VENICE BEACH, Calif.—When Brian Ulf says it’s a problem that the weight of homelessness throughout Los Angeles County has landed squarely on the shoulders of a few cities, he should know.
Formerly homeless, he used to be part of the problem. Now he’s trying to be part of the solution—but when he looks around Venice Beach, California, on a bleak winter’s day, at the scattered garbage, littered encampments, and damaged people, it’s hard to be optimistic.
“This is a spot where the public doesn’t get protected,” Ulf, 63, told The Epoch Times. “There’s not enough housing … but in the interim of when there’s not housing, what are we doing for this population, while they’re still out here on the street?”
Many local residents, who no longer feel safe, are asking the same question. As the homeless population grows amid a lingering COVID-19 pandemic, official efforts to deal with the problems of the homeless, and the problems they have brought to the city along with them, are failing, they say.
And they point to a local bridge housing project as a prime example.
The Housing-First Solution
The “Pacific Sunset” bridge housing facility sits just a couple of blocks away from the Venice Boardwalk, between Main Street and Sunset Avenue. It’s one of 26 supportive housing projects either already built or under construction in Los Angeles.
The 154-bed housing unit was launched in February 2020, before the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders took effect, and championed by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and 11th District Councilmember Mike Bonin “to provide individuals in homeless encampments on nearby sidewalks with temporary, safe, secure housing and services acting as a bridge to permanent housing.”
But a year later, it’s unclear how many residents are currently living in the facility, or how many have been transitioned to permanent housing—while right outside its doors, tent encampments dot the sidewalks.
According to a September 2020 report in the city’s local paper, the Venice Current, the program had thus far only placed seven people into more permanent housing units. Seventy people were still waiting to be transitioned six months after the project’s opening, while another 50 original occupants either left or were kicked out for behavioral issues.
Since its inception, the project has met with resistance from local residents, who say the failing efforts to help are bringing more crime and depravity into their neighborhoods. They point to the encampments that line the streets adjacent to the supportive housing as proof—along with discarded needles, trash, and a proliferation of stolen bicycle parts that pepper the Venice neighborhoods.
“This was the mayor’s initiative, and the way that they sold it to the community was that it was a way to break up the homeless encampments,” Venice Beach resident Soledad Ursua told The Epoch Times.
Ursua said officials sold some residents on a housing-first model “because we needed to provide shelter for people to go, and people would be taken there.”
The facility would “get people to come out of their tents and to go into housing,” she said. “And it was very flexible to get people to comply. For example, you could not do drugs inside, but you were able to be on drugs,” because the facility does not require residents to be sober.
Garcetti’s A Bridge Home initiative was billed to residents as a “temporary, safe, secure, humane alternative to neighborhood encampments,” and was launched in Venice with a promise to clean up the area. But Ursua says the city does not live up to its commitment unless specific inquiries are made to the non-emergency local 311 phone number, and just last month, a homeless person defecated in her carport space for the third time in 12 months.
As part of its operations, the project promised extra sanitation for the area, security, and other emergency services. But a quick glance around reveals an area littered with homemade barbecue pits, makeshift propane setups, multiple-room encampments, an unusually high number of bicycles and parts, burnt trees, semi-naked people shuffling on the sidewalk, including a woman with Sharpie scribbles all over her leg.
Both Ursua and Ulf said cleanups have stopped due to COVID regulations.
“It’s sort of this way for officials to put their hand up and just say, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ What the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has said is to let people shelter in place and to not move homeless encampments, but that assumes that people are sheltering in place. … They are not, they’re moving around,” Ursua said.
Gang members and drug deals are plentiful, according to Ulf, who said that many of the homeless are afraid.
Residents are also concerned with personal safety. According to Ursua, county efforts to defund the police have resulted in a $157 million budget reduction for the department—and “one of the items that was gone was the patrol car” for the neighborhood.
Ursua said one of the leaders of the local defund-the-police movement was Councilmember Bonin—the same 11th District representative who championed the local bridge housing unit.
Bonin did not respond to The Epoch Times prior to deadline after repeated attempts to reach him and his office.
Housing by the Numbers
The Venice shelter was built for $8 million as part of Los Angeles’s 2016 Proposition HHH ballot measure, which was approved by more than 77 percent of the voters and allocated $1.2 billion in general obligation bonds to subsidize 10,000 supportive housing units for the homeless.
To expedite the construction process, Garcetti and the City Council took advantage of a new state law and announced an emergency shelter crisis in 2018. The mayor also advocated for city, county, and state partners to increase funding for bridge housing projects.
But in a September 2020 audit report, City Controller Ron Galperin said that supportive housing slated to be built through Proposition HHH was more expensive and further behind schedule than the previous year. The average cost per unit of supportive housing built under HHH had increased to $531,000, up $10,000 per unit from 2019, with more than 28 percent costing over $600,000 each—and the report noted these figures are increasing as more units are developed.
Four years after the measure passed, only three buildings with 179 supportive housing units have been built. Meanwhile, the number of homeless in Los Angeles increased by 16 percent from 2019 to 2020, to an estimated 41,000 people, according to the latest Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count.
The audit report stated that 5,522 supportive units and 1,557 non-supportive units are still in the development pipeline—but noted “nearly 73 percent of these have not yet begun construction.” More than half will not be available until 2023.
Boots on the Ground
For some of the area’s homeless, the situation is equally frustrating. Some people living in tents just a block away from the Pacific Sunset housing facility told The Epoch Times they have been trying to get into the program for months.
