Meeting “Homeless Czar” Helen Chin

On Thursday, August 27, a couple of us got on a phone call with Helen Chin, assistant to the city manager on homelessness.  A lot of people wonder why we need this “homeless czar” but the answer is relatively simple.  Recent court decisions have made it very difficult to enforce vagrancy and camping laws, and activists have made sure cities abide by those laws.  This issue came to our city last July, when we changed our own city policy to match Los Angeles policy under the 405. 

What was once a very simple affair is now a nearly impossible task.  If someone sleeps on our streets, and they don’t want to move, we can’t make them. 

There are guidelines our city can meet, and things we can do to nudge people off the streets and get them into shelters or programs.  It is now a complicated process involving coordination among several departments – police, code enforcement, mental health, and a couple others.  Ms. Chin’s job is to act as central point for all these departments in dealing with transients on our streets. 

A recent federal court ruling has given us a ray of hope – a judge ordered that freeway underpasses in LA County be cleared from transient camps.  The ruling itself is actually far more complicated than it sounds, but we found it worth discussing with Ms. Chin.  We had some good takeaways from the discussion.

First, we expressed our frustration that we repeatedly talk about the crime aspect of this – it’s the crime and the public safety aspect of this that we’re concerned with.  When we bring this up, we are accused of “criminalizing homelessness.”  We told Helen about our own policy that those sleeping on our streets need to follow the same rules they would at a shelter.  If they don’t follow those rules – if they commit any crimes – we call the police.

We came to a mutual understanding on that.

We then discussed the issue of beds.  Part of the lawsuit in question was an agreement to reduce the number of beds needed before a city could enforce its camping/vagrancy laws.  Where it was previously held to an odd standard of one bed per every homeless counted in a city (nevermind how many are in use), this judge lowered the standard to 60%.  He also said that cities didn’t have to house homeless within city limits. Other cities are pooling resources to build shelters away from their residents.

Chin then talked about Culver City’s discussions with the county on homelessness.  We also shared the understanding that this “beds vs homeless” calculus was a strange unsolvable metric.  If we build more beds, more will come in.  That sounds obvious, but our brain trust at the homelessness committee have proposed taking $7 million out of the police budget and giving every one of our 300 homeless a two bedroom apartment.  As if once we do this, the problem would be solved. It’s good to know our city staff isn’t agreeing with that.

Chin even mentioned that a lot of our native homeless population – a more benign elderly type – have been chased out by a younger more aggressive crowd.  This supports our observation that we really have a criminal vagrancy issue, and not just locals driven out by rising housing costs.  This experience has been corroborated in other cities. But again, not a position taken over by our homelessness committee or Culver City’s Housing Administrator.

The big takeaway from this meeting is that homelessness is a county issue.  The county is in the business of mental health and homelessness.  Our city, ultimately, is not.  We don’t have to build shelters in the middle of our city, we don’t have to divert half our budget to shelters at Veteran’s Park if we are to keep our streets and parks clean.

Finally, we discussed the underpasses themselves.  We shared stories about the people who’ve taken residence under there.  The city does do sweeps of the south side of Venice/405 every Wednesday.  The city invited a couple of us to join them, and we’ve enthusiastically accepted their invitation. 

We want to know who’s under there and what’s going on.  We ask that anyone who goes on the sweeps to take notes and bring us a report.

May 12 Neighborhood Watch meeting recap

The 405 project continues.  On Tuesday, May 12th, we held a Webex meeting to further discuss a Neighborhood Watch around the Venice/405 and other 405 underpasses in Culver City.  Former mayor Richard Marcus (1999-2000) was our featured speaker.  He discussed his experience building a Neighborhood Watch around Sunkist Park back in the 90s.  We then looked compared his experiences with our challenges, and what we could learn from him.  We were surprised at how little things change.

Richard talked about the issues in the 90s.  Gangs, drug dealing, dogs defecating in a park where children play.  The breaking point came when people’s cars were being stolen or vandalized in their own driveways, and burglars who tied a homeowner to a chair while they helped themselves to her belongings and food.  Richard realized if he didn’t do something, he’d be next.

Richard started complaining to the police, then realized they don’t know who he is or whether he’s on their side.  They explained the concept of a Neighborhood Watch, and that if he could get eight people together, they’d come and talk to him and his neighbors.  The idea of talking to his neighbors was a foreign concept, but Richard went ahead anyway.  That first meeting, he was hoping for his eight people.  65 people wound up showing up.  That’s how bad things were.

He mentioned three pillars a proper Neighborhood Watch relies on – which definitely chimes with our own experience:

  1. Taking responsibility for our own safety and security.  There’s only so much the police can help us without our support.  We need to take control of our own neighborhood and realize we are the final public safety program.
  2. Active awareness.  We can’t take responsibility for our neighborhood if we’re not aware of it.  A few of us have already started “walking a beat.”  In our current situation, we want to expand this concept and have a full knowledge of everything happening at our underpasses.  The Venice/405 underpass has gotten bad enough where it will be risky, but we have ideas on how to go about it.
  3. Effective communication with police – this was the most important and tough concept to swallow, especially in difficult times like these.  It’s easy for people to get frustrated, and either say police are part of the problem, or worse: take matters into their own hands. 
    Richard really made a strong point here.  Until we have a real relationship with CCPD, they don’t know if we’re part of the problem or the solution.  We need to show we’re on their side.  We need to build a relationship, so that when we call, they know we’re not just some crank, and will take the call seriously.  The more they got to know us, the more likely they are to investigate. 
    A big concept here is “Probable Cause.”  If police go into an area alone, they really don’t have much authority to question people.  Especially in this climate were police are not allowed to “harass” people or “criminalize homelessness.”  But if someone calls in suspicious activity, especially if they’re tied to a reliable Neighborhood Watch, this is their golden ticket to investigate.

A big point he made was to address the crime, not the people.  We’ve already noticed this in our own calls.  If you call in someone sleeping on the sidewalk, the first thing CCPD will ask is “do they look high?  Do they have any weapons?”  They’re looking for signs of criminal activity.  Again, much as some people would like, the police have no authority to stop and question someone for living on the street and “experiencing homelessness.” 

Richard had the same issue with gangs in Sunkist Park in the 90s.  You can’t arrest someone for being in a gang, or hanging around in a park.  Even if you know they’re up to no good, that’s not enough for police to come and do something.  But you can let them know they’re on notice, and the locals are watching and reporting. 

The police do want to help. They just need the authority to act first.  “Yes, the police are on a leash, but they’re still dogs” Richard said to audible laughter.  Again, if we call in suspicious criminal activity, the police will come, and they will have authority to act on it.  Even under the current legal revolving door, when open drug use and other criminal activity gets you in and out of jail in a couple hours.  You still ruined someone’s high for the day. If they know they can’t get high or cause mischief around your block, they’ll go find another spot. 

That makes deterrence the primary goal of a Neighborhood Watch.  Richard mentioned the “Oh Crap” signs they posted around their neighborhood: “If I don’t call you, my neighbor will.”  Someone up to no good sees the sign, and is officially on notice.  Especially once the word gets out that these signs are backed up by residents.

Building the Neighborhood Watch took work, but was not too complicated and is relatively easy to replicate: make flyers about the next meeting, and hand them out around the neighborhood.  Eventually they got to the point where people came up to Richard, upset that they never got a flyer.  Those people “self-identify themselves as volunteers.”  They would get 30 flyers of their own and instructions to hand them around their block.  This is how the watch grew.  For money, they fundraised by selling their “Oh Crap” signs to neighbors.

We learned last night that while we’re in a new situation with the Venice/405 camp, the basic principles haven’t changed.  If we’re vigilant, we can keep control of our neighborhood.  But we need to be disciplined and productive.  We need to go from frustrated individuals to an organization that the police can trust. That’s when we can get our way.

Ultimately, Richard’s Neighborhood Watch was a victim of its own success.  As Sunkist Park got safer, residents got complacent and dropped out.  Meanwhile, people with political agendas found a captive audience to push their politics. 

But there’s no reason we can’t do what Richard and his neighbors did 20 years ago. 

Introducing the 405 project

It started with a contentious LA Times article about Los Angeles officials accusing Culver City of dumping their homeless into Los Angeles. Now the 405 underpasses in Culver City are filling up with vagrants setting up permanent residence.

Council claims that there is no change in policy, but the unwritten policy is obvious – our streets and parks are open for anyone who would call them home. The effects are immediate and obvious. Local residents and businesses are furious and desperate. Add recent laws like Prop 47, and many crimes now also go unresolved. It seems we have no meaningful way to stop this.

We have decided to step in and figure out what we can do. We held a meeting with city officials at CCPD HQ. We also went to the homelessness committee meeting last month. We learned that if someone decides to set up residence on our streets and in our parks, the city will do nothing to stop them. But if they break any of our ordinances, we have every right to call it in.

That’s what we’re doing. This page will serve as a repository for all our experience with those who would treat our streets as a permanent residence, and how they terrorize local residents and businesses. We will follow up with our police and with our council. Our ultimate aim is to make our streets safe and parks safe again. Our ultimate sympathy is with besieged residents, who feel helpless to stop this.

This project will focus on the 405 underpasses and surrounding areas, like Tellefson Park and Veteran’s Park. Because that’s the canary in the coal mine. If we let these areas be overrun with transients, it’s only a matter of time before our entire community is overrun.

Homelessness committee meeting recap

On Tuesday, February 18th, 2020, a number of us went to the homelessness committee meeting at city hall. It was eye opening on a number of levels.

First, our members showed up – all from different perspectives. A couple came from Globe Ave., concerned about the vagrancy crisis at Venice/405. Another couple came from behind the AmVets building, concerned about turning it into a homeless shelter. And a couple multifamily landlords showed up.

