I was recently asked by a New York Times reporter what I would ask Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to do to address Venice’s persistent problems with encampments of homeless people, which place a terrific burden on the quality of life of residents and business owners alike.
Since the Mayor has already raised enough money to ward off a serious challenger in his re-election race and we don’t want his dialing-for-dollars skills to get rusty, I told the reporter I would ask the Mayor to apply his considerable fund-raising talents to properly fund the several struggling social service agencies in Venice that have a proven record of placing people living on our streets in housing or transporting them to safe homes in their hometowns.
We even have an estimate of the costs to guide His Honor. In the course of brief settlement negotiations with the City and County regarding our public nuisance lawsuit, we consulted with several agencies about what they estimated would be needed to counsel, transport and/or house the roughly 741 individuals living on Venice’s sidewalks, alleys, and parks. This is what we learned.
The County has for several years funded St. Joseph Center about $350,000 per year to counsel and house the 40 most vulnerable homeless in Venice and it appears this funding will continue. As one of 40 are placed in housing or leave the area (or die on the street), St. Joseph counselors move to the next person on the list.
Since 2009 St. Joseph has housed approximately 120 individuals through this effort and they report 95 percent have remained in housing. They also housed an additional 50 chronically homeless, severely mentally ill individuals from the streets of Venice since 2012 through their mobile health team in partnership with Venice Family Clinic, funded by the County Department of Mental Health.
One would think the numbers would start going down, but there’s been a year-to-year increase in our homeless count. That’s due to the failure of the City to enforce rules against camping along Venice Beach and the ill-conceived Jones settlement, so while St. Joseph and other agencies move people off the Boardwalk and our parks, the City’s welcome mat invites more here.
Asked the cost of moving, for example, another 100 campers off Venice Beach into housing, Paul Rubenstein of St. Joseph quoted an annual budget of $556,000, or $5,560 per person.
People Helping the Homeless (PATH), headquartered in Hollywood, has been fielding a two person team to reach out to Venice’s campers since October but reports only placing 16 clients into transitional housing and permanently housing just five. They say they focus their efforts on transient “hotspots” identified by Councilman Mike Bonin.
PATH’s executive director Joel Roberts says it would cost $12,000 to $15,000 per person depending on each client’s mental health, level of drug addiction, years on the street, etc. Multiplied by 740, that’s a huge number, almost $10 million. It would fund staff counselors, transport, housing and other services.
Other agencies in Venice suggest that more can be accomplished at less cost. Since March of 2012 The Teen Project, which is located at homeless ground zero on Windward Avenue, has placed 28 young people in housing and has transported 109 to safe homes in their hometowns, a total of 137 kids off the street in three years. This has been accomplished on a shoestring of donations from the public.
The agency says it needs about $225,000 annually to expand its efforts to place in housing or transport back home the 100 to 150 young adults (16 to 24 years of age) remaining in Venice (and those that keep coming to campout on the beach due to lax enforcement). This would fund more counselors, transportation, rehab, food and most importantly, temporary housing while their clients get counseling leading to jobs and/or return to school.
The Project’s costs per person are much lower since these young people are generally in much better health, do not have a long history of drug or alcohol dependence or mental illness, and are just generally more resilient. They also are more likely to want to return to their hometowns and families, so no or little housing is required in those instances.
Another low cost, effective service is the LAPD Homeless Task Force (HTF), comprised of police officers and two chaplains from the Venice Foursquare Church. Since just the first of this year, HTF have placed 72 people into safe harbor. Venice Stakeholders Association provided almost $5,000 for bus fares and meal vouchers for 19 who returned home to families of origin and for the first month housing costs for nine people and for one who entered rehab. The Venice Foursquare chaplains volunteer their time but there is a need for additional “boots on the ground.”
Approximately $144,000 per year in funding would allow the HTF to add five counselors and cover housing, transportation, meal vouchers, hygiene kits and return home fares.
One of the fallacies that some homeless advocates perpetuate is that there are no shelter beds or affordable housing available for transients living in Venice. Their frequent refrain is “You can’t kick them off the Boardwalk or Third Street because there is nowhere for them to go.” This is not supported by the evidence.
St. Joseph’s Rubenstein notes that about a quarter of those living along the beach and on Third Street would be eligible for housing vouchers from the City Housing Authority due to their health vulnerability. This would allow them to afford market rate rents, though probably not in Venice. He says that funding for master leasing of apartments and shared housing inland would allow his agency (and others) to move the rest – those not eligible for vouchers – off the street and into housing. So the problem is not a lack of housing, it is a lack of funding.
The Teen Project, like the Ocean Park Community Center in Santa Monica, also rents apartments (or whole apartment buildings; i.e., master leasing) inland in less expensive areas and offers them to their clients, which makes it possible to get them off the street immediately if they are willing. The only hurdles are lack of funds and the resistance of some young travelers to give up their druggy lifestyle on the Boardwalk.
So, that leads to our standing request to the Mayor that he direct the Department of Recreation and Parks and the LAPD to fully enforce the Beach Curfew, the laws against camping, camping equipment and encampments in the Venice Beach Recreation Area at any hour and the law that everything that’s brought into the park during the day be removed at dusk. The City must also return to enforcing the ban on lying, sitting or sleeping on public sidewalks, at least within 500 feet of residences. It is only when adequate services and housing for the homeless come together with stronger enforcement of existing laws will we be able retire “Skid Row West” as the moniker for Venice Beach and lower the current risk of harm to vacationers, residents and the homeless alike.
So, Mr. Garcetti, please start dialing.
Mark Ryavec is president of Venice Stakeholders Association and former co-chair of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness.