had allowed things to deteriorate so severely. 

Bonin -- who is up for re-election next year and is currently facing a recall effort -- responded with a series of televised interviews, for the most part insisting that NIMBY resistance -- mainly in the form of lawsuits -- to his proposed solutions were to blame, as well as CDC guidelines during the pandemic.

Behind the scenes, members of the boardwalk coalition met weekly beginning in May with representatives from CD11, the County, LAPD, Los Angeles Rec & Parks and St. Joseph's Center staff to discuss the situation and, in Averill's words, "hold them accountable".  And in these meetings, a variety of CD11 representatives kept referring to their request for $5 million, implying that the situation would be dealt with once the money was in but, as Averill put it, were "very vague" about where the money would be spent.

In June, for three days a week, four hours a day, members of the coalition occupied a tent at the Rose Parking lot, for what they termed "Connect Days", primarily to collect data on the campers at Ocean Front Walk.  Eventually, they partnered with the St. Joseph Center to begin a pre-intake process whereby campers could stop by the table and enter their information in the hopes of eventually entering into shelter.  The group recorded between 170 and 240 tents on the Boardwalk between October, 2020 and June, 2021. 

On June 7th, L.A. County Sheriff Villanueva -- who is also facing re-election next year and has been faced by tough criticism from community members and the press -- arrived at Ocean Front Walk with members of his Homeless Outreach Services Team, citing an emergency brought on by the city's failure to act and the "handcuffing" of the LAPD by local elected officials.  He's said the LASD's plan is to clear the beach by July 4th. 

 In recent videos members of the HOST team can be seen going from tent to tent, offering water and shelter and informing the occupants that the rules against camping in a public park will be once again enforced soon.  To date, no one has been arrested for camping by the LASD.

Brian Ulf, the CEO of SHARE! collaborative housing, was engaging in outreach at the Connect Day tent when he observed a sheriff's deputy in the company of a staffer from the Dept. of Mental Health personally drive a homeless man suffering from severe alcoholism to a facility where he could medically detox. 

The Deputy also promised to pick the man up from the facility the following Monday, to take him to a downtown shelter.  Eventually, with the assistance of the reunification group West Coast Care, the individual has agreed to return to his family home in the Midwest.  Others who have worked the tent with the sheriff's unit described their approach as exhibiting "a can do attitude" utilizing "whatever it takes".  Councilman Bonin, along with homeless advocacy groups, continues to insist that the Sheriff is "criminalizing homelessness" and has called his efforts "a carnival sideshow". 

On June 10th, Bonin presented his $5 million proposal to clean up the boardwalk to the Homelessness and Poverty Committee.   It was during that meeting that Bonin, accompanied by St. Joseph's President and CEO Dr. VaLecia Adams Kellum, laid out the details of what was ultimately entitled the "Encampment to Home Program at Ocean Front Walk and Venice community". 

In his remarks, Bonin cited the "very successful" Project Roomkey project at Penmar as an example of how this new program would work.  He said that in the past several weeks, in what he termed a "pre-encampment to home program", local service providers have cleared the handball and volleyball courts at the south end of Ocean Front Walk, housing about 3 dozen people in the process.

 But they were unable to do the same for encampments at the northern end of the Boardwalk because there were "no resources".  With the $5 million from the City, Bonin said, their plan is to gradually, without any LAPD involvement, "offer housing and find placements for everybody who is living down there, which is about 200 people...We need housing navigators.  We have vouchers for rapid re-housing.  What we lack is many of the interim resources we need while people are waiting for housing -- motel rooms and staff to serve motel rooms. "

 He mentioned that rooms at the former Ramada Inn on Washington Blvd., which was recently purchased for conversion to a Project Homekey site, would be used, and that he had formed a partnership with Supervisor Keuhl to provide mental health services and housing navigators.  He described both the efforts to clear the recreational spaces on OFW and the Penmar encampment as "very successful", because the encampments didn't return to those areas after they'd been cleared.

But recent reporting on the Penmar/Project Roomkey results have indicated that it was beset by problems.  Residents of a Mar Vista neighborhood near a Roomkey motel complained that living near that Rodeway Inn was like "being in a warzone", and that neither Bonin's office nor St. Joseph's Center were willing to respond to neighbor's complaints. 

