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Councilman Bonin On The Homeless Storage Program

Mike Bonin speaking at the Venice Neighborhood Council
Mike Bonin speaking at the Venice Neighborhood Council

     “We are so much better than the dialogue that we have too often engaged in. The first thing we need is a more civil discourse. We need to turn down the volume. We need to respect people who disagree with us…to come to the discussion with pure motive and with good heart, with good intentions. Venice is an amazing community…we can do so much better. I believe we can harness the energy in Venice and work together, and come up with solutions”.
              - Mike Bonin. speaking at the Venice Neighborhood Council on 1/21/14
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     Los Angeles  11th Council District Representative Mike Bonin spoke Tuesday night at the Venice Neighborhood Council meeting, addressing recent concerns over the City’s Cold-Weather Homeless Storage Program, and sharing his own views on the subject of homelessness.
     His informative and moving half-hour talk was well received by the large, respectful and attentive audience which packed the auditorium of the Westminster Ave. Elementary School at 1010 Abbott Kinney Blvd, where the monthly public V.N.C. meetings are conducted by its second term president and long-time Venice activist Linda lucks.
     The Venice satellite of the Los Angeles Homeless Storage Program has been at the center of a storm of controversy and opposing viewpoints since it was introduced by the City in 2012 - passionately praised by homeless and social-service advocates while vehemently vituperated by those who view such activities as a simple empowerment of the impoverished to come to, and take over, this community.
      In recent days he has become the focus of what appears to be a large and well orchestrated email and petition campaign by some who are opposed to the existence of the Homeless Storage facility in Venice - a campaign which has become increasingly dependent upon misinformation and rumor.
     Bonin came to the VNC meeting to set the record straight. 
     During his speech he pointed out that the City is required by law to provide facilities in which the homeless may store their belongings, and that prior to establishing a satellite storage facility in Venice the City of Los Angeles has been successfully operating one in the Downtown area for some time.
     He clarified that the Venice facility is operated and staffed by volunteers from a local non-profit public service organization - the Venice Community Housing Corporation - at no cost to the city or to tax payers.
     He added that he chose its current location - the Paddle-Tennis courts west of the Boardwalk and near to the pick-up and drop-off point for transporting homeless persons to and from the City’s Winter-Shelter facility - because it was as far away from residences as possible.
     Bonin next addressed the rumors and misinformation which were “poisoning the dialogue”, exhorting those on all sides to “turn down the volume a little” and approach the discussion with respect for one another, and to work together to find real and lasting solutions to the problems of homelessness and poverty in our community.
     He then outlined his policies regarding the Storage Program, and the reasons and intentions behind them.
     Lastly, he spent several minutes presenting his views on the topic of homelessness, and his vision for a co-ordinated effort from all sectors of the community to not only support those in need of help - while cracking down on those among them who commit crimes - but ultimately to solve the problem of homelessness in our community once and for all.
     While many may have come to the meeting with doubts and reservations, it was clear that the sincerity, passion and wisdom of Bonin’s remarks did much to allay such feelings, and at the conclusion of his talk the audience responded with a strong, unified and appreciative round of applause.
     Below is a verbatim transcript of the speech. —————————————————————————————
(OPENING REMARKS)
     “I want to thank everybody for being here tonight…I know some of you come here in anger or in concern or in frustration or in fear about some of the things that you’ve heard, and I want to say that I understand that, and I appreciate where those concerns are coming from…I’ve seen some of the information that’s going around and I’ll talk tonight about how a lot of it just isn’t correct…and help to allay some concerns…
     I understand and I appreciate that everyone who comes here tonight comes here because they love their community and they love Venice…and they want the best for it…they want better for their families…and for the neighborhood… and for the community as a whole… and I think that everybody feels that way and I want to acknowledge that it’s true of everybody here…whether they are in agreement or disagreement with the person sitting next to them,
     … I want to talk first about my concerns in dealing with the Storage Program, and I want to talk a little bit about homelessness in general and my philosophy about it…and I want to talk about what I hope can be a path to genuine and lasting solutions to these problems in our community.
  
(HISTORY & LEGALITIES OF THE HOMELESS STORAGE PROGRAM)

     Many of you may have noticed - I’m sure that you have - that there is a significant difference between the way our streets and sidewalks look than the streets and sidewalks just a few blocks north of us in Santa Monica…you may have noticed that there is accumulated material…belongings…on our sidewalks…particularly on Oceanfront Walk…Third Avenue..the streets and walk-streets closest to the beach…
     that is largely because of a court case, ‘The Lavan Case’…there is an attorney who often works for the ACLU and a lot of very good causes that I agree with…who has a very successful track record suing the city of Los Angeles…she usually kicks the city’s ass, to be honest…she doesn’t generally sue the city of Santa Monica…over a situation in Downtown Los Angeles, on Skid Row.
     She won an injunction prohibiting the City from cleaning up homeless encampments…the City is prohibited from removing materials that may or may not belong to someone who is living on the street…the City can remove materials that are “abandoned”, but they cannot remove materials that are simply “unattended”…that is not my legal framework, that’s the Court’s - “abandoned” versus “unattended” - and that’s the framework the City has been stuck with…and so, anytime the City made a mistake…the City would get in trouble with the Courts…and so, for a couple of years now the City has been effectively “frozen” in our ability to clean up our sidewalks… …what the City is allowed to do now
     …the only way we can clean up the sidewalks, and Oceanfront Walk, and all the streets close to the Beach, is if we provide 72 hours notice that we are going to remove materials…that we say specifically when and where we are going to do it…that City Officials individually bag every piece of material that they collect… they have to label it… and then the City has to store it for 90 days… and return it if the owner wants it… somebody from the City will actually drive it from Downtown, and bring it to someone…that is the legal framework that we have, it is the only way we can do cleanups on our streets…
      …there’s one more provision…we can only do that if we also provide voluntary storage…if we allow people to check their belongings in somewhere for safe-keeping…so we have to have a storage program…we’ve had a program like this for two years now in Downtown L.A…this is how we’re going to have to do things now in the City of L.A., in different neighborhoods that have these types of problems… …we were fortunate that an organization, Venice Community Housing Corporation, volunteered to do that for the City, for free…no cost to the City…there’s no money involved…they have recruited and organized volunteers to do it…
     …because it was urgent to start this quickly, because we wanted to encourage people to enter the Winter Shelter Program, and because we really needed to start cleaning up the streets, I made a decision to allow the storage program to operate at the paddle-tennis courts at Venice Beach…as far away from most residents as I could find…in an existing storage container that was already at the beach, and close to the pick-up and drop-off location of the Winter Shelter Program…so that it would encourage people to go to the program, not sleep on the streets outside many of our homes…and have a safe place to keep their belongings…

 (A CLARIFICATION OF THE CURRENT MISUNDERSTANDING)

      …shortly before I made that decision the Venice Neighborhood Council urged me to create a winter storage program, but urged me not to put it there…I did put it there, and I said to the neighborhood council ‘if you have a better solution, another suggestion, I would be happy to look into it and consider placing it there’..back in december, shortly after I made that decision, this board had a meeting and considered a number of alternatives and ranked them. They did this, as I understand it, for the duration of the Winter Shelter Program only, and did not say ‘ please do this one’ but rather ‘please investigate these in the following order…’.
     Shortly after that, petitions went out and were emailed to me saying ‘keep your promise, the neighborhood council said to move this to Westminster, why haven’t you moved this to Westminster?’. I started getting all sorts of emails like that. …then, a few weeks later, I started getting a bunch of emails and petitions saying ‘How dare you put this here?’ [Westminster], which was not something that at that point I was actively considering.
     I’m more than happy, I assure you, to make a tough decision and take whatever flack comes from it. This one was a little unusual because I was getting flack from both sides on a decision that I hadn’t made and wasn’t even actively engaged in…in fact, we had received the list from the neighborhood council, and I had asked Debby on my staff to research the potential for the different locations that were listed, list some of the pros and cons for each one, and then send it back to the neighborhood council with some feedback, then they could have a public hearing on any one that they wanted…
      …so, over the past few days, rumors started spreading about what was going on. No one, apparently, who was involved with the program approached any of the neighbors of any of the locations, but there was a campaign going on to get me to pick the location - or not pick the location - and as a result, all sorts of stuff ensued. While I had never heard of any proposal beyond the storage program, there was stuff going on that said that there were plans for a homeless shelter…or trailers in parking lots…all sorts of stuff… …there was a petition that went up about three or four hours ago today at Change.Org where almost nothing in it was accurate about anything that had been discussed…it talked about moving the drop-off location and opening a permanent full time shelter there … none of which was accurate… …so, part of the problem is that the dialogue - I think - has been really… misinformed…
     So, let me say where I am with this now… …the program has been operating for about a month now, at the Paddle Tennis Courts…it is, in terms of other locations, probably one of the least residential-community-impacted locations we could come up with…and I am open to entertaining other possible locations at some point… it’s not a great location for the volunteers… the people who are volunteering their time every day to do it… in the cold Winter months they’re standing right out on the shore, basically, with the wind blowing, and no heat or electricity…some of them are interested in a different location…
      …what I’m going to say right now is that I think that it should continue in that location for at least six months…I’m not going to entertain any suggestions at this time to move it until that period of time is over… …I do think the program needs to continue past the Winter-Shelter Program time-limitation…this is a program we absolutely need… and I do think it’s the right thing to do…and I will allow it to stay there for six months…at the end of that period, once we’ve seen what the warm-weather response is to the program, what its capacity is, then I’m happy to start having discussions about where else we might put it.
     I want to say a few words about what that dialogue should look like. No one should ever hear about a proposal to put something across the street from their home through an email-blast, or through a flyer at Change.Org…. if we’re going to move this location, the way things have to be done is that anybody who’s in favor of it has to do “Community Organizing 101”…the way that you build support for something is, you go door to door and you talk to people individually…and you say ‘ this is what we’re thinking…what would your concerns be?’ … as opposed to rumors of a shelter being put in somewhere permanently…because, that’s sort of what happened on the grapevine… it would have been a much different conversation if someone had said ‘ in what hour of the day would this work best?…what if we had a security guard?..what if we did this?…what if we did that?’…that didn’t happen, so I think that for the time being…we’re going to leave it where it is…we need to provide the service, and I don’t think that it is appropriate at this point to move it…
      …for whatever reason, most of the conversation over the past few days has not been based in fact…there have been huge gaps in information,and then rumor has filled those gaps because of a lack for genuine dialogue…the community has been divided…embroiled… and the dialogue has been poisoned…and we need to move beyond that…
      …and that’s my segue into talking just a bit about homelessness…

 (ON “HOMELESSNESS”, AND A VISION FOR VENICE)
       
     …for too long, the way we have spoken about homelessness in Venice has been black and white…has been strident…has been hard…it has been divisive… not all of us…I’m guilty of doing this myself, and I need to change my dialogue - I’ve tried very hard over the past few years - and I think many of us do, as well… …there are so many people who are pure of heart, and noble of motive, who want to do the right thing to help people in need…who sometimes feel that anybody who opposes them is a “hater”…who sometimes feel that everybody living on the streets needs help, wants help and deserves help…that’s not always true… …on the other hand, there are many people who have concerns for their neighborhood, who - for whatever reasons, good or bad - don’t want to see additional services there… who think that everyone who wants to do something good for the homeless is some crazy bleeding-heart liberal … part of a so-called ‘Social-Services Mafia’ that’s trying to use taxpayers’ money to screw-up the community… guess what… that’s not true either.
     Some who feel that way also feel that every homeless person living on the street - this is how it sounds, I’m not sure this is what people believe but this is what the dialogue sounds like - every single homeless person living on the street is a predatory meth-addict who is out to destroy the community… and while that is true of some people, just as the fact that some are in need and desperate for help is true, that is not the reality of homelessness either…in its entirety.
     There are people who fall in that first group, there are people who fall in that second group. There are veterans living on the streets, there are people who are evicted, there are people who are mentally ill - there are people, yes, who are in need…and if we continue to think of homelessness as one thing, when it is this…this…this Rubik’s Cube of different colors or different sides…of different things…we will never solve the problem.
     The most important thing in a mass-casualty situation is ‘tria’ge’, is to diagnose each situation and figure out what is most urgent…we need to look at homelessness by diagnosing each situation, each individual, and treating it differently. Sometimes, we need more Law Enforcement…and I’m glad that L.A.P.D. is helping us with additional resources…sometimes we need better outreach…sometimes we need more mental health care…sometimes we need more services…each situation is a little bit different.
     When our dialogue gets poisoned…when we accuse each other of bad intentions…when we engage in paranoia and conspiracy stuff…we start acting like one of the worst groups in the country… we act like Congress…and look at D.C…D.C. is in absolute paralysis… …and the truth of the matter is…that I can’t solve homelessness…the city government can’t solve homelessness…we don’t do healthcare…the City isn’t empowered to do that…we’re not empowered to do most social services…we don’t do job training… we don’t do drug and alcohol rehabilitation… other levels of government do that… we need to figure out what the City can do… we need to figure out what different levels of government can do, and we need to engage them strategically… and part of the reason some folks don’t like to get involved in things is because anytime anyone tries to do something there’s a huge controversy … so sometimes other agencies of government say ‘it’s just too much…it’s too much’…
     We need to get past that, we can’t live in this paralysis.
     My philosophy of homelessness is that we need to move beyond managing the problem and address ourselves to solving the problem… … too often I find myself engaged in discussions - legal, philosophical, moral, practical, about the right to live on the streets… I spend so much time and energy on that issue, and comparatively little time and attention in a public dialogue about the need, and the right, to live in housing - to have affordable housing, and services that can help people who are sick get off the streets…and we need to be doing more of that…
      …I would like to see us build more affordable housing in the City of Los Angeles…the City of Los Angeles, County of Los Angeles, social service agencies - almost everybody involved or engaged in homelessness over the past 5 or 6 years has done something which - before that - was absolutely foreign in Los Angeles…they came up with a co-ordinated strategy, and that said ‘Housing First’ - let’s get people into shelter and housing where it’s easier to deal with the addiction problem, it’s easier to deal with the mental illness problem, it’s easier to deal with everything else. We need to be building more affordable housing. We need it in the City of Los Angeles, we need it in the cities surrounding us, and - yes - we do need it in Venice.
     We need more social services. We also need…I’m not shy about saying this…you know, I’m a progressive, but we also need more law enforcement in Venice…and our cops do a wonderful job…they’re under-resourced here, but I have been trying with Captain Johnson and a few others to light a fire at City Hall about the need for more resources…better and cleaner parks…more cops… and more prosecution of quality-of-life crimes here in Venice…we need to be broad-ranged about it.
     I do want to say, because some folks are concerned about sort of a ‘magnet effect’ of social services in Venice…I’m never going to try to stop someone from feeding a hungry person or giving a blanket so someone who’s cold…there are people on our streets who we do need to try to find additional resources for them…
     and some folks have wondered why are the courts forcing folks to have a storage facility in Venice? The courts have said that the homeless population is here, so if you’re going to be doling clean up - cleaning the streets - you have to keep their possessions close to where they have been removed. We need to be doing that here, it’s a court-mandated thing.

      I want to close with a final appeal.   

     I think that Venice is changing. This has always been a diverse and creative, smart community…this community is getting even more creative…there’s more talented people here …there’s all sorts of folks moving in to Venice who bring with them a genuine concern for the neighborhood… a creative spirit that is leading the industries in which they work…and I want to help engage with those people and come up with genuine solutions for how we do things in Venice. P.A.T.H. did some good things in getting people off the street, The Teen Project is doing remarkable work to try to help people get off the street…we need to do more of that…
      And the first thing we need - the first thing we need - is a more civil discourse. We talk about homelessness, and about finding solutions…we need to turn down the volume a little bit…we need to respect people who disagree with us, at least come to the discussion with pure motive and with good heart - with good intentions. Venice is an amazing community…I’ve lived here since the early ‘90s… we can do so much better…together…I actually believe we can harness the energy in Venice and we can work together and come up with solutions together.
 
      We are so much better than the dialogue that we have too often engaged in.

      I want to thank you all for being here tonight. I genuinely want to work with you on this issue…all of you on this issue. My email is mike.bonin@LACity.org . I read every single email I get. It often takes me a week to empty out my inbox, but I try to respond personally to every email I get…and when people email me back, I email them back again. I really feel this issue deeply and passionately in my bones…it’s going to be solved free of ideology, and by embracing new ideas and new perspectives…and I’m not going to rest until we can figure out a way to make it better.
      Thank you. “
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