By Cynthia Gibson
VENICE — Residents and property owners clashed with homeless rights advocates at a Neighborhood Council meeting Nov. 4 on how best to handle health and sanitation issues in areas surrounding homeless encampments.
A motion by the council’s Homeless Committee, calling for bi-monthly cleaning of all encampments in the neighborhood, escalated into a bitter debate between committee members and homeless rights advocates. Because of the contentious discussion, committee co-chair Frank Murphy adjourned the meeting before a vote was held.
Almost 2,000 unhoused people live in Venice, a 57% increase from last year, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority’s 2020 Homeless Count.
The 670-word motion cited unhealthy and dirty conditions around the encampments, such as human feces, trash piles, food waste and needles as justification for resuming cleanups. It also noted the Los Angeles City Council’s vote July 29 to authorize cleanups around A Bridge Home shelters called for bi-monthly cleanups that would include “the temporary shifting of all possessions, tents, furniture.”
Most of the public comments during the meeting opposed moving people’s possessions. Speakers said that city cleanups of homeless encampments often lead to permanent loss of essential property and put homeless people’s lives in jeopardy.
A caller named Armarita, who identified herself as a medical student and who coordinates a mobile clinic for the homeless in Venice, said that sweeps can result in vital medication for conditions such as high blood pressure, heart failure and diabetes being thrown out, which can then lead to hospitalization and death. Armarita suggested offering more services like options for housing, restrooms and hygiene stations to maintain cleanliness and safety.
Venice Neighborhood Council member Helen Fallon countered that the unsanitary conditions of the encampments were a public health issue for everyone in the community.
“What’s fair about allowing a mentally ill person to decide that they don’t want to live in a clean place?” Fallon said, contending that the cleanups would be a favor to homeless people. “We’re talking maid service here basically.”
Clashes between advocates for the homeless and Venice property owners about how to manage cleanup around encampment areas is part of a larger dilemma that is happening across Los Angeles.
According to the latest homeless count conducted in January, there were around 41,000 homeless individuals in the city of Los Angeles, a 16% increase from the 2019 count. In Council District 11, where Venice is located, there are almost 3,300 homeless people. Venice has the third-highest number of unhoused people of L.A.’s 15 council districts.
Voters approved Measure HHH in 2016, providing the city with $1.2 billion to build supportive housing units over the next decade. While ramping up the construction of permanent housing, Mayor Eric Garcetti launched A Bridge Home plan to build temporary housing facilities on land owned or leased by the city.
According to the A Bridge Home website, there are 30 shelters open or in development across Los Angeles. Venice opened the Pacific Sunset Bridge Home in February at the site of a former bus yard. The 154-bed shelter was the 10th such facility to open in Los Angeles.
Sweeps are typically part of the A Bridge Home program; city sanitation teams would work to clear spaces around the shelters of encampments, saying they were restoring open public spaces. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, city officials stopped encampment sweeps, following guidelines from the Center for Disease Control that said such actions could increase the spread of COVID-19. The City Council also approved a motion in March to suspend the removal of tents during the day.
Since the opening of the Pacific Sunset Bridge Home, there have been complaints about encampments remaining outside of the facility and an alleged related increase in crime and unsanitary conditions. The council’s July 29 vote to resume cleanups in response to community concerns, however, has also been met with resistance. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice, joined Councilmen Marqueece Harris-Dawson, David Ryu and Herb Wesson in voting against resuming encampment cleanups.
In an effort to address constituents’ sanitation concerns, Bonin has instituted weekly comprehensive cleanups conducted by a team from the Bureau of Sanitation. The weekly cleanups are monitored by the homeless advocacy organization Street Watch LA to protect the homeless and their possessions.
Cynthia Gibson is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers Culver City and West Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.