Thursday, October 18, 2018

Venice Divided - The Town Hall Meeting On The Bridge Housing Project

There was a Town Hall meeting last night at Westminster Elementary School regarding the proposed Bridge Housing project. A heated mob rudely shouted over each other on both sides of the issue. Most likely shady politicians calmly took the heat. Nothing was resolved.

That could be the whole story right there, but, of course, it isn't. There are so many aspects to the homelessness CRISIS that you really could talk about it all night long - which we almost did. I got there at 4:30 to prepare for shooting the encounter for our upcoming documentary about income inequality and housing in Venice - 90291: Venice Unzipped, and the people of Venice certainly gave us the drama. I stayed until the last person had left, helping someone find their keys in the parking lot, after 11. I heard every word. I was emotionally drained at the end of the night, and frankly, kind of embarrassed. I've never seen my fellow townspeople behave so rudely. I get that it's a hot topic and people feel strongly about it all, but seriously, have some respect. Angry hordes tend to not make much progress, as we all witnessed last night. I truly thought Venice was better than this. But I'm getting ahead of myself. (And by the way, if this is how people act HERE, in "the coolest city in America", famous for its mellow vibes and wide open embrace of all things eclectic, then imagine how gnarly things must get in more conservative areas of the country. If this is how the collective citizenship thinks they can negotiate ANYTHING ... this country is doomed. For real.)

When we got there to set up cameras and stuff, there was already a line of people waiting to get into the auditorium. There were check-in tents and media vans and political booths and refreshment stands and an overflow seating area with a big screen set up that was nearly as big as the space inside. And it was all full. People in Venice CARE about this issue. Whether or not they care about the actual homeless human beings being discussed, which many in the house seemed not to at all. Some wore "Venice Fight Back!" shirts. Some wore "Recall Bonin!" shirts (very popular). Some wore "I walked here, I wasn't bused here!" shirts. ALL were very passionate about their point of view.

Earlier in the day I had met with Bill Attaway, and he told me he was going to this meeting too, and was "just going to listen". I took his lead on that, as I really don't know which side of this particular issue I come down on. I care deeply about the homeless crisis, because I have a lot of empathy in me, but also because, technically, I'M still kind of homeless. I got the boot from another jerk greedy landlord, and still haven't been able to bring myself to want to pay $3,000 a month for a studio with a hot plate. I often think about leaving Venice for this reason, but I think everyone who has ever read one of my stories knows how hard that would be for me to do. So I retain hope that some remaining cool landlord will have mercy and let me remain here, but last night that hope was even further dampened, when I realized so many people (mainly new ones that I don't know from the looks of it) care only about their property values and have never contributed significantly or meaningfully to Venice in any way other than paying their property taxes. There were also long-time residents who are just fed up with all the new encampments and crimes, but they should also be used to a lot of that by now. We've never been Brentwood - nor do we want to be. So many people there last night seemed to lack basic humanity that it was depressing. I'd go so far as to compare it to a disgusting Trump rally. SO rude. But I'm not interested in the problems as much as I am in the SOLUTIONS. Of which very few were offered at last night's mélee.

The thing was supposed to start at 6 p.m., but it's always Venice Standard Time, so at 6:30, there was only a room getting hotter, both literally and figuratively (In fact, "TURN ON THE A.C.!" was one of the most well-received chants of the night, with Garcetti cracking, "See, we can agree!"). A banner that garnered applause when it was unfurled read, "Venice - Where human poop and needles are part of the fun!" Finally, the moderator, Alex Cohen of Spectrum News, came up to explain the meeting's rules (which were fully ignored), and introduce Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti, Councilman for District 11, Mike Bonin (who was greeted by chants of "Recall Bonin!" and was consistently booed all night), and LAPD Police Chief, Michel Moore. The atmosphere was hostile from the outset, and chants of "Venice Says No!" (with yells of "YES!" in the pause) drowned out the intro.

Both Garcetti and Bonin gave little speeches that were constantly interrupted by shouts of "LIES!" and still more BOOOOOs. Garcetti had a little slide show that broke down the homelessness issue into three parts: Trauma, Economic, and Health. That was just about the only time the real roots of the problem were addressed - again, with no solutions. Bonin said "Doing nothing is not an option," which is true, but it seems like no one is going to be able to agree on what the something that should be done is. The ONLY solutions I heard all night (Because the Bridge project is not a solution. It is merely a small attempt to stanch the bleeding temporarily.) were to turn the lot into a home for Venice's senior citizens who are being priced out after living here all their lives, and to build a tent type city in a parking lot at Dockweiler Beach, away from everyone. People brought up that Venice is now a "Containment City", but that tent city idea sounds a bit like an internment camp. And that's not who we are. But it was an attempt at a solution, which hardly anyone else could offer. They just shouted.

The proposed "A Bridge Home" project would be at the MTA lot site bordered by Pacific and Main. They want to build a bigass structure to house 154 homeless individuals there a block from the beach, that would only be there for 3 years, as the MTA has other plans for the site. That seems dumb to me. Why spend all kinds of dough on a band-aid idea that is only temporary? That makes no sense. Not wanting this project doesn't make you at all a bad person. But not caring about homeless human beings kind of does.

On the other hand, where would people propose that the homeless go? People were shouting "Palisades!" "Mar Vista!" "YOUR neighborhood!" ... but that's forgetting that it (so far) remains a free country, and how are you going to tell anyone that they HAVE to go to a certain area? What would these loudest, rudest mouths do if someone told THEM they HAD to go live in a particular spot? C'mon. That won't work.