Lizotte, 49, lives in an encampment on nearby Rose Avenue. He said he was riding his motorcycle from Washington to Mexico on New Year’s Eve in 2019 when it started to get dark, so he decided to stop for the night and check out the Sunset Strip. “Bad idea, I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
Lizotte and his girlfriend, Alexis, who lives in the same encampment, say they have been trying to get into supportive housing for a year through various programs. Lizotte said the two have been stopped by bureaucracy, but it’s unclear why he hasn’t been helped by outreach workers or local officials.
“They haven’t really done anything, and I don’t expect them to either. You gotta pull your own weight,” Lizotte said.
Another unsheltered Venice resident, Pat, is on the local Homeless Committee. He told The Epoch Times that a one-size-fits-all housing solution doesn’t tackle the root problems, including substance abuse. When people want to get clean, he said, they need better resources—not housing shoved in their faces.
“There’s got to be a way, a path forward from sleeping on the pavement to eventually having a place. But I think all of the energy to give that path forward should come from the person in that situation,” he said, suggesting some people would benefit from special rehab programs, akin to assisted living, that aim for a “sense of accountability.”
Pat agreed that the Venice situation has gotten worse during the pandemic.
“There is a condition with COVID right now where there is less of a fight. There is less of an enforcement posture. So some of the things that were done, as far as you can’t have your tent past a certain time, those aren’t really being enforced in a way that I think makes it more visible,” he said.
As part of the Homeless Committee, Pat wants to have a conversation about how the government is spending the money earmarked for the homeless. “I want to think about what has happened to the measure Triple-H money, right, because I understand like 40 percent of it has already been spent,” he said.
Venice-resident Ulf is a member of the Community-Police Advisory Board for the Los Angeles Police Department and chairman of SHARE! Housing, a public-private supportive housing project. He blames liberal spending policies for bringing the problem to his backyard.
“There’s nothing in Hermosa, there’s nothing in Manhattan, there’s nothing in Palos Verdes,” he said. “How do all those municipalities get to not participate in the problem or become part of the solution?”
Though empathetic, he blamed a lack of “fiscal responsibility” and the “deep pockets” of Los Angeles for magnifying the problem in Venice.
Ulf, who’s worked in real estate for 40 years and sits on the board of the Los Angeles Homeless Committee, said affordable housing is a big problem—but not the only one. “Big issues of addiction, big issues of mental health, big issues of just multiple things that happened to people, and the consequences of behavior” are also to blame, he said.
When he became involved in some real estate projects on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, he “started to realize the cost” of the homeless problem. Ulf said the city is spending tens of millions to pay outreach workers to contact homeless people and get their information so they can be placed in housing—but even after multiple meetings and contracts, housing is not being built and the homeless aren’t being helped.
He cited “a big drop-off” in the trust factor between outreach workers and the homeless population as the result. “As you talk to people and say you’re going to house them and then they don’t, you lose trust and it’s become a big issue,” he said.
“If you buy in that this is a housing issue, there’s not enough housing—but in the interim of when there’s not housing, what are we doing for this population while they’re still out here on the street?” he asked.
Then he narrowed the focus to the problem on Venice Beach. “When you go to these encampments, you see filth and rot and festering and trash—and all that, is that humane?” he asked.
“We have CDC rules that say they have to be there, because we can’t move them out of the tents because they have to quarantine. Most of these people throughout the day are not in their tent. But the CDC rules said they’re supposed to be. And thus, we can’t come in and clean these off,” he said.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the strain on those at risk for experiencing homelessness.
“There’s a mixed population down here,” he said. “There are truly homeless people that have fallen in despair, from consequences or the economy. But COVID is gonna double this population … and no one wants to hear that the cost of this virus is going to increase homelessness.”
Ulf is pushing to get his SHARES! Housing program on the radar as a more cost-effective alternative to other bridge housing facilities. His program offers counseling for mentally ill residents and more comprehensive wraparound services.
The SHARES! program pairs the homeless and fosters a sense of community, creating tasks for participants and providing health care services and specialized counseling for veterans with PTSD.
It doesn’t rely on new housing construction, but works with landlords of existent units.
A Concerned Citizen
Often when she goes for a drive, Los Angeles resident Kiki Pagador said she stops by the encampments on Rose Avenue to hand out water bottles, snacks, blankets, jackets, and hand warmers to the needy. On Jan. 27, she handed some bottles of water to Lizotte.
“People think I’m crazy just for going and passing stuff out, but these are people—that could be me, that could be you, and just imagine that you’re having your hardest day and then you have nowhere to go home to,” Pagador told The Epoch Times. “When we look at homelessness, we talk about it as homelessness, but not as people experiencing hardship.”
Most of them are mentally ill or dealing with drug addiction, she said. When Pagador visits Michelle, a homeless woman who hangs out by Casablanca restaurant on Lincoln Boulevard, “sometimes she’s mentally there, and sometimes she’s totally not,” she said.
Over the past two years, Pagador has made charity an individual habit, meeting new friends along the way. It’s given her some insight into the challenges of life without a home.
“I do have a friend who lives on the street who lived in her car for like six years, and only the last two years she finally got housing—and she’s 89. She used to be a mail delivery person in Venice,” Pagador said.
“If we can just see each other as people, all the politics and other … [stuff] starts to fall away.”