LA Leaders Pitched Emergency Homeless Shelters As Quick And Temporary. Here's The Reality
Last year In his State of the City address, Mayor Garcetti called homelessness "the greatest moral and humanitarian crisis of our time."
"It is time for tents to come down in our neighborhoods," he said at the time. "We need to stand up emergency shelters fast and we need to do it now."
Garcetti then unveiled his A Bridge Home initiative, a plan he said would "radically transform the way that we build emergency shelter and help us accelerate the pace of bringing people out of tents and back home."
The mayor's goal is to establish a temporary, emergency shelter in each of the city's 15 council districts, totaling at least 1,500 beds. The expectation was that these bridge housing sites would be fast-tracked "from application to construction, allowing those that meet legal and environmental standards to open their doors in as little as 32 weeks," according to the program's website.
So what happened next? Expectations met reality. NIMBYism reared its head in communities from Venice to the Valley. Construction costs soared higher than anticipated. Site proposals sat in limbo. Some were dropped. Others just recently moved forward.
In the first year of A Bridge Home, city officials say four sites have opened with 222 total beds for homeless Angelenos, though those numbers fluctuate based on which officials you ask (more on that later). The objective is to have all bridge housing sites at least under construction by July.
The latest numbers from the most recent L.A. city and county homeless count are expected to be released soon — and the news is expected to be bad. According to Garcetti, homelessness has gone up in the city. We should have a clearer idea of how much by early next week (the number in L.A. County in 2018 was 52,765).
In the meantime, here's a look at how one specific piece of the city's efforts to combat homelessness has struggled and changed — and what city leaders have learned in the process.
A BRIDGE HOME, ABRIDGED
When Garcetti announced A Bridge Home (ABH) last April, he framed it as a solution to bridge the gap between sleeping on the street and finding supportive, longer-term housing (hence, bridge housing).
Once in these facilities, homeless Angelenos would be provided food and shelter, as well as access to health, employment and wellness services as they awaited placement in supportive housing. Once they'd moved on and their bed opened up, another person in need could use it while they started the process of finding housing.
As an incentive, the mayor set aside $20 million to be spread evenly among L.A. council districts to build ABH sites, with the promise of enhanced community services, like increased street sweeping and police patrols, to ease residents' fears that the shelters would lead to more crime and tank home values.
The same week of the announcement, the L.A. leaders declared a homeless shelter crisis, which paved the way for the city, theoretically at least, to stand up shelters quickly on land it owns or leases. That's because a state law dealing with emergencies allows some red tape to be bypassed. Garcetti then took another step intended to keep the plan moving quickly: On May 30, 2018, he signed Executive Directive 24, designed to streamline the study, planning and building phases among the various city departments involved in construction projects.
"Bureaucracy will not slow us down," Garcetti vowed.
Although other forces, like entrenched NIMBYism, can — and did in several instances, as we've reported. But enraged residents weren't the only holdup.
EXPECTATIONS VS. REALITY
The bigger challenge? According to Christina Miller, L.A.'s deputy mayor for city homelessness initiatives, that's been higher site and building costs than the city anticipated.
"We can't control some of the cost of doing construction in the city," Miller told LAist this week. "We're in sort of a construction boom right now. And so those are things that are out of our control and that we've found to be challenging as we looked at the initial assessment of what it might take to stand up these programs."
That $20 million city fund for bridge housing the mayor announced a year ago is tapped out, Miller said. Now the city is looking to state grants and county partnerships to keep ABH projects moving forward.
"In many respects, (it's) a little too late and very short from where we need to be," City Councilman David Ryu said of the initiative. "That's why we are pushing aggressively and heavily to make sure that we increase the outreach, and that we increase the building of housing for those experiencing homelessness."
WHERE SITES ARE BUILT, APPROVED AND PROPOSED
We've been tracking the progress of ABH shelters since September, when the first site opened in Councilman José Huizar's district. You can explore our map below for the scope of projects and where they're at in the process.
You might notice no bridge housing sites have been proposed in District 12, which includes Northridge, Chatsworth and Porter Ranch. That's because there's no councilmember there to propose one. Mitch Englander resigned from his post in October and the district is holding a primary election for the seat on June 4.
While Councilman Paul Koretz previously proposed a few sites for District 5, which includes Westwood and Bel Air, the locations were deemed infeasible and no projects are currently being studied in the district.
Just last week, Councilwoman Nury Martinez submitted her first ABH proposal, seeking a study on a Metro-owned parking lot in Van Nuys, where "there appears to be underutilized parking," according to a motion.
Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents the communities of Watts, Wilmington and San Pedro, said he answered an initially negative community response with "over 150 community meetings and three large information fairs which helped gain widespread support." The three proposals he's made would create 300 shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness in his district. One is under construction and two more are being assessed.
