Thursday, February 8, 2007

Plan for homeless center in Venice hits heavy opposition

From the California Section of the Los Angeles Times.

Plan for homeless center in Venice hits heavy opposition

Residents cite a 'state of siege' and say they can't handle more vagrants and addicts.

By Martha Groves, Times Staff Writer
February 8, 2007

In nearly 24 years in Venice, Ty Allison has been threatened with a knife and assaulted by vagrants. Almost daily, he calls police to report that homeless people are using crack and methadone in his driveway.

Ana Petrova cleans up human feces every morning in the alley behind Peter's Marina Motors, the business she and her husband have operated on Lincoln Boulevard for 40 years.

Allison and Petrova say they feel compassion for the homeless, but they are among many neighborhood business owners and residents vigorously battling a walk-in services facility that St. Joseph Center plans to open in its former thrift shop at Lincoln and Flower Avenue.

"We're a neighborhood that is literally under a state of siege," said Allison, a freelance photographer who works out of his home just east of Lincoln. "We can't absorb this center."

As the Los Angeles region seeks solutions for its homeless population, and as police try to disperse the many denizens of downtown's skid row, residents of communities such as Venice and Hollywood are finding that the homeless problem is increasingly coming to their back door.

Allison's and Petrova's neighborhood, near Penmar Park in north Venice, has already seen a proliferation of operations — several medical marijuana stores, two methadone clinics and at least three liquor stores that, according to residents, sell single shots out their back doors — that would be unwelcome in Brentwood or Pacific Palisades. A guerrilla needle exchange has been a continuing problem in alleys throughout the area.

So residents mobilized when they learned late last year that St. Joseph Center, a reputable nonprofit provider of homeless services, was on the verge of relocating its homeless access center to the thrift-shop site from a nearby location west of Lincoln.

They organized Venice SONIC (Save Our Neighborhood's Integrity Committee) and hired an attorney, Robert P. Silverstein, who says Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl "has pushed the project through under stealth of night." Rosendahl countered that "this has been public through all of 2006."

Residents are sensitive to how others may view their opposition. "We know we're going to be tarred and feathered as NIMBY and anti-homeless," said Chris Williams of the Penmar Neighborhood Assn. "But that's just not true.

"The problem with this particular program … is that it enables the service-averse and criminal homeless to stay in their dysfunctional lifestyle. And that's not safe for our community and our seniors and children."

Besieged by upset residents and business owners, Rosendahl attended a meeting in December at the home of resident Carol Bodlander, where neighbors vented about drugs and prostitution, vagrancy, inadequate police presence and poor city response to requests for better lighting and other improvements.

With residents threatening a legal battle, Rosendahl organized a town hall meeting Tuesday evening at the Penmar Recreation Center.

It was standing room only as Rhonda Meister, executive director of St. Joseph Center, tried to ease residents' concerns. She told the crowd of more than 250 that the move was prompted by the sale of the building that had long housed the daytime center at 4th Street and Rose Avenue. That spot was near a number of other agencies and clinics — notably the Venice Family Clinic — that provide services to homeless and low-income people.

After new owners raised the rent to $10,000 a month, she said, St. Joseph Center researched more than 150 other properties, none of which was suitable. As a last resort, the organization decided to relocate the thrift shop and convert the space into a center offering showers, coffee, laundry services and a place to hang out during daytime hours. The homeless access center also would link participants to medical care, mental health treatment, substance abuse services and other aid.

Meister stressed that the 31-year-old organization — founded by two sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, an order that runs Mount Saint Mary's college and other institutions — was dedicated to meeting the immediate needs of homeless and low-income people and to getting them into housing. And she assured the crowd that the center would provide security guards who would rove around the facility and through nearby alleys.

In an interview Wednesday, Meister said she did not expect an increase in the numbers who would be served by the center. At its previous location, just south of the Santa Monica border, the center has seen about 3,000 people a year.

More than half of them are identified as coming from Santa Monica, and last June, its City Council voted to provide $75,000 to help St. Joseph create a new home for its access center. That was in addition to $100,000 from the city of Los Angeles and $86,000 from the county.

Tuesday's meeting featured a mix of outraged residents, well-known Venice Beach denizens and homeless advocates. Amy Thiel, who lives near the former thrift shop, tearfully urged officials to open the center's doors, saying the area's homeless "are members of our city and part of Venice, California…. [They] need help, resources and showers."

Rosendahl told the crowd that the city was installing new lighting and planned to close off some of the problematic alleys near the St. Joseph facility. But Andre de Montesquiou, owner of California Chicken Cafe on Lincoln Boulevard, said such improvements have been promised over the years but never delivered. "Don't throw these bones out to us," he said.

He and other members of Venice SONIC said they would prefer a facility that provided overnight shelter and did not push the homeless back out onto the street at closing time.

Lois M. Takahashi, an associate professor in UCLA's department of urban planning, said Venice and Santa Monica were already doing a lot to help homeless people.

"We have to think about the broader context here," Takahashi said. "We focus on the NIMBYs and cities that are offloading homeless, but we're not really talking as much about redistributing the responsibility across the region, which is a necessary element to solve this problem."

Sometimes, overcoming community concerns can be a simple matter of education and old-fashioned political support.

In Hollywood, a plan to create a housing complex and homeless services center near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Gower Street appears to have overcome initial opposition from concerned residents and business owners.

"The community opposition has pretty much died down," said Helmi Hisserich, Hollywood administrator for the Community Redevelopment Agency, who credited a series of informational meetings and the strong backing of City Council President Eric Garcetti.

The CRA, which purchased the land from the First Presbyterian Church, plans a 40- to 60-unit complex with long-term subsidized apartments and on-site services to help tenants stay off the streets.

A proposed drop-in services center was scrapped. Hisserich wouldn't say whether the elimination of the drop-in center helped ease community concerns but acknowledged that such centers are "hot-button issues" and added, "The community response certainly helped shape the plan." Times staff writer Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.

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