VENICE, CA. — One month after Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency on homelessness, Luis Tierney stood in the cold January rain watching his tent and most other possessions get tossed into the back of a City of L.A. garbage truck.
A sanitation worker filmed Tierney consenting to the disposal of his belongings just prior. It was all because of Bass’ major new “Inside Safe” initiative to remove encampments around the city, among her first official acts as Los Angeles’ 43rd mayor. In the fanfare of her new administration, Bass promised to house all those who consent to part with their home on the street. But exactly how, when, and where they are to be housed, are details yet to be communicated.
The promise of housing, and an escape from the miserable stormy weather, was enough for Tierney and others on Third Avenue in Venice to agree to whittle all their belongings down to that which could fit into a 60-gallon trash bag.
“We agreed to give all our stuff up, so we can wait for our own house or apartment,” said Tierney, who goes by “Gustavo” on the street. Characterizing this trade as a small social contract, Tierney pointedly asks of the new mayor to “just keep her word.”
Bass’ administration has executed two Inside Safe efforts since her inauguration: one in Hollywood in late December, and another in Venice in early January. The actions have cleared the streets of tents and other makeshift shelters, which Bass vows will not return.
But as the city moves forward briskly with encampment removals, the people dispossessed of their tents and shelters question if the city will hold up its end of the bargain; will they find themselves on the pathway to housing, or will they ultimately end up back right where they were a few weeks ago?
Tierney is among the roughly 140 people removed from their street-homes in the first two Inside Safe operations since Christmas. He says the city has communicated few concrete details about his future.
A week after he moved in, speaking in his motel room at the Los Angeles Inn & Suites in unincorporated West Athens, Tierney said he’s caught in a waiting game. He worries he is the mark in an elaborate municipal bait-and-switch.
“When is the process of getting in apartments, when is that going to hit?” he said. “Right now we’re just sitting here like sitting ducks.”
Another man placed at the motel, 54-year-old Vernell Gable, echoed Tierney.
“I haven’t seen anything in writing — I asked to see something in writing,” he said. “What is the agenda that you’ve got here? What do you expect from me? And what should I expect from you?”
Gable recalls outreach workers telling him they didn’t exactly know how long it would be. He was supposed to stay at the motel until the system connected him to housing.
Tierney says he typically leaves his room during the day. Sometimes he goes all the way to Venice, about 15-miles away, to “just hustle and get my money on.”
On another day, one of his friends gave Tierney and another former Venice encampment resident rides to and from a moving job in West Covina.
He said he would feel more confident about the Inside Safe initiative if they were given something to work toward while at the motel, instead of just sitting around killing time.
“Have us reach a goal, to accomplish something, instead of just being here doing nothing,” he said.
A new mayor, a new policy on homelessness
Bass celebrated the culmination of the Venice Inside Safe encampment removal operation alongside newly elected Council District 11 representative Traci Park at a January 13 brunch in the swanky Rose Venice restaurant. The operation officially began just after New Year’s when Bass visited encampment residents.
Venice was the second such operation, following the first in late December in Hollywood. At that removal, positioned where Cahuenga Boulevard passes under the 101 freeway, 31 people moved indoors, according to a source in city government on background.
An email reviewed by Los Angeles Public Press indicates a third operation is being planned in Del Rey, also in Council District 11.
“I’m happy to say we were able to move a number of people into housing, and this work is going to continue,” Bass said at the brunch. “What is most important is that the community of Venice can reclaim those streets!”
To be clear, those moved from Venice were not moved into “housing,” but were offered an indefinite stay at a motel.
On December 12, her first day in office, Bass gathered department heads, county officials, and press in L.A.’s Emergency Operations Center to sign a declaration of emergency on homelessness. Bass invoked a parallel to how quickly Los Angeles rebuilt collapsed freeways following the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
At another press conference on December 21, when she formally launched her “Inside Safe” directive, Bass vowed the program would prevent unhoused people from returning to the street, and characterized Inside Safe as “housing-led.”
In response to a question from Los Angeles Public Press about the role of police in her Inside Safe initiative, Bass said that police are there, “if they are needed, but be clear that this is a housing-based strategy. This is not a punitive strategy. This is not about cleaning up and clearing out.”
In the next sentence: “Of course, that will happen in the context of it. But this is about outreach to people and getting them housed.”