Several people brought up that the project is located near three schools and they don't want their children near that. To them, I would ask, would you rather have them step over sleeping bodies on the sidewalks, as they do now, or have these people be inside a building, out of sight and reach? I would also again ask them, what if it was you? Where would be acceptable for you to go? I can tell you personally how quickly you can have the housing rug in Venice pulled out from under you, and suddenly you're one of them, if not for being reasonably sane, having a work ethic, and having great friendships and opportunities, you could be screaming about me. That's being for real. It COULD be you real easy.

A big part of the problem - or maybe the main part - is that the homeless population now is different than it was when I moved here almost half my life ago. Then you knew the homeless folks by name, and looked out for them. It was Dr. John. It was (and is) David Busch. It was (and is) Cam. It was the blonde lady (whose name I forget, sorry) who talked to herself and bummed smokes up and down Abbot Kinney all day. Harmless. Friends, actually. Now there is a much more menacing element - and many more of them than there ever was. They're actually scary, and I'm rarely scared in Venice. As one person put it, "How do you separate the transient tweakers from the down on their luck people?" It's impossible to speak of the homeless as one entity. There are meth heads who just want to party and choose to be homeless. There are teachers whose salaries don't cover L.A. rents. There are abused women and their children. There are the elderly whose social security covers almost nothing. There is me. How do you clump it all under one umbrella? You can't. And that's where compassion, empathy, and looking out for each other comes in. We are a COMMUNITY, after all. Please try to remember that. Remember how Venice used to have each others' backs. That has always been a source of pride to me in living here, and now I feel that it's almost as endangered here as affordable housing is. We can be better.

People were SO disrespectful to the elected officials, but even more sadly, to each other. The whole thing took so long because it was just constant yelling. People got kicked out. People got yelled at to "Shut up!" Some stood patiently in line to wait their turn to ask their questions, but were almost always shouted over, whatever they had to say. You can see it all yourselves, as multiple news outlets were present (and it's going in our movie). I was real disappointed by the disruptive behavior, and at one point it was all so upsetting I almost cried out loud. And I wasn't alone. Many people stood up to stare at and condemn the yellers, and many I talked to after spoke of choking up and getting chills themselves. This just isn't the Venice I know. And LOVE.

Garcetti and Bonin took it all, far more calmly and respectfully than I think anyone else in there could have been. That doesn't mean that they weren't evasive and talking in soundbites, never really offering a cohesive argument, and very much acting like it was a done deal. One person asked Garcetti pointedly, "How can we trust you to run our country?" (referring to rumors that the Mayor is going to run for President). He could obviously take the heat, but we want our leaders to be able to handle the big ideas, and Garcetti didn't come close to proving that. Bonin sat there like a punching bag all night (much of it deserved), being told by one angry Venetian, "You created it, Mike Bonin, no one else!" Obviously Bonin didn't create the homeless problem, but he's thus far done nothing to make it better for Venice (and STILL hasn't hooked up Jesse Martinez with the job to clean the Skatepark, as promised). When asked what percentage of people in the little survey he'd done about approval for this project, Bonin totally dodged, and was then told it was a paltry 5%. Hardly a majority of our community, and he should have fully expected this backlash. Chief Moore (who urged anyone who had a policing problem to email him at: - get ready Mr. Moore. I hope you really read them.) was the only one who came close to cracking at the abuse being thrown at him, telling one person to share their expertise after he shared his - Burn. There was a lot of dodging questions and "Hopefullys" going on from this group on stage, to which one person shouted, "Hope isn't a strategy!" True. And clearly multiple strategies are needed. Starting with the roots of the crisis. Income Inequality. Corporate and Individual Greed. Shady Politicians. The Idiocracy currently in office. Mental Health. The Opioid Crisis. Lack of Affordable Housing. And you know what? It's only going to get worse. Climate change. The 1%. On and on ... and nothing will improve if we can't even have a productive discussion about it ALL.

The questions went on forever, never getting any real answers. To their credit, the Mayor, Councilman, and Police Chief all stayed there once the public forum was over, answering any and all questions from the crowd that descended upon them afterward. For a looooong time. I don't think anyone left there satisfied, but it's like one resident told me after seeing my sad face, "It's like therapy, the first session is always terrible."

Small consolation, but the better feeling was when I finally made it back outside, and was greeted by a line of people having a candlelight vigil for the homeless, and for compassion. There was another big confrontation outside (with tens of police officers standing by, just in case), with Venice residents (wearing shirts proclaiming it so) getting mad that people in the vigil were from places like Eagle Rock, thus this Venice issue is none of their business. It got tense, and then - because some people still have grace and decorum - they found common ground. They shook hands. They hugged. They realized we're all in this big Los Angeles situation together. They found their humanity.

My favorite speaker of the night was a woman named Wendy Lockett (I believe I heard that right), who was born and raised in Venice, and is now homeless here herself. She took exception to all of the people clumping all homeless together in one big mess of disdain and dismissal. She was displaced by yet another dickhead landlord kicking out people to jack up prices for Air BNB visitors. She is connected to Venice. She doesn't want to be kicked out to the Palisades or Pacoima or anywhere else proposed  - who would? She calmly shut down people yelling during her time, and told how she cleans the beach every day, she has never left a needle behind, she has never defecated in a yard, she has never ripped off a bike, and she tells other homeless people making those kinds of problems to knock it off. She belongs here more than several newcomers who care nothing about being a contributing member of our community, and only want to live somewhere deemed "cool". They don't get it. They moved here without knowing what they were getting into, clearly, and think their money is suddenly going to turn this place into Brentwood. Sorry, it'll never happen. That's not who Venice has ever been, is, or wants to be.

Ms. Lockett ended her time - and I'll end mine here as well  - by saying, "Venice is supposed to be about Community and Love." Exactly. Please remember that, and look into your own hearts as we attempt to find solutions to this very sad crisis together - with respect, and yes - Love.

*Sorry this is so long. Believe me, the night was much longer. I need a drink.

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