An Encampment to Home program, akin to the interventions used to clear the Boardwalk and Westchester Park encampments, is being planned for Centennial Park to place everyone living in the park on a pathway to permanent housing. 

A representative from homeless service provider St. Joseph Center said their organization is working on the City of LA’s plan to address the encampment.

During the past two Encampment to Home programs, St. Joseph’s workers spent weeks gaining trust with people living in the encampments before placing them in housing. After everyone left the encampment areas, LA City Sanitation workers came in and cleaned up the remnants. 

Initial housing placements included permanent housing where available, but were often temporary, such as Project Roomkey beds or the Venice Bridge Home shelter. While individuals are in interim housing, case workers try to connect them to permanent housing. The Boardwalk program included 213 participants, while the Westchester Park program involved around 100. 

The timeline of when an Encampment to Home intervention will begin in Centennial Park is unknown. CD-11 is currently working to identify the resources necessary to conduct such a program. 

“Permanent housing resources are scarce — Councilmember Bonin’s focus on them is what made Venice Beach Encampments to Homes the most effective housing operation in LA’s recent history — but they’re achievable, and we’re working hard to secure them,” said Alex McElvain, Communications Deputy for CD-11 Councilman Mike Bonin. “Without housing, all any displacement at Centennial will do is scatter the residents deeper into residential neighborhoods, and that’s not something that makes sense for anybody.”

How the Centennial Park became a trouble spot so quickly is a reflection of Los Angeles’ continuously growing homeless population alongside weak spots in the City’s current intervention model.

From a public park to point of crisis

A sea of brightly colored tents, trash and homemade art randomly strewn, music pumping from speakers, the smell of marijuana drifting through the air and the odd body splayed napping in the sun — a morning walk through Venice’s Centennial Park feels like picking through the aftermath of a festival weekend.

The cognitive dissonance of what it actually is takes a moment to register. A public park just one block from the designer shops of Abbot Kinney Boulevard feels like an odd location for a sprawling homeless encampment. Nevertheless, Centennial Park is not a gathering of partied out music lovers, but a growing campground of unhoused individuals.

The encampment began in November with a handful of tents pitched on the grassy median of Venice Boulevard in front of the Abbot Kinney Memorial Library. Initially, LA City Sanitation clean-ups took place regularly in the park and the number of tents remained stable. In the new year they began to grow. In January, there were around 20 tents; by the end of February that jumped up to 40 and now there are around 60. 

LA City Sanitation clean-ups have stopped taking place in the park, but continue in the surrounding sidewalk areas. A scheduled March 23 clean-up was canceled, and as tents and trash continue to pile up, there is no word on if they will resume. A representative from Mike Bonin’s office said organizing clean-ups inside the park was the responsibility of Parks and Recreation. The park ranger in charge of Centennial Park did not respond to a request for comment. 

The park is now plagued by many of the same issues that drew national media attention to the Venice Boardwalk last summer, which is creating an unsafe environment for housed and unhoused people alike. 

Encampment fires break out frequently and drug use is rampant. A shooting took place in the park at 3:15 a.m. on Feb. 14 and left one homeless individual with a severe leg injury. Residents report being woken by screams in the middle of the night and their discontent is growing.

“I have seen increased theft, vandalism and drug use in the immediate vicinity of the encampment and also on the streets around my home since the encampment grew,” said local resident Andrew Walter. “I no longer see my neighbors playing soccer or catch in the park nor do I get to ride my bike through that area or throw a frisbee there with my children. That park is not a freeway overpass, it was a community gathering spot… and it has been taken over.”

Following a recent motion passed by the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Homeless Committee, the City is coordinating the installation of port-a-potties and handwashing stations in the park. Committee member Brian Ulf said he hopes this installation will lessen encampment dwellers use of the nearby library bathroom and improve residents’ ability to access that resource. Several residents submitted comments in opposition to the motion for fear it would further entrench the encampment. 

