by Pat Raphael

When cooking up a bum stew, you quickly learn there has to be at least three rocks around your fire — saves your teetering meal from ending up all over the ground right before it’s done. The experience to learn such lessons grants the Street Person a clarity on fundamental truths that translate and apply in other life conditions. Suddenly it becomes clear that if the Venice community has to come up with policy considerations to affect and diminish the high number of people living on the streets, it is not enough to only make this a conversation between the government agencies with millions to throw at any feasible solution, and the local organizations & non-profits cooking up proposals to receive these grants. There has to be more than just pro-forma input from the street people these decisions will affect. When more stakeholders are in on the decisions, solutions that come out will be balanced and will gain legitimacy with a greater segment of the community.

Governments function best when their great powers (that we the governed grant them) are clearly defined and reflect the consent of the people. The view from the bottom is that a majority of this community seeks positive co-existence with the street people living on the beach. The will of these neighbors is to see the powers of government functioning within that same spirit. When we empower welfare agencies, our police department, and other government functions to enact policy that deals with street people, it is clear that these policies will more practically implement when they are created as a conversation that involves government, NGOs and input from the homeless.

During the past few weeks, I had occasion to be in audience while two significant members of government performed outreach to the constituency in the Venice area. The first of these — the Coastal Commission’s three-day stint in Santa Monica last month — totally ignore the heavy load that the community is bearing as we deal with our overpopulation of street people. At that meeting no discussions dealt with homelessness, and the Commission proposed no solutions. The latter — Councilman Mike Bonin’s big plan on homelessness — was heavy on promises and future considerations, but seemed to do little to intervene in the short-term with any significant impact. The crux of Councilman Bonin’s plan puts a high premium on access to shelters, and storage for personal belongings, but has no answer when it comes to increasing affordable housing. While Bonin’s plan proposes future development to specifically increase low-income housing, these developments are years away, and seem poised to be mired in bureaucratic red tape. Bonin’s meeting to announce his plan (which has the unrealistic goal in its title of “ending homelessness”), seems less like an opportunity for the councilman to get input from the community to formulate a plan, and more like a chance to sound very self-congratulatory that homelessness is being fixed.
In the meantime, as government throws its hundreds of millions of dollars toward solutions, and NGOs open wide their coffers to receive these lucrative grants, caught in the midst of it all (and feeling very much unheard), are the street people that these hundreds of millions are supposed to help. Yes, many of these NGOs provide exceptional service. And in addition, we recognize that social service agencies and NGOs that serve in these very necessary roles must pay the men and women that do these jobs a decent wage. The whole of the community can expect more widespread excellence if the norm of how homeless services get delivered includes true dialogue with the men and women that these services will benefit. Such dialogue would create opportunities for the Street Person, and the first candidates to fill roles within the relevant agencies would naturally be the street people being served. What a two-fold opportunity to deliver services AND raise someone out of poverty.

Additionally, real and sustaining dialogue with street people in formulating policy, means that governance will experience less resistance in implementation. When powers are not responsive, and seem to only be functioning with the force of might, the resistance that mount up every step along the way can be very costly, and will require more and more force to maintain its operation. Imagine the black-hole of cost if the police are our primary interaction with street people? How much less would we have left for significant interventions that could positively affect a Street Person’s life, if more and more of our “homeless” allocation goes to the police budget? This defies logic. Instead of needing scores of cops to pound the street people into compliance, what would make more sense is to find that happy medium where the community serves all of its population.

We end with solutions that my own dialogue with street people have uncovered. First and foremost, never discount the human dignity of your neighbor just because his home is in the outdoors. Whenever possible we do not want just a handout (that includes GR), but an opportunity to earn for ourselves. Street People need places on and off the beach to store personal belongings. Solutions include first-come-first-serve locker banks at every bathroom location, and turning the shuttered senior center on Westminster into free storage. Instead of cluttering our neighbor’s sidewalks with lines of our bodies at night, it is time we are allowed legal, nighttime camping on the beach within a few designated areas. In addition, city lots that are going unused during the overnight can be open to parking for RVs and street people living in vehicles. We are asking, too, for a tad more privacy at the beach showers.

There are many communities in this country that are much farther than Venice in having these kinds of dialogue with their own population of street people. As the heart of our community shines forth in how we solve these problems, we have an opportunity to be a national model of what a balanced, community-centered approach looks like in dealing with street people. I look forward to what Venice comes up with.