"Once ABH is in place in every council district and thousands of people are taken off of our streets and given the services they need, the City will see a significant and positive change," he told LAist. "I wish the program better reflected the urgency declared in [Mayor Garcetti's] executive directive."
Here's the status of ABH facilities still underway according to the city's most recent "weekly dashboard" that tracks the program: Six sites are being studied, nine have been approved and five are currently under construction.
Note: Our map doesn't include some sites that predate the mayor's program but are now counted by city leaders (more on that below).
A STEEP LEARNING CURVE
For Councilman Ryu and other city leaders who've worked to get these shelters built in the communities they serve, Year One of A Bridge Home brought a fair share of lessons.
"Building anything in the city of Los Angeles, as we know, is very difficult," Ryu said. "It is proving cumbersome, (but) we're getting better. We're learning some of the pitfalls... and making sure that we avoid them so we build it even faster the next time."
Ryu experienced some of those pitfalls in Sherman Oaks, where things quickly went downhill — before anything was actually decided.
Flashback to summer 2018. Ryu asked the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council and the community homeowner's association to find sites they thought could work for bridge housing. They suggested 5161 Sepulveda Blvd., land owned and operated by the U.S. Army Reserve.
An open house Ryu hosted in September to discuss the idea with community members turned ugly fast. Angry residents organized a protest and the meeting quickly spiraled into shouting and chants of "recall!"
"We brought it to (residents) well before — well before — any decisions were made, because I wanted to be fully transparent. I wanted the community to engage early on," the councilman said. "Clearly there was so much mistrust, they felt that it was already a done deal when no city study was even done."
No study was ever done, in fact. Army Reserve officers, who district officials said were initially receptive to the idea, fell silent and city staff couldn't set foot on the land to assess it. After about seven months and zero movement, Ryu called it a day in Sherman Oaks.
LA EXPLAINED: Why Does LA Have So Many Homeless People?
WHAT HAPPENED IN KOREATOWN
Then there was City Council President Herb Wesson, who last May led the charge by announcing the inaugural ABH project would be in Koreatown. The proposal was to build the shelter on a city-owned parking lot in the heart of the neighborhood.
Community members protested in the streets and threatened to recall Wesson. A few weeks later, he walked back the plan and said he'd restart the process with a focus on community input. It was another 10 months before new sites were approved.
One is a 70-bed shelter set to be built on a corner of Lafayette Park on the edge of Wesson's district. The second was approved for the parking lot at Wesson's district office on Western Avenue in the Harvard Heights / Arlington Heights area. That shelter is slated to house women and children with up to 18 beds.
Combined, the projects have an estimated pricetag of $7 million, all of which is coming from the state's Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP) fund, according to a district official.
Wesson said his experience was a lesson not just to him, but to the rest of the city's councilmembers as they worked to find sites in their own districts.
"It gave people, examples, answers to the types of approaches they could take when they were dealing with their community," he said. "I think it also showed them that they had to be tough, that they had to have resolve and that they had to be determined that this was not going to be some easy thing."
PUSHBACK IN VENICE
Last June, Councilman Mike Bonin proposed a shelter for Venice at a former Metro bus yard, with plans to house 100 adults and 54 youth experiencing homelessness. Meetings were held, rage was displayed, but Bonin kept the project rolling. It was approved in December and a District 11 spokesman said at the time that the site was likely to open in the spring (as in about now).
But in January, a Venice homeowner and business group sued, claiming the city had rushed environmental reviews. Four months later, the case is still pending, but a Los Angeles Superior Court judge recently denied an injunction to halt construction. On May 16, Bonin's office said construction would begin in a few weeks and the site would open late this summer.
"Venice has been an active part of the city's efforts to combat homelessness for years, and unfortunately there are those in the community who often resort to legal action to try and prevent solutions like bridge housing from moving forward," Bonin told LAist. "Many, many more people in Venice, however, are committed to finding sustainable solutions and helping people move off the streets and into housing for good."
During Wednesday's Town Hall meeting on bridge housing, when I was talking about a formerly homeless veteran I met, someone yelled out "don't humanize it!" If there is any issue I work on that demands to be humanized, it is our homelessness crisis. pic.twitter.com/1leiMz2YNd— Mike Bonin-Official (@MikeBoninLA) October 19, 2018
Adding to the troubles in District 11, construction of a bridge housing site for veterans at the West L.A. Veterans Affairs campus was delayed after contractors "inadvertently disturbed an underground pipe containing asbestos" late last year, V.A. officials confirmed this week. Work on the site was halted while the area was cleaned up and monitored for hazardous conditions. The V.A. said they hope to wrap up those efforts this month and turn the project over to the city.
A spokesman for Councilman Bonin said the goal is to have the site open by the end of summer.
HOW THE TEMPORARY SHELTER PROGRAM HAS "EVOLVED"
Miller said the program has come a long way and "evolved" from the mayor's initial goal of 15 emergency shelters and 1,500 beds. One notable change: the once "temporary facility" program now includes permanent shelters.
