Homelessness is rising all around Los Angeles, especially in Venice where the growing population has correlated with an increase in crime, fires, and trash pollution and resulted in widespread community frustration over a perceived lack of government accountability.

The Daily Press interviewed CD-11 Councilman Mike Bonin about his approach to homelessness and why Los Angeles’ current response systems are failing.

Why does Venice have a huge unhoused population compared to the rest of your district?

Homelessness is increasing everywhere and has increased at greater rates in the areas where homelessness has historically been present. There is this desire to tell unhoused people where to go, but until you have provided a place for people to go, unhoused people get to determine where they go.

If anything has contributed to a growth in Venice outside of the general growth of homelessness, It’s that the neighboring jurisdictions of Santa Monica and unincorporated Marina have an ability to effectively force encampments into Venice, because those jurisdictions have not been held as accountable to the court decisions in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a big city, so Los Angeles gets lawsuits, and the smaller jurisdictions tend to escape scrutiny more.

Why hasn’t the Venice Bridge Home lived up to its promises of decreasing the surrounding homeless population?

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. And, as a result of the pandemic, a lot more people have become homeless.

What is your plan for dealing with the increase in tents around the Bridge Home?

I’m pushing right now for something that should be a big fix. The Biden administration said between now and September they will provide 100% reimbursement for governments purchasing non-congregant shelters, meaning hotel rooms or individual rooms. Getting tens of thousands of people off the street with that being paid for by the administration, makes the problem on the streets significantly smaller.

The other thing that I should say in response to people talking about the lack of enforcement is that currently guidance from both the Department of Public Health and Center for Disease Control is you shouldn’t be making people dismantle their tents and scatter.

People think forced clean-ups will make encampments disappear. They won’t and what we’ve wound up having is people who get locked in a cycle of homelessness because their possessions or their papers get stolen. Me and a couple of my colleagues are pushing for a voluntary sanitation service. It’s a lot cheaper and more effective if you say to folks on 3rd St. ‘okay, we’re coming by on Thursday, put all the trash here and we’ll pick it up’.

Do you fear that offering regular free trash removal will encourage people to get comfortable and stay around?

The alternative, the involuntary non cooperative system, certainly isn’t working. While there may be some people who fit the description of rejecting services, we have historically had this approach in Los Angeles that our policy is not dictated by the people who don’t cooperate, but by the larger number of people who do want housing and services.

What is your ideal vision for tackling homelessness?

The biggest problem with homelessness solutions is the City, County, and agencies tend to do one thing at a time, and they do it really slowly and really expensively.

One thing we have been fighting for five years is shared housing. You can put six to eight people into a four or five bedroom home somewhere and they thrive. You’re not spending millions of dollars to build the housing, you’re using a house that’s already there.

The second thing I would do is master leasing, which The People Concern in Santa Monica has already done. You rent whole apartment buildings or you rent vacant units in an apartment building. Then once somebody on the street says ‘yeah, I’m willing to come indoors’, you can move them that night, instead of making them sit on a waiting list for six months. The government covers any gaps in rent and handles services by hiring a non-profit.

The third, and this is particularly scalable, is to buy the hotels and motels from Project Roomkey. Each place you buy has a couple hundred rooms that can be used for long term housing.

To what degree should homelessness be treated as a drug issue? Should there be more services focused on that?

Homelessness is a housing issue, but you can be homeless with multiple things that need help. If you’re homeless and unemployed, you need to be housed and you need a job. If you are homeless and suffer from an addiction, you need to be housed and you need substance abuse help. If you’re homeless with a physical illness, you need to be housed and you need health care.

Housing first and harm reduction is more successful than saying to people, we’re not going to give you a set of keys until you can demonstrate that you’re sober, or until you can demonstrate that you’re on your meds and you regularly make an appointment with your mental health professional.

It’s a lot easier to get sober or to get physically or mentally well with a roof over your head.