Venice boardwalk is now one-third cleared of homeless camps. How Bonin and St. Joseph Center made it happen

Along the Venice boardwalk, a tent reads, "I am a heartbroken retired teacher and chef. Honest lady that Venice Beach, CA, has abused." June 29, 2021. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for KCRW.

Homelessness in Venice has reached a critical turning point. The number of encampments has swelled over the past year. Officials have started to take action, although some are clashing in their responses to the crisis. Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents the area, has teamed up with  nonprofit St.Joseph Center to clear tents along Ocean Front Walk and find shelters for unhoused people. The organization’s President and CEO Va Lecia Adams Kellum spoke to KCRW about the effort. 

So far 77 people — out of 200 — have been moved indoors since the initiative began.

KCRW: Your organization is responsible for leading the teams reaching out to the people living in encampments along the boardwalk. How have you planned to take on this formidable task?

Va Lecia Adams Kellum: “We've really been out there all year, trying to keep people safe and keep the positivity rate of COVID-19 down. That means we've been feeding folks and offering lodging, but since the encampment-to-home project launched last week, we really are making sure we connect with everyone in each zone. And people are very responsive. We're really excited that so many people have said yes to housing.”

Councilmember Mike Bonin has said this whole process was going to take about six weeks.  He said that unhoused people there would have to be out by a certain date if they don’t accept shelter. Has that date been determined, and what happens if they are not out by then?

“Well, each week, there's a certain date where that particular area ... closes. And honestly, we know that some people may be hesitant. And we've even seen, in this approach, that we did in Penmar Park, when some people would move to another zone. 

But ultimately, we believe that most everyone will be receptive and open to housing. Because we're not only offering short-term stays in a motel or shelter — we're also connecting people with permanent housing ... to stay and get stabilized. And so we believe people will say yes, and if there are people who are still resistant, we’ll continue to ... connect with them over the six weeks, in the hopes that every single person will eventually say yes.”

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva says his deputies will clear out encampments from the boardwalk if the unhoused people there haven't moved on. What do you think of his efforts?

“I don't see any chance of any difficulties as we move forward, as we connect with everyone who's out on the boardwalk. And we're just going to focus on that work, we're going to continue to do what we've promised to do — to connect with people, inspire hope.”

Some people say outreach efforts like this have been unsuccessful in the past because unhoused people have been resistant to accepting help. Is there anything that you are doing differently than previous outreach efforts?

“Yeah, and let me correct that word about resistance. I think what we're really talking about is that people have adapted oftentimes to living conditions that are quite inhumane. And the resistance is not resistance for the sake of ‘I don't want help.’ It's ‘I don't know if I really want to keep trying because it's not worked out for me.’ And what we want to help inspire people to do is think differently about what they deserve.  

And so getting people to ‘yes’ is a big part of what we do. We're going to have some ambassadors out there on the boardwalk with us who have just recently moved into housing. And we believe that folks like that can really speak to the hearts of the unhoused neighbors who are still grappling with whether they should just give up or stay where they are, or give life one more chance.”

Last year, St. Joseph’s Center led the outreach to clear an encampment beside the Penmar golf course near Venice Beach. However, KCRW reporter Anna Scott spoke to some unhoused people from the former encampment who say people are back there,  living around the corner. What do you think went wrong there?

“We believe [it] overall was a successful endeavor. We worked very closely with the residents near Penmar and with the folks who are unhoused, and they were very responsive, getting upwards of 70 people to say yes. [They] did [that] without any arrests and so we were very pleased with that.

And certainly, since we did not have permanent housing resources attached to every person who moved out, some people did opt out or [did] not stay in the program long enough for us to secure a permanent place. I think that's what's going to make the Ocean Front Walk effort different, and hopefully more successful.”

Note: KCRW found that of the 70 people sent to temporary motel rooms, about 46 stayed long enough to enroll in crisis housing programs, mostly through Project Roomkey. Of those people, one remains in Project Roomkey at last count. Fourteen people matched through a county database to either an apartment or rental subsidy. However, it is not clear how many actually moved into those units. Fifteen people either found their own places to stay or are unaccounted for. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) says another 15 are still in temporary shelters or on the streets. 

Credits

Producer:

Tara Atrian