By Jon Wolff
Your L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin held a community meeting in the Westminster Avenue Elementary School auditorium on September 8, 2016 to present his accomplishments and propose his solutions to the problem of Homelessness in Venice. There was a slide show, there were fliers, there were city officers and non-profit organization organizers. There were a lot of attendees in the auditorium. A lot of cops were there too.
Mr. Bonin was very happy about all he had done since his last homelessness-solving meeting back in March of this year. He talked about his plans for affordable housing, storage facilities, and outreach programs. He showed graphs. And he invited members of the audience to line up and speak about the issue. Everyone got two minutes.
Many who spoke early in the meeting were against the proposed solutions. They didn’t want a storage facility in Venice because they worried that their kids might see unhoused people using it. They didn’t care to hear about outreach programs to help people with substance abuse problems. And, believe it or not, they didn’t like the idea of providing housing for the unhoused. The point that if an unhoused person became housed, he or she wouldn’t be unhoused anymore didn’t satisfy them. They simply resented that anyone without the wealth to live close to the ocean would be allowed to live in Venice. They spoke and they yelled and their friends in the audience yelled too.
If you’ve ever read about the Bund meetings in America in the 1930s where pro-Nazi supporters came out and spoke and yelled and put their arms out straight, then you would have recognized a similar phenomenon in the Westminster auditorium that night. The only things missing were the banners and the “Sieg Heils”. There were screaming rejections of any plan that didn’t include the police ticketing and harassing houseless people. There were shouts to deport people to some other part of the state. And there were loud accusations that Bonin wasn’t concerned with the housed residents in Venice.
Regarding this last point; it seemed that most of these angry “residents” could boast of living only a few years in Venice. Most of the longtime and lifetime Venetians were open to more humane and inclusive ideas to fix the housing crisis. Furthermore, the individuals who did the most yelling were new to these meetings. They hadn’t come out for other Venice meetings. They weren’t known to attend for any of the other issues pertinent to the Venice Community. Whoever they were, they were only interested in this one topic.
Not surprisingly, the loudest didn’t stick around to hear the speakers who offered facts and reasoned appeals. The crowd eventually thinned out and went home. Home to their houses.
The following week, on September 15, there was another meeting at Westminster. This one was concerned chiefly with the issue of using the Westminster Senior center building for a storage facility for unhoused people to store their belongings. Councilmember Bonin was not present at this meeting and it was organized a little differently from the previous two. Representatives from Bonin’s office were there to facilitate things. They had the chairs arranged in concentric circles for a more informal kind of get-together. They distributed fliers listing the rules of decorum for the evening. These were almost immediately ignored by a couple of individuals who yelled and wouldn’t wait for any answers to their questions. This meeting wasn’t as bad as the last in that there were fewer attendees. The angry speakers made noise but, this time, they only stood out as all the more offensive.
Now, there was greater opportunity to listen to the people who knew what they were talking about. People who had worked in implementing stationary storage programs got up and explained how the fears of those opposed were unfounded. They gave examples of similar programs that had functioned for years without incident. They highlighted the net gains to the community from such programs.
But some didn’t hear. They weren’t moved by the rational arguments made by the people with experience in such matters. They countered with their cries that their kids would be in danger if a person stored stuff indoors during the day. They wanted a more severe solution to the problem. Representatives from the Department of Recreation and Parks assured them that there would be security cameras and that the police would enforce the hours of operation in the parks but none of this made them happy. They wanted something else.
A remarkable thing happened at one point in the evening when a man who had been unhoused for years got up to speak and described the effectiveness of another storage program in Venice. He spoke clearly and earnestly about the program’s tangible benefits to himself and others. Here, it was the looks on the faces of those in the audience who were against the program that revealed their souls. They saw the man speaking but they didn’t listen. Instead, they sat with hideous, detached half-smiles as they watched him. Their eyes were bent in a sort of condescending stare. It wasn’t a look of concern but of self-satisfied amusement that one might have watching a small animal in a cage. They didn’t hear. They just watched from their safe, high place.
Later, when one good speaker commented that most at the meeting would go home to their comfortable, warm beds, some individuals gave a pitiless sound of “Awww” as if to say that they just didn’t care about those who couldn’t. This sound sent chills through the room. And it made one thing clear. They had no mercy in them.
A person with a conscience feels shame when he or she reacts with indifference to another person’s suffering. It’s this conscience that checks us and restrains us from acts of cruelty. Our conscience compels us to sacrifice for the good of others. Those without a conscience become worse than indifferent. They actually delight in another human being’s pain. They look on and are entertained by an honest man’s heartfelt testimony.
There are, today in Venice, those who talk of making Venice “safe and clean”. Understand what they mean. They want the police to remove people from Venice permanently and by force if necessary. If they see others assaulted and humiliated by the police, they will laugh. And their laughter will mark them for all eternity.
Meanwhile, there are two more meetings on Homelessness scheduled by Mike Bonin’s office. One is for October 6 and the other for October 27. Both will be in the Westminster School auditorium. Perhaps there’s still time. And hope.