On the ground in Venice, as outreach workers spoke to people in the encampments and sanitation crews cleared away their tent-homes, Los Angeles Police Department officers appeared to be directly involved. Photos of the operation show Los Angeles police speaking directly with social service agency and LAHSA staff.
Peggy Lee Kennedy, who operates a citation clinic for unhoused people in Venice, says there has been a consistent police presence in the areas where encampments were removed.
Police presence is a flashpoint in public discussion over how to address the homelessness crisis. Some argue police presence is inherently coercive, sets the stage for violent encounters where unhoused people lose every time. Government officials, and others, prefer framing the operations simple “cleanups.”
In an interview after Mayor Bass’ Inside Safe celebration at The Rose Venice, where he is the chef and partner, Jason Neroni praised the newly launched initiative.
“From what I was told, the way I understood it, this was a more positive thing than people being left on the streets,” he said by telephone.
According to Neroni, past city operations along Hampton Drive next to the restaurant had not been quite as effective. Patrons had feared parking along the street where there were encampments.
“Occasionally there was a cleanup,” he said. “The city would come in and take away the garbage and you know, everybody would move their tents. Some structures couldn’t be moved, but they would power wash the streets or the sidewalks.”
“It was a good help, for sure,” he said. “But the encampments stayed. So that was that.”
Wait at motel continues
Since beginning her administration with the emergency declaration, Bass has also signed two executive directives.
One sets up the Inside Safe program by instructing a “cabinet” of city department heads to “create a strategy of large-scale citywide coordination” for removing encampments from the city’s streets, and placing people into housing, and to report back on it with a deadline of March 31.
The other calls for accelerating housing projects in which all units will be affordable. In addition to identifying 31 or so affordable housing projects that could qualify under that plan, Bass says she will set up “master leases” with landlords that allow service providers to more quickly connect people to apartments using housing vouchers. Vouchers are notorious for going unused because of the difficulty of finding landlords who will accept them.
From her first day, Bass has said she will coordinate more closely with the county of Los Angeles and neighboring cities, which have typically worked at odds with each other to address homelessness in the region. In late December, she spoke at a meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which later approved their own emergency declaration on homelessness.
On January 18, the Los Angeles City Council voted to set aside $50 million into a fund for Inside Safe. The council also called for biweekly reports on how the money is being spent.
For their part, Tierney and Gable are waiting to see if these promises become reality, or if they will be the latest addition to an ever-growing pile of broken promises made by Los Angeles politicians. As the pile grows, so too does distrust among those who have heard similar promises before.
Like Tierney, who said he had previously spent time in a Project Roomkey hotel, and whose verdict on that program is that it was a “scam.” He is pessimistic about the outlook for the new mayor’s new plan.
After his last stay in a motel program, “I went back out to the street,” he said. “This is their second time they’re doing this. I don’t know how they’re going to see it as something successful, how it’s going to show they’re doing a good job.”
The recent Project Roomkey effort using federal funds quickly moved thousands of unhoused people into hotels with the promise they would be housed later. But it only ended up housing 40% of the people, even though many stayed in the program for several months to years.
At a January 23 news conference at Los Angeles City Hall, the freshly picked CEO of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), Va Lecia Adams Kellum, acknowledged that it can be difficult to connect people to housing quickly, especially given the scarcity of affordable housing.
Adams Kellum will begin serving as LAHSA’s CEO on March 26, and is wrapping up her time as the director of St. Joseph Center. In response to questions from Los Angeles Public Press about how long it would take for people to be housed and whether there is sufficient funding, she said they hope to reduce the wait.
As to how long it would take for people at the motels to be assigned housing case workers — as opposed to outreach workers who typically hand over the reins once people are moved into motels — Adams Kellum said that this usually takes two to three weeks to happen.
“This is part of why we’re all here — we wanted to decrease the amount of time it takes people to go from the streets to home,” she said, adding that on average, it is taking half a year, at least. “So we have at least six months, if not more, to ensure that [Gable is] stable in permanent housing,” Adams Kellum said.
“After being at the interim housing motel, we will ensure that he has case management services and navigation to connect to housing,” she said. “There’s never enough resources, but we have the right leadership to get the resources that we need to scale up. And we’ve got a problem here of not having adequate affordable housing.”
She said that when Gable says he is worried, “it’s a deep concern, and I share his concern, but we’re here to come up with a solution.”
“He will be in permanent housing, mark my word, and he will have a team of folks that are working alongside him, not just now but as he moves into housing and is stabilized in housing.”