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Pacific Sunset Bridge Housing Serves Those Who Need It Most

In February of 2020, the Pacific Sunset bridge housing facility opened in the Los Angeles City neighborhood of Venice. Even before it opened, critics of the project - and of Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilmember Mike Bonin (both of whom were behind the proposal) - were already blasting it. It is now more than a year and a half after the housing complex opened its doors, and these same critics have continued to blast Pacific Sunset. They argue that it is attracting more people experiencing homelessness to their community, has led to unsafe conditions outside of its doors, and has had a negative impact on their neighborhood as a whole.

Pacific Sunset has become a focal point in the debate about solutions to homelessness on the Westside, and a large part of a campaign to recall Councilmember Bonin, so Streetsblog wanted to take a look at the bridge housing project to see how effective it has been to reduce homelessness in Venice.

History and Background

Pacific Sunset is a temporary shelter designed to provide a roof and wrap-around services for 154 people experiencing homelessness while they work to achieve permanent housing. However, for many housed residents of the Venice neighborhood and supporters of carceral responses to the growing homelessness crisis, Pacific Sunset has become an example of why people should not trust the city or county when they attempts to open new housing.

Critics point to the blocks-long encampment that stretched Pacific Sunset’s front door to Rose Avenue. Though the encampment was swept clear last week, critics had long focused on its perceived negative impacts to housed people in the high-rent oceanside neighborhood: decreased property values and generally not feeling safe around the unhoused. The proponents of the campaign to recall Mike Bonin have seized on Pacific Sunset (and other supportive housing developments) as a focus of their critique of the councilmember.

But not everyone involved in local politics in Venice and the Westside looks at Pacific Sunset as a failing investment. Since its opening, forty clients of Pacific Sunset have found permanent housing. During the summer's "Encampments to Home" program targeting unhoused residents living on Venice Beach, Pacific Sunset was a destination for many of the people living on or near the Venice Boardwalk. Encampments to Home moved more than 200 people off the boardwalk and into temporary housing.

Mike Bravo is a housed Venice resident who lives just a couple of blocks from Pacific Sunset. His family has lived in Venice for generations. He was elected to the Venice Neighborhood Council earlier this year - and is a frequent critic of Councilmember Bonin from the political left. Bravo asserts that Pacific Sunset should be evaluated based on whether it is serving the unhoused community in Venice, not on the complaints of housed stakeholders.

"The effect that it's had on the unhoused has been dramatic," Bravo writes. "The programs aren't for the (housed) community, and there have been issues, but it's not for them. For the people that it has mattered to the most, versus people that are more concerned with their property values, it's been a success."

In 2017-2019, a debate raged in Venice as protestors stormed public meetings demanding that no bridge housing be built in Venice. The council office and the United Way rallied residents under the slogan "VENICE SAYS YES" to push back against that narrative. To an outsider, it would have appeared that the majority of Venice residents opposed the shelter, although Bravo thinks that drawing conclusions from the noise generated online and at meetings is a bad way to get an idea of what residents think.

"The local NIMBY groups - I more accurately describe them as segregationists - are more politically active and competent in the fact that they write articles, they have blogs, they go to meetings," said Bravo. "The people that don't agree with them aren't as active... I would say it was more or less equal. If anything, there were more people for it. But the people opposed were a lot louder, a lot more organized."

Impacts of COVID-19

In defending Pacific Sunset, Councilmember Bonin points out that the shelter opened mere weeks before the COVID-19 shutdowns - and that the pandemic is still happening. Grading Pacific Sunset on a pre-pandemic report card isn't fair or useful, he argues.

"The timing of the opening of the bridge shelter a year ago was a perfect storm to hamper that project: the capacity of it has been reduced because of public health orders; the job opportunities that were supposed to be offered to people have been reduced because the economy has collapsed; the sense of community that was meant to be inherent to it, with all the community partnerships, has been totally roadblocked by the pandemic," Bonin said in an interview with the Santa Monica Daily Press earlier this year.

This summer, Pacific Sunset finally opened all of its 154 beds. Weeks later, there was a COVID-19 outbreak that infected nearly three dozen residents. If the shelter had been fully open the entire time, even more people could have been infected, as residents live and sleep in close proximity to each other indoors.

The pandemic also created bureaucratic barriers for people trying to find permanent housing: appointments to get IDs were moved, job offers didn't pan out, healthcare appointments were canceled.