We all got to see how our issues are tied by this new housing policy and the insanity of it. Tevis Barnes, Culver City’s housing administrator, was committed to the idea that the vagrants spilling into our city are actually local residents driven out by rising rents. She insisted this was the case even at the Venice/405 camp.

This assertion is our biggest bone of contention, and doesn’t match personal or professional experience. When we challenged her assertion, Tevis said this was according to LAHSA statistics. Which are disputable at best. Even our own law enforcement have said most people are on our streets, not because they can’t afford our rent, but because they can’t afford any rent.

We have to fight them at this root level, if any of us are to have any solution to the vagrancy issue in Culver City.

Mark Lipman argued for a “housing for everyone” approach – we have close to 300 homeless in Culver City by last count. A 2br apartment for each at the HUD rate of $1944/month comes out to $7 million/year. Other committee members dismissed Mr. Lipman, and have put forward a “feasible” plan of a homeless shelter for 20 people.

The problem is, they also say that unless we have a place to send them, we can’t touch them. And that place has to be within city limits. So a shelter of that size would not even put a dent in the problem. This ironically makes Lipman’s proposal, frightening as it sounds, the most consistent.

Of course we countered with our own argument – namely, that if he do have somewhere to send someone, but they don’t want to leave that piece of sidewalk they’re living on, do we have any compulsory power over them? Both Tevis and the attending police officer said no, we don’t want to be in the business of wrestling with someone into a police car and shuttling them off to a shelter.

This is the second part of the problem, which we need to address. Even if we were to have housing for everyone on our streets, we have no power to get them off our sidewalks. Most people understand this is not a tenable policy. It leads to a patchwork of unannounced rules where only the politically well connected get to have vagrant-free streets.

So we need a clear policy of compulsion, one that applies equally to both Lafayette Pl. and Globe Ave. It needs to be clearly delineated by council, and consistently applied by both the city manager and the police department. Otherwise we could build all the free housing in the world, it won’t stop our streets and parks from turning into tent cities.

We need to come to terms with the fact that we are a city of limited size and resources. We will do what we can to help those who want help. We will actively monitor anyone who has actually been driven out by rising rents. We can even abide by the basic Boise decision that someone has a right to sleep on the street at night. But at some point we need to say no, you don’t get to build a permanent residence on public land. We need the legal authority to compel them to leave.

Most of all, we need a council that’s ready to assert that legal authority in the face of any legal challengers.

Hammering out the vagrancy crisis

Thursday, Jan 9th 2020, we with Mayor Meghan, city manager John Nachbar, and police chief Bixby to discuss the Globe Ave. vagrant camp situation. We had the expected results – mostly an impasse, with some promise of progress. As you can imagine, these three city officials had very different responsibilities, and therefore different slants on we can do about these camps.

First we confronted the case that started the whole crisis – the Martin v. Boise ruling. This upheld the 2006 case declaring it “cruel and unusual punishment” to cite someone for sleeping on the sidewalk, if they have nowhere else to go. A number of us asserted that Boise case only allowed people to sleep anywhere – it didn’t allow them to set up permanent residences. But city government stuck to the principle that if we force vagrants to do anything, we’ll get sued.

Nachbar made the challenging assertion that, though the 2006 ruling doesn’t technically apply to daylight hours, an activist plaintiff will claim that they need to sleep during the day, because they’re afraid of sleeping at night. And they would most likely win that case. He may very well be right. But even if he’s wrong, we would need a very assertive council to be ready to defend our laws against a lawsuit.

So while we had an impasse on that, this issue should definitely be on Culver City residents’ radar for the 2020 election. If we want to keep our streets and parks clean, we need a council that’s ready to assert our right to do so.

We also went back and forth on whether the mayor is disciplining police for “harassing the homeless.” Meghan has denied any such policy change, but we’ve definitely heard from officers saying they got reprimanded from her for “harassing the homeless” – meaning checking for warrants and suspicious activity. We will follow up on this and get to the bottom of the issue.

Our final question, after much heated back and forth on “long term solutions” and their efficacy, was “what can we do about this now? Today?”

With that, we stuck to the crime element. While CCPD can’t single-handedly patrol the area 24/7 for us, we can be proactive. That means setting up a Neighborhood Watch for the block, which alerts CCPD on any suspect or known activity. Based on our reliable testimony, they can have reasonable suspicion to talk to suspected dealers, pimps, people defecating on the streets, or any criminal activity.

Our policy will be simple – whatever rules exist in a shelter, exist on our streets. If you want to live on our streets, you follow our laws, or you find another street. Nobody will be able to deal drugs or women, or harass local residents, without our watchful eye catching it.

Hopefully, if we stay vigilant, at least the worst elements will be discouraged to ply their trade elsewhere. We will be contacting CCPD’s liaison officer Yabko to set this up as soon as possible.