Coastal Residents Lose Emergency Bid to Block Homeless Shelter

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A California judge denied a bid Friday by homeowners of a coastal town to halt construction of a 154-bed homeless shelter, despite residents’ concerns the shelter will attract more homeless people and boost crime and noise levels.

Under the “A Bridge Home” initiative, Los Angeles plans to temporarily house at least 6,000 homeless residents per year in 25 shelters built across each of the city’s 15 council districts. Three are currently operational.

The nearly $80 million initiative was launched by Mayor Eric Garcetti as a response to the homelessness crisis and is meant to give unsheltered residents access to temporary housing and services like mental health counseling.

According to an annual count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, nearly 23,000 people slept on LA streets in 2018 and nearly 53,000 homeless reside in LA County.

Despite bond measures and sales taxes approved by voters in recent years to fund construction of housing for the homeless, the city has faced considerable resistance to the shelter initiative.

In a March 26 motion to halt the 154-bed shelter, the Venice Stakeholders Association said Los Angeles unjustly fast-tracked environmental review and didn’t consider an increase in noise levels from people in the shelter or its air conditioning units.

The site, a former bus yard one block from Venice Beach, is surrounded by single and multifamily homes. The shelter will include a dog play area, trailers and a large fabric tent.

Venice homeowners said Los Angeles received an unfair exemption for California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review and that both the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and California Coastal Commission improperly approved the project.

“In the end, there was no meaningful review by the city, the Coastal Commission or the MTA of the impacts of this large and unusual project to the residential neighborhood that surrounds it on all four sides,” the homeowners said in their motion.

On Friday, their attorney John Henning told LA County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff that the city’s CEQA exemption sets a bad precedent that could lead to larger shelters on virtually any site without proper review.

“The exemption is very powerful,” Henning said. “It allows cities to put up a barrier to objection that is hard to surmount.”

Henning said the city failed to study the impact the shelter would have on traffic and that the construction plan doesn’t include parking spots.

But in a tentative ruling Beckloff denied the homeowners motion, though he did tell Henning he acknowledges residents’ concerns about parking and noise levels.

“I appreciate that it’s difficult to live with,” Beckloff said. “But parking problems exist without regard to this. The harms are not close to those established by the city.”

Siegmund Shyu, an attorney for Los Angeles, noted the city’s 500-page study found no negative impact to noise or existing traffic and found no need for additional parking slots. Shyu added that because the city declared a shelter crisis, it qualified for categorical exemption from review under new CEQA rules.

The homeowners had argued the city’s homeless crisis shouldn’t qualify as a reason to skip environmental review, since “the city’s homeless crisis is a condition, not an occurrence, and is not akin to a fire, flood, earthquake, riot, accident or sabotage, so the exemption does not apply.”

Shyu said the city has not yet leased the site. Once constructed, the city says the shelter will only be in operation for three years.

Attorneys for Metro and the California Coastal Commission, also named defendants in the case, appeared but did not speak at the hearing.

Outside the courtroom, a group of Venice residents who live very close to the proposed site said they don’t trust the city to follow through on its plan to mitigate noise levels while operating the shelter. And while they believe homeless people deserve a shelter somewhere, Venice is not the right location, they said.

Adilia Aguilar, a resident who said she often steps over human feces in her driveway, said the city should focus on providing health services.

“We’re not saying all homeless people are bad,” Aguilar said. “But they need solutions, mental health support, drug counseling.”

Travis Binen said the community surrounding the proposed shelter is densely populated and already experiences a lot of crime and noise.

“This is a failure of leadership by elected officials who let homeless people come in to our city by not enforcing the laws,” Binen said, naming Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents Venice, as a main culprit. “This is not a housing crisis. I believe it’s a drug crisis.”

Bonin’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The number of unsheltered homeless people in Venice in 2018 was 854, an 18% drop from 2017. Of those unsheltered in the town, 130 have a substance use disorder, down 27%, and 240 have a serious mental illness, a 43% drop.

The case will go to trial Oct. 11.  

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