“Because of COVID, the process to get people housed had become even more bogged down, especially in the early days,” added Stephen Fiechter, a program director with the homeless service provider PATH, who works at Pacific Sunset.

Growth of affordable housing remains slow in Venice and Southern California

But Bonin and staff at Pacific Sunset both agree that the largest roadblock to getting more people into permanent housing is the ongoing housing crisis in Los Angeles. According to the 2020 L.A. County homeless count - conducted before the pandemic - the county manages to house over 200 people every day. But more than 220 people fall into homelessness over the same 24 hours. At the same time, construction of new housing has slowed, more so for affordable housing than market-rate housing.

“The biggest obstacle is the lack of available affordable housing," continued Fiechter. "In Venice there might be an additional barrier with long-term denizens not wanting to leave the area."

Many unhoused folks have lived in the Venice neighborhood, in houses or on the streets, for years or even decades. Asking if they want to be relocated to another part of the county, even if they believe the offer is real, can be a non-starter. Critics see this and claim that many people experiencing homelessness are "service resistant" and prefer life on the street. Conversely, housing-first proponents assert that this is an example of why the city needs to build housing everywhere: so that people can be housed where they already have roots and where they already are a part of the community.

Photo: Damien Newton
Photo: Damien Newton

Encampment stretched for blocks outside Pacific Sunset’s doors

In 2017 and 2018, during the permitting process for Pacific Sunset, Bonin's office worked with stakeholders and the city to designate an area around the shelter where people would not be permitted to camp overnight; a so-called "enforcement zone." However, after Pacific Sunset opened in February 2020, the number of people sleeping directly outside the shelter grew rapidly.

At its peak earlier this past summer, the encampment stretched for blocks surrounding the facility. It became a focal point in the ongoing debate over homelessness in the community. Critics of Bonin and of the shelter regularly posted pictures of the encampment to social media, charging that Bonin had broken his promise to housed residents by allowing an encampment that housed neighbors perceived as dangerous.

But Fiechter doesn't believe there is a connection between the shelter and the encampment. PATH operates shelters and other temporary housing sites for those experiencing homelessness throughout L.A. County and hasn't seen encampments similar to this one in other places, according to Fiechter.

"There’s a perception that when we build a shelter people come and congregate around it, but that hasn’t been our experience. What would be the point? They aren’t getting services from the shelter,” Fiechter states. Pacific Sunset only offers services (food, counseling, job services, etc) to clients who have been accepted into the program. And while critics contend that the encampment is made of people who are also clients of Pacific Sunset, Fiechter says that there are not a large number.

“There are some people that come into the site that continue to ‘co-exist’ at a camp for a while, because of the community or because they have stuff they don’t know what to do with,” Fiechter says. “We work with them to provide storage space and encourage them to not do this. We want them to be inside and safe."

"Because of COVID, some people feel safer in a tent. It’s not something you can argue with, any more then you can argue with someone who is vaccine resistant. You’re not going to change their mind."

Few electeds openly advocate for “sweeps” where an encampment is literally cleared out and the people living there face possible arrest and seizure of their property. Instead, politicians and law enforcement prefer terms such as “cleanups,” saying they are necessary to improve sanitary conditions. However, the “cleanups” conducted by the city often have the same impact on unhoused residents as “sweeps.”

The cleanup near Pacific Sunset was captured on video by both Cop Watch Venice and German in Venice. Both videos show construction equipment being used to dismantle the encampment, with little hope that much, if any, of the property would be returned to unhoused residents.

Image capture from the video on the "cleanup" conducted in Venice on September 23 by Cop Watch Venice.
Image capture from video of the "cleanup" conducted in Venice on September 23 - video by Cop Watch Venice.

Despite the enforcement zone promises made in 2018, Bonin resisted calls to remove the encampment. Bonin cites CDC issued guidance in March 2020 that said that breaking up encampments would further spread coronavirus. Following this guidance, the City Council and Mayor Garcetti passed a law that banned LAPD from clearing encampments. But the law was revoked earlier this year. An encampment in Mar Vista Park was cleared earlier this month, despite Bonin’s protests, but he remains hopeful that people living on the street will be offered a chance to move into temporary housing, with a promise of permanent housing in the future.

For researcher and professor Randall Kuhn with the UCLA department of community health services, breaking up the encampment at this point in time was still too early, "enforcement zone" or not.

