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.