When the mayor and city officials first started pitching bridge housing to communities, the understanding was that the sites would be open three years max. The phrase "temporary emergency homeless shelter" appears 23 times in the mayor's executive order and the city's ABH website assures residents of that three-year timeframe.
The reality? Some sites are set to stay open longer.
For example: A former mental health facility in Canoga Park, which received $1.3 million from the bridge housing fund and another $3 million in state grants, according to Jake Flynn, a spokesman for Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who represents the West Valley. But it's L.A. County, not the city, that will actually renovate and operate the shelter, which Blumenfield refers to as "a permanent facility for temporary housing," Flynn said.
"We got creative," Flynn said. "We essentially bought the property for the county to operate."
The agreement is for the county to "provide no less than fifteen years of homeless services," according to a press release in March. Flynn said the move was borne out of the historic lack of permanent homeless services in the Valley. District officials simply took advantage of the available money to secure a longer-term need.
"We need every solution we possibly can find," Miller said. "While the initial onset of the program was to look at temporary structures that would come down after a period of time... we recognized there was a lot of other potential out there to partner with the county, to partner with the private market, and to really be creative in what our solutions look like citywide."
WHAT QUALIFIES AS AN ABH FACILITY?
If you're confused about what is and is not an "A Bridge Home" shelter, you're not alone. Not even city leaders are on the same page.
Take 1215 Lodi PIace, located in Councilman Mitch O'Farrell's 13th District. Miller and others in the mayor's office say it's an ABH site, though it received no funding through the program. The site is owned by the YWCA, which converted it to a bridge housing facility without the city's involvement, according to the City Administrative Office.
"The YWCA facility is bridge housing, however it is not part of the 'A Bridge Home' program the Mayor announced last year," said Tony Arranga, a spokesman for O'Farrell's office. "ABH provides housing and wrap around services for its residents, and enhanced services in the surrounding community. The YWCA program does not include the latter."
Miller said city staff assessed some sites, including the YWCA site, and found they did not require "the full suite of resources that come with the prototypical A Bridge Home project." But she contends that it still counts.
"It is a project that we think of as being under the umbrella of our A Bridge Home program," Miller said. "This is about getting people off the streets, in the community that they are living in and making sure that the sites are accessible, safe, enriched with services, and create a pathway for them to permanently resolve their homelessness and that's what YWCA does."
There's a similar issue in District 4, where two Hollywood projects that predate the mayor's program are now classified as ABH sites by his office. One is the Aviva center, which is being upgraded to provide bridge housing to young women. The other, a 30-bed women's shelter, was first proposed by Councilman Ryu in November 2017 and broke ground the following November.
A spokesman for Ryu's office said a proposed shelter in Los Feliz "is the only 'A Bridge Home' site [that's] a part of the Mayor's initiative."
It might be taking longer than expected to get off the ground, but there are signs that the ABH program is working for those who have been helped so far.
The first shelter to open under the program was the El Puente site (previously called El Pueblo) across from Union Station. Service providers there say eight residents have transitioned into housing and another eight were recently matched.
And despite the NIMBY backlash that makes the news, city leaders and community organizers say more residents are recognizing the need and stepping up to support building sites in their neighborhoods.
"What we've learned is that when we share accurate and clear information about what bridge housing is and how it operates, people were willing to support it," said Gabriela Garcia, deputy director of organizing for the United Way's Everyone In campaign, which has been an advocate for the program this past year. "With a number of sites in the pipeline, we see a real path creating hundreds of beds that will bring people indoors and save lives."
That's playing out in Los Feliz, where a site is being studied on the southeastern edge of Griffith Park. Councilman Ryu said he's "ecstatic" that the idea has been embraced by the community and credits an emphasis on transparency and consistent outreach.
"That's why I think we're starting to see a change in a shift in neighborhoods understanding the gravity of this situation and the need for everyone to roll up their sleeves and pitch in," he said.
"Homelessness didn't happen overnight. It happened over decades. And homelessness is not going to be solved overnight. It's unfortunately going to take years. And it's a long road ahead of us."
Miller said that, despite the setbacks, ABH has grown "far beyond what we really expected it to be."
"We're scaling up all those program components at the same time, at a magnitude which no other city is doing to this scale," she said, "and we're really, really proud of our work."
And as the media — and the public — await the release of figures showing that homelessness has risen in the city and county, Miller said the system L.A. has built to get people off the streets "is working better than it's ever worked before."
"Now, it's really time to turn our attention to how we keep people from experiencing homelessness in the first place, which is being done now," she said. "To scale that even greater is really going to be the task of next year."
Tuesday, June 4, 2:10 p.m.: This article was updated with information about asbestos cleanup at the bridge housing site under construction at the the West Los Angeles V.A. campus.
12:15 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify the timetable for the city's bridge housing construction goal.
This article was originally published at 7 a.m. on June 3.