"If you are experiencing homelessness, you are two to four times as likely to suffer from or die from COVID-19 than if you are not. There is vaccine hesitancy in the homeless community; only about fifty percent of the community is vaccinated, though that number is going up," said Kuhn.

"When you combine this with the impact of breaking up an encampment and [consider] that many of the people that are involved from the city's side, including the police, are also not vaccinated - and that there's no mandate in place for them to get vaccinated - you are risking both the population at the encampment and the housed community as people spread COVID throughout the community."

Bonin says the CDC guidance is still in effect, even if the city has changed its laws regarding cleanups. Instead of breaking up encampments, Bonin has proposed a series of ongoing scheduled cleanups, so encamped residents can protect their possessions and the area can be made clean and sanitary. But even those cleanups, which Bonin's critics argue don't go far enough, can be done in a ways that harm the people living in encampments.

In the video posted by Cop Watch Venice of the breakup of the encampment near Pacific Sunset, one can hear a conversation between an unhoused resident and a cleanup worker where the resident complains that the cleanup was not scheduled until the end of the week.

"There's an orderly way to [break up an encampment]," Kuhn continued, pointing to the city’s Encampment to Home program, mentioned above. "If you give the 120-day notice [as required by current city law], there's time to do outreach; time to give people viable housing options. The City Council voted 13-2 to start doing these, so it's going to happen. The question is how do we do it. We also need more ways to know whether the plan is working, or whether people are just ending up back on the streets with even fewer options."

"There are risks to doing these - and frankly it would be best to wait until the delta surge is over," Kuhn said.

"If done right they provide opportunities. There's an obvious sanitary benefit for everyone, but it also provides a chance to check in with people and find out where they are. But the keys are communication and safety. If you're showing up and disrupting people's lives and they don't have a chance to take care of and protect their belongings, it can be a real problem. If you bring the delta variant into an encampment, that could be an absolute disaster," he said.

While Bonin has been quiet about the cleanup near Pacific Sunset, he has been vocal about other sweeps. Earlier this month, an L.A. City Parks Department cleanup in Mar Vista Park was conducted weeks before an order requiring unhoused residents to vacate the park was supposed to take effect. Mar Vista Voice live-tweeted the eviction, which was the first of an ongoing series of sweeps taking place in Bonin's westside district. Bonin strongly criticized the action in a series of tweets.

"I'm angry and frustrated that the city once again showed how to respond to homelessness the wrong way, with failed policies," Bonin tweeted. While the debate between Bonin, the city, and Bonin’s detractors continues, Bravo feels that both sides are failing people experiencing homeless by not providing more support, especially sanitary support, in encampments.

Did Bonin and the city do enough for those living at the encampment?

While the encampment may be gone for now, there is still discussion over whether enough was done for people living in and near it while it was there.

"Mike Bonin: he can always do more. I understand the police couldn't do enforcement, but there's more he can do," Bravo stated. He then outlined a list of sanitary improvements he believed the city should provide at similar sites, including bathrooms, trash cans that are regularly emptied, and washing areas.

"Sanitation's a no-brainer. I don't understand the logic of not providing it."

Some housed Westside residents have opposed providing sanitation services for their unhoused neighbors.

In March 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic, Bonin pushed for the city to provide hand washing stations and other sanitation services throughout the entire city. The city installed portable handwashing stations, though they have not been adequately maintained. Bonin also co-authored a motion for the city to create standards for voluntary cleanups. That motion was approved in April, although it appears that effort was superseded by the resumption of mandatory cleanups this summer.

Pacific Sunset, Today

Earlier today, I went down to 100 E. Sunset Avenue to walk around the shelter and see what the current state of the site was. After a year and a half of reading and hearing debates over the shelter and the encampment, the walk was so uneventful if I hadn’t known the shelter were there I might not have even noticed it. The entrance is unremarkable. While there were a row of trailers and RV’s starting at Rose Avenue a block north of the site stretching to the city’s border with Santa Monica, I didn’t see anyone experiencing homelessness on my walk around the site’s exterior.

The housed residents I spoke to during my walk seemed indifferent to Pacific Sunset, at least now that the encampment is gone. Residents were skeptical, believing that the encampment would return once the city turns its attention elsewhere. Questions also remain as to where the unhoused residents moved out of the encampment actually are today.

But for now, Pacific Sunset is able to quietly continue its work helping the unhoused find permanent housing. Over 100 people will be sleeping safely off the streets inside its fences while dozens more have moved on to a permanent home.

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