Civil Rights

TO STORE and/or TO DISCARD: That is the Question for Venice

By Laura Shepard Townsend

On December 11th, 2013, L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin stated in a letter to the Venice Neighborhood Council that he is authorizing a voluntary storage program for those participating in the emergency winter shelter program

I would say it is about time since up to now all unattended belongings have been routinely confiscated and discarded by L.A. This includes bed rolls and all personal effects. As an example of this, one morning on the beach below Rose Avenue, I watched as a small, beautiful shrine was dismantled and thrown in the back of an L.A. Parks and Beaches pick-up truck.

The shrine had been carefully constructed by a houseless man as a private, sacred island of beauty for his simple bedroll where he slept at night. It was made up of artfully arranged objects. There were candles and books; neatly bound sheets of his poetry; driftwood festooned with colored cloth and beads, and bright bits of beach glass placed into mosaics on the sand.

I found out later that the man had left to play his saxophone on the boardwalk to earn his daily keep. That’s when the L.A. County beach cleaning division struck, driving up in a blue pick-up. Men made quick work of throwing everything into black plastic bags. They seemed to be in a hurry, probably, I thought, because they had many shrines to dispose of that day. I asked the one who seemed to be in charge what he thought he was doing; couldn’t he see what all this had meant to someone?

Somewhat sorrowfully he told me that there was a law that all personal effects that were found “abandoned” after 6 AM each day were to be collected and discarded. His supervisor patrolled the beach to ensure everything was cleared.

I found out where the main trash yard was for the Venice Beach cleanup and climbed up the side to take a look. There was the usual beach trash: beer bottles, Styrofoam, rotting seaweed etc., but there were also books; bedrolls and clothing; shoes and hats and photographs in frames; all the small possessions of people trying to make a hard life bearable. Anyone seeing this would know something was very wrong. And three years ago, the houseless were given a very “Merry Christmas”! As they lined up for their Christmas meal, the City of Los Angeles swooped in and carted away everything they owned.

As a result of these continual and flagrant violations of the civil rights of the houseless, the City of Los Angeles was sued in Lavan vs. the City of Los Angeles. When the City of Los Angeles lost, they appealed, but a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the court order. They ruled that the personal possessions the houseless left for a short time on city sidewalks may be taken only if the possessions pose an immediate threat to public safety or health or constitute criminal evidence. And this applies not just to L.A., but to all U.S. cities.

Now because of this law suit, bureaucratic wheels are lurching into motion.  In his letter to the VNC, Councilmember Bonin stated that he has had to make “tough decisions” to try and balance the needs of the houseless with the needs of his citizenry.  So as I already stated, he is authorizing the voluntary storage program for those participating in the emergency winter shelter program.  But he is also “instructing the City crews to conduct regular and comprehensive clean-ups of materials on our streets and sidewalks”.

Ok, let’s address the first point. The Westside Winter Shelter Program, contracted by the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Houseless Services Authority (LAHSA), will provide temporary shelter at night for the houseless. Operating December 1, 2013 to March 1, 2014, shuttles will pick up at 6 p.m. bound for the National Guard Armory at the VA, returning at 6 a.m. the next morning.  There is obviously a need – 129 people were housed for the first three nights.  But here is the rub: in order for people to be sheltered, they are not allowed to take more than they can carry onto the shuttle.  This is where the storage bins come in.

As Councilperson Bonin stated in his letter, the check-in program must be voluntary, “to protect the city legally, and that we need to demonstrate to the courts that we are giving people a chance to store their belongings before we tell them that we may remove them”.  He asked the Department of Recreation and Parks to allow VCHC, the Venice Community Housing Corporation, to use an existing container next to the paddle tennis courts, but he added that he would gladly entertain an alternative location – “if the Venice Neighborhood Council, after public process, recommends one”.

Thus, a major portion of the December 17th meeting of the VNC was for the discussion and vote on alternative locations. Representing CD 11 was Cecilia Castillo, Field Deputy and Debbie Dyner Harris, District Director.

