Residents of Aetna Bridge Home, an LA city shelter operated by the Salvation Army in Van Nuys, have received copies of a letter warning them they will be kicked out of the program, and cited by the police, if they have tents outside the facility or cars parked in the adjacent Metro parking lot.

The letter comes as many unhoused people complain of the shelter’s lack of privacy, and prison-like atmosphere, and has prompted questions from residents and activists about the legality of the letter’s threat to kick out shelter residents if they don’t comply with its instructions. 

One resident said the letter was left on their beds some time in the last few days. It is printed on Salvation Army letterhead and addressed to “All Aetna residents.” It reads: “With the partnership of LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department), we are reminding all residents that you are either part of the program without having a tent outside or we will not be able to continue your stay here and will be asked to exit the program.”

The letter goes on to remind residents that, “the benefits of being in the program as [sic] not for those who are outside not wanting to join the program. You may not bring drinks of [sic] food to them, and you may not do laundry for them. They are welcome to go to Hope of the Valley to fill out a referral, but they do not get to enjoy any of those services until they stay here.”

The letter warned that enforcement would start Monday. In a video obtained by LAPP, staff appear to be telling activists that there will be enforcement “at some point.”

Requests for comment were made to the Salvation Army, as well as Mayor Karen Bass’s office, the LA city administrative officer and Council District 6 (the CD 6 council seat remains vacant, but was formerly held by Nury Martinez). As of time of publication no responses had been received.

Video obtained by LAPP shows an LAPD officer talking to activists about the letter.

“If you want a tent, stay in your tent,” the officer says. “Don’t take up a shelter spot. If you are in the shelter, they don’t want you to have a tent. That’s reasonable.”

In the video an activist asks what law the officer is enforcing, he responds that he is enforcing Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) 41.18, but refuses to answer further questions, adding that he does not want to be recorded. When pressed about the shelter’s rules, he said he doesn’t know what the rules are, and has not seen the letter.

Activists say the circumstances around the letter are unclear, and they have encountered contradictory statements from police officers and the shelter about the origins of the letter, and who directed it to be issued. 

A resident of the program (who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation) spoke with LA Public Press by phone Monday morning, saying she’d found the letter on her bed over the weekend. Her boyfriend has a tent outside the facility, but she herself doesn’t have one. There is very little privacy inside the actual shelter, she explained, with people being able to hear each other’s phone conversations when inside. She also complained about the security searches that take place each time she needs to enter the facility, comparing it to life in a prison.

The woman described getting stopped by an officer this morning, saying that as she was walking to go into the shelter, he called out to her using her name, which unsettled her. She said that the officer asked her which tent was hers.

She said that after asking the officer what he meant, he told her that someone from the shelter told him she had a tent outside the facility. She informed the officer she actually did not have a tent, but he seemed doubtful, warning her that if he learns that she does have a tent that he would cite her.

When she told the officer that she doesn’t have a tent, but that her boyfriend does, he told her that she’d better not be lying.

Other intrusive practices that she experiences while at the shelter include the searches that the facility’s guards do whenever they need to enter. During a recent search, a new security guard dumped the entire contents of her purse onto the table, which she said was a humiliating experience that was seen by other staff who did nothing. She said she was close to reacting, but held it in because she did not want trouble that would jeopardize her ability to get housed.

The resident said that she came to stay at the Aetna shelter several months ago, after a Project Roomkey hotel she was staying at closed. Up until two weeks ago, she had been working with a case worker at the Aetna bridge home to get housing assistance to pay for housing and to look at units, and was hopeful about getting housing. But he stopped working there abruptly. She says she is now unclear on the status of her case.

The resident’s concerns about the shelter is echoed by others who often point to the barbed wire that runs along the top of the fence, and the facility’s policy of separating those who live inside with those who live in tents and vehicles along the street.

The Aetna Bridge Home opened in 2020, with beds for 70 people and amenities that include laundry, hygiene trailers, and areas for people’s pets. It was a project of former Councilwoman Nury Martinez (the history of the project can be found in City Council file 19-0563), who later resigned in October 2022, after leaked tapes from a private meeting exposed racist comments she made about a fellow councilmember’s Black child.

The architect’s website describes the shelter project’s construction as needing to be fast-paced and low-cost. According to the site, the shelter’s design “represents lightning-quick, inventive, efficient and beautiful solutions to what seemed like an unsurmountable societal tragedy. This is a time in which this rare city is extending a hand to support vulnerable people. Aetna Bridge Home takes an intractable problem and models an elegant solution of safe, happy shelter.”

The shelter had been built under a program rolled out by former Mayor Eric Garcetti designed to encourage councilmembers to build shelters. He promised to provide more frequent cleaning crews, which are able to enforce city ordinances such as LAMC 56.11 that restrict tents, in the areas that surround the shelters, to assuage worries from some council members who fear blowback from residents who oppose such shelters. These crews would conduct CARE+ clean-up operations in “special enforcement zones,” where laws like LAMC 56.11, which restricts storage of property on sidewalks, as well as LAMC 41.18, a law that bans camping, are enforced.

During the pandemic, when people were instructed to shelter in place, enforcement of such laws, which displaced people in tents, were temporarily suspended. Eventually, while the suspension was still in force elsewhere, they were restored only in the so-called special enforcement zones.

These cleanups are unpopular among the unhoused community, because they lead to dispersal of their community and many of their belongings getting lost, with very little of it resulting in people getting housed.

Elizabeth has been on the local government beat since 2006, and likes making her friends take public transportation for her birthday.