- Christian Guzman
Navigation Center: Same Mess, Bigger Fan
By Christian L. Guzman, Community Reporter
Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino was heckled by angry residents at an Oct. 4 public forum. His office organized the event to seek feedback on his proposal to bring a homeless navigation center to San Pedro.
The unhappiness on display at the forum was an extension of the discontent expressed one week prior. Barton Hill Elementary neighbors rallied against Buscaino’s plan to locate the homeless navigation center one block from the school. Opponents of the facility made sure that members of Buscaino’s support team — his homeless taskforce, including San Pedro Chamber of Commerce President Elise Swanson — understood their position, too.
The councilman responded by reminding the audience of the wider problems and conditions that he has been called upon to address: the growth of homeless encampments in front of the former Ante’s restaurant building and nearby streets and the community outcry against the idea of building tiny houses to increase the stock of inhabitable shelter.
“You asked me to act and I did,” said Buscaino.
He itemized some of the measures he took: increasing the number of Los Angeles Police Department emergency response teams in San Pedro from two to eight; pushing to amend Los Angeles City Ordinance 56.11, regarding the storage of personal property; and lobbying for Measure HHH which, if approved by voters this November, will provide funds to address homelessness in the city.
The councilman said that after his first homeless forum, he also wanted to identify “solutions on a local level” to homelessness. He appointed a Homelessness Task Force comprised of Harbor Area business owners, policy experts and residents to help him do it.
Since this was an appointed task force, the group arrived at opening a navigation center at 227 N. Pacific Avenue, behind closed doors. The facility would include storage for homeless people’s property. But the lack of community engagement prompted criticism by local residents. Buscaino attempted to deflect attention from the task force.
“They did what I asked them,” Buscaino said. “There have been personal attacks against them over Facebook. It is unacceptable to threaten neighbors who want to make this community better.”
The crowd wasn’t having it.
“They don’t live near Barton Hill,” several shouted. “They don’t know what we deal with.”
Taskforce members were given a chance to introduce and defend themselves.
“As a business owner … I chose to lend my commitment to the task force,” said Mona Sutton, owner of the Omelette and Waffle Shop and president of the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council. “My employees will testify to the constant scrubbing and cleaning that they have to do [because of homeless people]. I saw this [the navigation center] as a no-brainer.”
“You know how I feel about the homeless,” said George Palaziol, the co-founder of Saving San Pedro. “I wouldn’t do anything to make this worse.… We need to set the example of how to deal with this issue.”
“We listened to hundreds of hours of testimony by businesses,” Swanson said.
“[They expressed] homelessness was having a direct negative impact on the community. This solution is supported by the Los Angeles Police Department.”
There were several more shouts and Swanson was accused of lying about hearing testimony.
She responded by naming various businesses on 6th and 7th streets that have wanted to see homelessness and its effects treated.
Buscaino also presented a panel of experts, which included Dennis Gleason, policy director for Buscaino, Molly Larson, director of operations for Chrysalis Enterprises, Peter Lynn executive director for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, Michael Oreb, captain of the Los Angeles Police Department, and Ronnie Villanueva, chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department. They explained what a homeless navigation center is and the benefits it could have for San Pedro.
A navigation center is a facility where homeless people can securely store a limited amount of belongings and receive guidance from staff on where to receive services that might improve their quality of life.
If a navigation center were to be built in San Pedro, police would be able to enforce Section 3J of the Los Angeles Municipal Code 56.11 on homeless people. Since up to 60 gallons of an individual’s property could be stored at the navigation center, police would be able to cite that individual for having more than 2 cubic feet of additional property that is obstructing a public right of way.
All of the experts were in favor of the navigation center being placed in San Pedro, but there were different attitudes expressed.
Gleason was concerned about the effects homeless people have on people with homes. He described being bothered by a homeless man shouting expletives near his house at night.
“I want the blight to go away,” Gleason said. “The councilman fought another version of 56.11 that would have prohibited property seizure. [Our] version does more to protect people who pay property taxes.”
Lynn explained that the increase in homeless people correlates with a housing crisis in Los Angeles.
“Los Angeles has failed to provide affordable housing,” Lynn said.
“I believe homelessness will be an epidemic across America,” Oreb added.
Buscaino allowed the public to comment on the navigation center and ask questions.
The public repeatedly expressed its frustration with Buscaino and the taskforce for the lack of transparency and community involvement in developing the plan for the navigation center.
“Because that’s a Chicano and black neighborhood, you thought you could slip this by without talking to us,“ shouted Donald Galaz, vice president of the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council.
Periodically, Buscaino responded to the transparency issue with, “That’s why we’re here.”
Despite their frustration, the more than 200 attendees generally agreed with the idea of the center, just not the proposed location on Pacific Avenue.
The public expressed three distinct attitudes against that location.
The most common was that Pacific Avenue is an inappropriate site due to its proximity to Barton Hill Elementary School.
“You don’t walk by the schools,” shouted Galaz, surrounded by a group of Barton Hill families. “You don’t go to church there! We do!”
“It is disrespectful and unacceptable to think about putting this near a school,” Sunny Lopez said. “Absolutely not.”
A second attitude expressed was a distrust of San Pedro’s homeless population and a fear that they will be attracted to the center.
“We don’t have a homeless problem in San Pedro,” Mike Collins said. “These people don’t have urns or photo albums. They’re drug addicts and thieves.”
“Eighty percent of these people … are from the Harbor Area,” Lynn said. “There is no evidence that a navigation center will draw [more] here.”
The third major attitude expressed was skepticism toward the benefit of a navigation center for San Pedro.
“Will city attorneys be ready to defend this center against legal challenges?” John Stammerich asked. “Or, are they just going to roll over to attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union or Santa Monica? … Making money off the city and leaving us with a shit hole.”
Another person asked where a navigation center has proved effective for a community like San Pedro.
“We don’t have that data,” Lynn replied.
Buscaino remained calm and receptive through most of the public comment period. But his patience dwindled towards the end.
“I’ve heard you loud and clear,” Buscaino quickly replied to a commenter. “You don’t want the navigation center at 227 N. Pacific Avenue.”
Buscaino also assured the public that the location, and the navigation center in general, were “not a done deal.”
However, plans for a center somewhere in San Pedro are moving forward. Buscaino and his office want to select a location by Nov. 4. For police to fully enforce municipal code 56.11, the location of the navigation center must be within a “reasonable radius” of where homeless people are established.
Once a site that meets that standard is located, Buscaino will decide if he wants to recommend the site for approval and funding by the city council.
To comment about the navigation center concept or propose sites, go to la15th.com.