The criteria for suggestions of locations for storage were the following:

• The location must be large enough to accommodate an 8X20 ft. shipping container and room for individuals to queue up to use the facility.

• The location should be large and convenient enough to accommodate pick-up and drop off of individuals being bused to the Emergency Winter Shelter in WLA.

• The location should be near Venice Beach where many of the houseless congregate.

• The location should be a city facility or one where any rental charges will be minimal since no funds for renting a facility have been identified.

The suggestions already on the table were:

1. Paddle Tennis Court storage bin.

2. City parking lot between North and South Venice Blvd. next to Pacific near the lot’s canal bridge.

3. Metro Bus Yard at Main between Sunset and Thornton Place.

When the Attendees at the VNC Meeting were asked for other suggestions, here was what was proposed and added:

4. St. Joseph’s Center

5.Venice Community Housing Corp.

6. First Baptist Church

7. Westminster Senior Center

8. Centennial Park

After a short discussion of the positives for each location, the audience was polled. Out of 42 votes, 21 people voted for the First Baptist Church since Bishop Allen is very willing to place the container in the church parking lot, and currently provides four meals per week, as well as other services to the houseless.

The second winning location was the currently unoccupied Westminster Senior Center, with 13 votes (out of 42 votes cast). Among the supporters for the Senior Center as a location was Steve Clare, Executive Director for VCHC, who enumerated the many pluses: storage could be housed inside (with toilet facilities) rather than just a storage bin outside; it is owned and operated by L.A; the center is not too close to residents. Steve Clare also felt that it could be easily administered and perhaps transitioned to a permanent staff with volunteers to offer more services to those in need in the community. (The Venice Community Housing Corporation and a team of dedicated volunteers has already agreed to operate the voluntary program for the duration of the winter shelter program.)

The VNC took a vote: 8 representatives voted for the Senior Center; 3 for the First Baptist Church.  These recommendations will go in to Councilmember Bonin’s office for consideration.

But remember Councilmember Bonin’s letter contained his other directive — the clean-up — to keep the streets and sidewalks of Venice blight free while attempting to protect the City of Los Angeles legally.

These clean-ups will not only be conducted in regular sweeps, but will also occur if there is a complaint about rubbish. Then an investigation will ensue with the instigation of ‘procedures’ called the ‘Warn, Bag, Tag and Store’ Program, already begun (supposedly successfully) in Downtown LA.

After their investigation of the ‘blight’, city crews can and will remove materials after giving a posted 72-hour warning. As a note, since Lavan vs. the City of L.A. put no time limits on when the possessions of the houseless could be removed, it seems that the City of Los Angeles is back on track for another lawsuit.

The 72-hour posted warnings are to be placed close to the items deemed rubbish. If the property is not removed , city workers, specially trained for the ‘Warn, Bag, Tag and Store’ program, will first take photographs before bagging and tagging the items. Another notice will be left in its place so that if the owner returns, he/she can call the number on the notice. The City of LA will store the items downtown for 90 days before disposal. If the owner requests the objects be returned, the City will then supposedly deliver and return the items.

Of course, one question is how would a houseless person ‘call’ the city number listed on the warning.  With the non-existence of public phones (or if they do exist, they don’t work) how does a houseless person call a long distance (213 area code) number? District Director Debbie Dyner Harris suggested the houseless person might call 311, the main number for the city which would not be long distance. Hopefully, the notice left as a warning will include ‘call 311’ as a contact number, since I don’t remember ‘311’ unless reminded online.

It is mandatory that the Venetian community monitor the actions of the City of Los Angeles since even the L.A. Times has noted that Los Angeles has historically solved the houseless ‘problems’ with the LAPD, rather than with social programs. Steve Clare wrote in City Watch, “the City should expand and extend the winter shelter program year round, and immediately provide safe and legal places for houseless people to sleep and park vehicles they sleep in overnight – with sanitary facilities close by.”

Ah, but does this not approach sanity based on compassion? And is Los Angeles going to be serious about addressing these ‘problems’ conscientiously?

Categories: Civil Rights, Homeless/RVs