Within a couple of months, the Project Roomkey/Penmar clients had been evicted, and, according to recent reporting by KCRW, just 14 of the 70 people from the encampment who participated in the program were ultimately transitioned into permanent housing. 

The remainder are back camping on the streets, many along Ocean Front Walk.  Months later, Bonin was still referring to the Penmar/Project Roomkey effort as a "tremendous success", but at a March, 2021 VNC Homelessness Committee Meeting, Dr. Kellum acknowledged that the project was problematic, blaming it on a lack of adequate funding.  [The Venice Current has reached out to the CD11 Office several times for exact figures on how much was spent on that project, but they have not responded].

At the Budget & Finance Meeting, Kellum insisted that this new Encampment to Home Project would be different.  Questioned about why St. Joseph's nearly $30 million in funding -- largely from government sources -- didn't already cover the outreach and housing needed for the Boardwalk, she stated that "Penmar gives an idea of what would be needed to make it a success".  In that case, she maintained that she didn't expect the  "community to balk because of noise and people walking in the streets", which resulted in more funding needed for security, and the need to "take outreach teams out of the field have them work in motels."

 "This budget", she continued,  is a "lesson learned from Penmar", and without such funding, she said St. Joseph's doesn't "have dedicated case managers once we get people into motels.  We need services that keep people in housing.  That's where we found we were sorely lacking". 

When pressed for more specifics on how the money would be spent, Kellum stated that the "bulk of the budget is for housing resources, client-aid funds, food and meals, and motel costs."  The motion passed, but not before it was amended to include a required, detailed assessment of program costs, including a detailed budget, after 45 days.  On July 1st, it will go to the City Council for a vote.

On June 22nd, Bonin's office issued a letter to his constituents, stating that, beginning June 28th and continuing for the next six weeks, "we are launching the next phase of an ambitious and unprecedented program that will humanely address the homelessness crisis at Venice Beach."  The letter, in an obvious jab at the Sheriff's efforts, also stated that the program "will not be led by law enforcement, nor driven by threats of arrest or incarceration." 

Those who do not accept housing will have to leave the area by a certain date, Bonin's office said, but it was not clear how that would be enforced.  The letter merely mentioned follow-up cleanings of previous encampment sites and that subsequently those "spaces will be reactivated with community programming for public enjoyment." The handball, volleyball and basketball courts that were cleared in April in what Bonin termed a "pre-encampment" program are once again being enjoyed by the public, but new encampments have sprung up nearby since the area was cleared.

Two days after Bonin's announcement, Sheriff Villanueva had a press conference in which he called upon the County to declare a state of emergency at Venice Beach.  He stated that roughly 40% of the persons living on Ocean Front Walk with whom his teams have interacted are either "nomads" (persons here from out of town, camping out recreationally, taking advantage of lax enforcement and good weather) or "dual residency" (persons who are spending their nights in a shelter bed and their days on Venice Beach).  Officer Deedrick, the head of the HOST program, announced that the LASD had gotten 8 people off the Boardwalk that week, including a 19 year old autistic man who had been listed as a missing person in the UK since 2019 and would soon be reunited with his family.

Brian Ulf is hoping to continue to offer shared housing options to former Boardwalk campers willing to accept them.  His current contract with the city expires June 30th, and he's waiting to learn the fate of a second Bonin-sponsored motion which would allocate $1 million for shared housing options like his.  He has offered his services as a subcontractor to St. Joseph's for this latest effort, pointing out that what SHARE! offers their clients -- a permanent bed, meals and services -- is considerably less expensive than the $25,000 per person the City is spending on the Venice Encampment to Home Program.  Ulf has also put forth a proposal to CD11 to house up to 2,000 persons at a total cost of $11.5 million, or roughly $5750 per person.

Members of the Boardwalk coalition said they were "cautiously hopeful" about Bonin's latest plan.  As one member put it, "He has a budget.  He has a deadline -- August 1st.  And he's laid out a plan to make it work.  What he doesn't have any more are excuses."