(Editor’s note: Paula Gerez, president of the Westchester Neighborhood Council, spoke eloquently at today’s City Council hearing regarding the Bonin/Ridley-Thomas motion that seeks to house homeless individuals on two County-owned beach parking lots and in several City parks. She has allowed us to print her statement.)
“I am here today to express the outrage and concern of thousands of local residents who have been negatively impacted by the failed policies related to homelessness in CD11.
“But I am also here to express the community’s disgust with the way the needs of the unhoused are being ignored in our community.
“First, let me say that our Neighborhood Council has supported Councilman Bonin’s Safe Parking program not once, but twice. We also voted to support the exploration of a limited safe camping zone within Westchester Park that includes access to restrooms, showers and security.
“Today, however, you are being asked to vote on a broad and far-reaching motion that hopes to create so-called safe camping areas throughout our parks and beaches, on airport land and even in areas that are privately owned.
“While just a study at this point, it is clear that Councilman Bonin intends to allow encampments on as many spaces as possible. He says public land is all he controls and he’s ready to offer that up to the unhoused without guaranteeing security, resources, sanitation or the other many critical elements of actually getting people off the streets.
“Simply providing land on which the unhoused can camp, does nothing to address the root cause of homelessness.
“Our community has been appalled by the way Councilman Bonin has handled the homeless crisis in other parts of his district, most notably in Venice. Looking at how he has chosen to confront the homeless issue there, we have ZERO confidence that his plan, or lack thereof, in Westchester will fare any better.
“Furthermore, more than 1,000 people have reached out to the Neighborhood Council to express their concerns about the safety of children in the park; the loss of access to park and beach space in a community that is park-poor; the disenfranchisement of the seniors who used to come to the senior center but no longer feel safe enough to do so; the increasing instances of crime, public nudity and human excrement and urination in the park; the environmental and health issues associated with expanding encampments; the visual blight and more.
Residents and business owners in our community are desperate to save our community from the fate that has befallen Venice, where violence is commonplace, and parents are afraid to let their children walk to school or go to the beach in an area that used to be the envy of the entire nation.
Councilman Bonin promised that the area around the Bridge Housing project in Venice would be well-maintained and that the project would not serve as a magnet for more encampments, but the opposite is true.
Venice residents have come to our Neighborhood Council meetings begging us not to allow in our community what has already happened in theirs. They implore us not to believe Councilman Bonin when he says the city can keep the area around these new zones for the unhoused safe and clean because those promises have certainly gone unfulfilled in Venice. We don’t believe him. We have seen what he has done, or rather what he has not done, already.
“While no one deserves to live on the street, it is also true that no one deserves to fear to their life when walking to their car. No one deserves to step in human feces when walking along the beach. No one deserves to have the very few recreational areas in our community destroyed by people who simply don’t care. No one deserves fires in the wetlands. No one deserves to live in a city where clear and obvious crimes do not have repercussions. No one deserves to have their children exposed to blatant drug use and nudity while walking to school.
“But what is truly concerning is how this proposal and Councilman Bonin’s current policies related to the unhoused ignore the welfare of the unhoused themselves.
Especially as the result of the pandemic, the unhoused population is growing and now, more than ever, filled with people who don’t want to be on the streets. Many are women and many are single mothers with children. I shudder to think how these families would fare in the midst of unregulated “safe camping” areas Councilman Bonin hopes to spread across Westchester Park or Dockweiler Beach.
“It is not hard to imagine these folks being the victims of sexual or physical abuse, theft and worse. And while Councilman Bonin has often talked about the need for security, resources and services among the unhoused, we have yet to see that done by him and the city in other parts of his district where encampments continue to grow.
“Rather than spending his time promulgating the expansion of the failed policy he has used to ruin Venice, he, and all of you, should be pushing the county, state and federal government to provide more funding and more resources to address the crime, mental and physical health issues and sanitation and disease concerns that are rampant in the kinds of encampments he is now exploring in Westchester.
“The city should be seeking out public-private partnerships with corporations and with non-profit agencies to create programs that really work. Why are we considering the wide-scale expansion of policies that have already failed in CD 11?
“I am not naïve, and I know that despite the opposition of hundreds and even thousands of nearby residents, this motion is likely to pass. But I implore you not to dive into a policy that cannot be reversed when it does not work.
In the real world, new ideas require a proof of concept. Our community demands that the city and Councilman Bonin PROVE that they can really accomplish what they say they can on a small scale before subjecting residents and the unhoused to sprawling encampments with no resources, no security and no hope of real help to get off the street.
“Councilman Bonin should be exploring changes to the law to allow mandatory intervention for members of the unhoused community who are violent, mentally ill or in some way pose a risk to those around them.
“Councilman Bonin should be working hard to get people who want to get off the streets the services and resources they need to actually get off the streets, not just move into a tiny house.
“Councilman Bonin should be exploring a no camping ordinance – one that is actively enforced – to allow residents to use the parks and beaches in our community for their intended purposes.
“In his zeal to look like the guy who is solving homelessness, he is neglecting the social and psychological impacts his failed policies are having on our community’s children, seniors and families.
“Children who once enjoyed our park for lacrosse, baseball, frisbee, basketball and more no longer feel safe going to the park. That fear and that inability to use our city’s recreational spaces has consequences.
“Families who once celebrated milestone events with parties in the park or relaxed with a weekend picnic, no longer feel safe going to the park. Those family moments being stolen from our community has consequences.
“Seniors who relied on the senior center for socialization and even daily meals, no longer feel safe using the center because of the aggressive people Councilman Bonin has allowed to live encircling the center.
“Seniors living in fear or trapped at home with no social interaction has consequences. Councilman Bonin’s new plan is dangerous – dangerous for the unhoused who he expects to live in these encampments, dangerous for the residents and business owners who will be negatively impacted by these encampments and dangerous for public policy that encourages the bringing together of the unhoused in a place where they will have no help and no hope of getting off the streets.
“I believe Councilman Bonin thinks his plan is a positive one. I know he has a huge and empathetic heart and I know he wants his plan to work. Our community simply disagrees that it can.
“His policies have been an abject failure in Venice, and it’s time to try something more thoughtful, more multi-jurisdictional, and more effective that places the needs of the unhoused at the forefront. A plan that provides REAL solutions and REAL assistance.
“. . .We do not need a feasibility study to see if people should be allowed to camp in our parks and beaches. We have real life case studies that demonstrate that it is a terrible idea with unacceptable consequences. It is not safe, humane or compassionate and it is not housing.
“The city created the Neighborhood Council system to give a voice to the neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Will you listen to the Neighborhood Councils from these affected neighborhoods? On behalf of the thousands of residents who have contacted us and the thousands more who suffer in silence, I urge you to vote against this motion.”