Currently, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, St. Joseph Center, and nonprofit Urban Alchemy work to provide outreach in the park on a daily basis. This includes giving out free food and water and advising individuals on the temporary housing options available. So far the rate of new dwellers coming to the park significantly outpaces the rate of people moving into temporary housing.

Several of the people living in Centennial Park have come from previous temporary housing placements. 

One current encampment dweller, Justin Curtis, said he has been living in the park on and off for four months after giving up his bed at the Midnight Mission shelter in Downtown. Curtis is originally from Florida where he served 18 years in prison. After getting out he headed to Venice. He said he was very interested in permanent housing, but not interested in getting a job. 

“I can’t do the nine to five, I can’t. I’ve lost too much time,” said Curtis. “That’s your whole f**king day, that becomes your life and I can’t do that. That’s my nightmare.”

Another Centennial Park dweller, Mark Perona, said he was interested in regaining employment. He said he fell into homelessness after losing his restaurant job at the outset of the pandemic, but said he is not interested in moving into a shelter and would prefer to remain camping outdoors. 

“I’m not going to go into a group situation. I can’t at this age, I have a couple of early incarcerations under my belt, I’ve raised two children, I just can’t. I would not do good in a group shelter,” said Perona.

Traci Park, a longtime Venice resident who is running for LA City Council District 11, spent several days studying the encampment and speaking with its residents.

“In my conversations with folks, the vast majority of them had come from Ocean Front Walk [the Boardwalk] and Westchester Park and another significant portion of them had come because they were coming out of different shelters and things like Project Roomkey and didn’t have other housing arrangements lined up,” said Park. 

The last two Encampment to Home programs successfully cleared the Boardwalk and Westchester Park without making any arrests or taking any steps to criminalize homelessness. As of April 1, the Boardwalk Encampment to Home Program has permanently housed 88 individuals, while 68 remain in interim housing.

One of the weaknesses of the Encampment to Home model is some unhoused individuals are unwilling to remain in temporary housing long enough to get off the waiting list for permanent housing.

Roughly a quarter of the 213 individuals St. Joseph moved off of the Boardwalk in summer 2021 have since exited their housing placement. 

There are a wide variety of reasons that some, but certainly not all, people may prefer camping outdoors to the City’s temporary housing options. Temporary housing can come with curfews, prohibit drug use, prohibit pets, confiscate weapons, cut people off from the social bonds they formed in encampments and place them in spaces with people they don’t get along with. 

Brian Ulf, a Venice resident and the President of housing non-profit organization SHARE!, said that he’s also found that many people in Centennial Park have been in and out of temporary housing. 

With funding from Mike Bonin’s office, his organization placed 36 people from the Boardwalk in a less traditional housing model known as shared housing. Ulf’s organization houses small groups of people in a single family home where they have to abide by communally created house rules and participate in regular group counseling sessions. This is a different model than Project Roomkey where participants are each given their own hotel or motel room and live alone or from congregate shelters where large groups share a single building. 

“When you put these people into hotel rooms by themselves with no rules or no ability or desire to have to change… people don’t do it. Yeah, a percentage do, but what you’re seeing in Centennial Park are people that have been in and have left or refused to go. They are not just all new people,” said Ulf. 

One of the factors contributing to the greater concentration of encampments in Venice as compared to other areas of Los Angeles is Councilman Mike Bonin’s opposition to enforcing anti-camping ordinances. 

He was one of two LA City Councilmembers to vote against the reinstatement and expansion of LA Municipal Code 41.18, which makes it illegal to “sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way.”

Per his district website, Bonin believes enforcing 41.18 makes the problem worse because it pushes people from neighborhood to neighborhood and severs connections they may have formed with homeless services and housing resources. 

The future acceptance of unhoused individuals camping in the public way in Venice will depend on the next CD-11 representative, as Bonin is not running for re-election this year.

Clara@smdp.com

Twitter: @_ClaraHarter