August 2008 – Two Views on Homelessness and Criminalization: Town Hall Hears from the Experts

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By Karl Abrams

A Venice Town Hall meeting was held on July 9th at the Venice United Methodist Church. The well-attended meeting consisted of a variety of in-depth presentations by expert speakers on “Homelessness and Criminalization” followed by a film and Councilperson Bill Rosendahl fielding questions about what the community can do to help.

Two of the speakers were attorneys (Gary Blasi and Carol Sobel); two were Venice community activists (Calvin Moss and Steve Clare). All spoke eloquently and in detail about the complex causes and effects of homelessness. All speakers were introduced by the moderator, Rhonda Meister, the former Executive Director of St. Joseph’s Center.

Blasi, a UCLA law professor, emphasized that the strong arm of law enforcement and the criminalization of the homeless is not the right approach. 

According to Blasi, the costs associated with criminalizing the homeless are two to three times the cost of providing permanent housing. 

Blasi expressed his frustrations. “I’m both embarrassed and ashamed to be a resident of the city of L.A. and to see how little the city has done.” Blasi continued, “Venice, of all places, should be able to do better.”

Moss, a longtime Venice activist and co-director of Food Not Bombs, lived in several skid rows in cities across the U.S. during his life. He has seen how homeless locals are mistreated and how the “gypsy culture [in Venice] is under assault” by neo-liberal (right wing) politics. Moss pointed out that “people don’t understand [the importance of] alternate counter-cultures.”

 

Carol Sobel, a former American Civil Liberties Union attorney specializing in First Amendment issues, spoke about how some of the aged homeless belong in nursing homes and that “criminalizing everything is not going to resolve problems.” Sobel had a “victory’ to share at the Town Hall also. A recent coalition of lawyers “won a 2.5 million dollar settlement for people who have had their belongings (ID, medications, personal affects) confiscated.” She said that the mayor himself “was chastised in court for opposing [the settlement].”

All of the town hall speakers agreed that we must urgently provide the homeless of Venice with permanent affordable housing, jobs and health-care services. 

To do this, of course, requires the immediate help of an informed Venice community that can work with our elected officials to implement a list of viable solutions. 

The good news is that this list of solutions already exists. Steve Clare (Director of the Venice Community Housing Corporation), Bill Rosendahl and others who took part in the “Venice Task Force on Homelessness” have put together a list of 38 suggestions (see page 10) which must now be presented to our elected officials, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the City Council and the County Board of Supervisors. 

The bad news is that this task force was eliminated at an “administrative meeting” of the Venice Neighborhood Council (VNC) by people who have little concern for the homeless of Venice. A new committee was formed with two co-chairs (one of whom was recently seen on Fox news in a very one-sided interview unfavorable to the homeless). As a result, these 38 suggestions were not actually presented to the public by VNC, but instead were presented to the public during this Town Hall.

The next speaker, Bob Erlenbusch, provided listeners with specifics about what we can do on the national, state and local levels to bring about meaningful and urgent change. Erlenbusch is presently the Executive Director of the LA Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness and, at the same time, President of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

“Of the more than 12,000 units that were built by the city of L.A.”, Erlenbusch explained. “…Over 90 percent went to incomes of people who earn over $135,000 or more.” 

Erlenbusch said that nationally we should continually advocate for Section 8, support the Section Eight Voucher Reform Act (SEVRA) now in Congress and support the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which is calling for a National Housing Trust Fund. 

At the state level we were urged to support Housing California’s campaign for a permanent source of funding for affordable housing and a letter writing campaign to the Governor’s office to move the “California Plan to End Chronic Homelessness” off the shelf and into action.

At the local level Venetians can support Housing L.A. and meet with Councilperson Rosendahl to make use of his full support and his promise not to compromise. Generally, Erlenbusch said, we must continue to have dialogues and more town halls and support the L.A. “mixed-income residential development” ordinance. L.A. is one of the few cities in the nation that has not as yet adopted such an ordinance and Erlenbusch is pleased that “Bill Rosendahl is extremely supportive of that [new] ordinance” which gives developers incentives for bringing more affordable housing to L.A.. 

This Venice town hall on homelessness may ultimately be considered a great success. The people of Venice are now more informed about the homeless and more motivated than ever to help them get the affordable housing they deserve.

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