City of L.A.

Update on the Westminster Storage Facility

By Jon Wolff, Nov 2016

The two October Venice meetings that were scheduled to discuss Councilmember Mike Bonin’s plan to create a storage facility in the Westminster Senior Center for unhoused people in Venice were cancelled. If any further meetings are scheduled, the Councilmember’s office will announce them online. In the meantime, how is the storage facility coming along?

I had the opportunity, on October 26, to speak on the phone with Mr. Bonin’s Venice Field Representative, Taylor Bazley. He said that the construction of the facility would be completed in a couple of weeks. After that, the L.A. City Council will vote on if and how it will operate.

Although the Westminster facility project was announced back in March as part of a plan by Mike Bonin to address the issue of Homelessness, opponents of the facility attended meetings in September and filibustered any rational discussion. Mr. Bonin’s representatives later met with individuals in Venice, including members of the Venice Neighborhood Council, to find ways to improve the plan for “stakeholders” in Venice.

Opposition to the facility had come from those who claim to live near Westminster Park where the Westminster Senior Center is located. These “residents” had expressed fears at the September meetings that their kids, many of whom attend Westminster Avenue Elementary School across the street, would somehow be negatively impacted by the presence of unhoused people who use the storage facility. In response to their concerns, Mr. Bonin’s representatives asked for ideas to make it more acceptable. Mr. Bazley was able to cite one such idea, extra trash bins near the facility, as a way to make the facility work better.

At this time, the Westminster storage facility is the only new stationary facility planned in Venice. It consists of one hundred and twenty-six storage bins. By Mr. Bazley’s estimate, there are nine hundred unhoused persons in Venice. Other similar facilities are currently operating in San Pedro and Downtown L.A. The feasibility of these sites for use by those in need in Venice is for anyone to judge.

While construction of the Westminster facility is being completed, some in Venice have filed a lawsuit to prevent it from happening. If a court were to issue an injunction, it would be stopped but, so far, it’s legal.

One less-discussed effect of the existence of a storage facility is the expansion of police powers in regard to unhoused people. Last year’s L.A. Municipal Code 56.11 would have given the police the authority to ticket unhoused people and impound their possessions. Much of this authority was reined in when it became clear that a person without a place to store his or her belongings couldn’t be told to remove them from the public space. But now, if a storage facility begins operation, a radius from the site will establish a zone around the facility. The police will then, again, be able to take a person’s stuff if he or she falls within the zone.

It remains to be seen how this will play out. If the police are given more power to harass unhoused people, will they only harass within the delineated boundaries? If the zone of enforcement is one quarter of a mile around the storage facility, would a person be safe from police harassment if he or she sits one quarter of a mile and two feet from the facility? If the storage facility closes from lack of funding or from weather damage or fire, will the police automatically restrain themselves from enforcing LAMC 56.11 in the zone?

Will the effect of giving the police more power set a sticky precedent? Will some, in Venice, come to expect an easier process by which the police can ticket people and seize their possessions? Would there be times when the police overstep the bounds of their authority and leave it to their victims to sort it out later? Any student of History should hesitate to give the police more power than they already have.

Still, this seems to be the most frequently proposed answer to the housing crisis. Public meetings often fall back to this one issue. Little enthusiasm is expressed for actual low-income housing. Little attention is paid to illegal conversions of apartment buildings into hotels. And little enforcement is brought against developers who thumb their noses at city and state zoning laws and build more Big Ugly Boxes. Again and again, “doing something” about Homelessness is synonymous with “more police”.

But this doesn’t have to be. Why should anyone accept a compromise where the introduction of storage facilities for the unhoused in Venice has to come with more police abuse? Why should longtime and lifetime Venetians, who remember the days when the police were at war with the people, accept a “take it or leave it” offer?

Instead, envision a Venice where provision is made for those in need, as it once was. Imagine a Venice where the profiteers can’t get a solid footing here, as it once was. See a Venice where those living outside are living inside, as it once was. And realize a Venice where decisions about Venice aren’t made by somebody else.

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