Venice program gives the homeless a place to keep belongings


By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times

February 10, 2013, 8:25 p.m.
Bone-chilling fog swirled along Venice Beach one recent afternoon when Robert and Nani Valencia and Ana Maria Reyes stopped by the long, metal storage container beside the sand.
After they showed IDs and claim checks, a volunteer wheeled out two blue recycling bins in which the three recent arrivals from Texas had stashed their suitcases. They pulled out toiletries, sweaters and blankets and stuffed them into reusable grocery bags.
“It makes us feel a lot better to store our things here,” said Nani Valencia, 37. “When you have all your [suitcases] with you, people treat you like you have rabies.”
With bags in hand, she, her husband and his 64-year-old mother joined dozens of others waiting for a bus to take them to a shelter. The three would rest, eat dinner and have a shower that night at the West Los Angeles National Guard Armory on Federal Avenue; most of their meager possessions would remain locked up at the beach.
In the wake of court rulings that bar cities from randomly seizing and destroying homeless people’s property, communities such as Venice are seeking long-term storage options to keep their streets and alleys clean.
“We’re not going to let [homeless people] keep items on the beach anymore,” said Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Venice. “We’re going to bag and tag [them]. We want to make it inconvenient but within the law.”
Contributing to the problem was a rule governing use of the city’s Westside winter shelter.
Homeless individuals who choose to sleep at the shelter are allowed to take with them only the items they can carry on their laps. And some were reluctant to leave their possessions for fear they would be stolen or seized. That meant many of the shelter’s 160 beds went unused.
Rosendahl and a local social services agency — Venice Community Housing Corp. — launched a pilot program late last month called Check-in Storage. The initiative allows individuals to store personal belongings in the container for a week at a time and retrieve them between 3 and 5 p.m. daily. (The program is slated to end March 1, when the shelter closes.)
To publicize the service, volunteers and social service agencies distributed bright orange fliers: “If your stuff will fit into a big trash can,” they read, “bring it to our storage container.” The flier noted that the program would not accept medicine, identification, weapons or “anything illegal.”
The storage option, said Steve Clare, executive director of Venice Community Housing, is modeled on successful programs in downtown L.A.’s skid row and cities including San Francisco, San Diego and Costa Mesa.
In September, a federal appeals court ruled in a lawsuit filed against the city of Los Angeles that seizing and destroying property left temporarily unattended on public sidewalks was unconstitutional. Personal possessions may be removed only if the items pose an immediate threat to public safety or health or constitute criminal evidence, a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found.
Even then, the city must notify owners where they can pick up their property.
On the afternoon the Valencias and Reyes retrieved some items, about half of the 25 bins were in use. Also there for safekeeping was a Schwinn bicycle. Its owner, Love Sha Un of Nigeria, came by to check on his $215 purchase and thank the volunteers. Without the storage option, he said, “it might have gone missing.”
Not everyone is pleased with the program.
Mark Ryavec, a Venice resident who lobbied against overnight parking by RV dwellers, said the city should have sought a permit from the California Coastal Commission before plopping a storage container at the beach. Marc Saltzberg, vice president of the Venice Neighborhood Council, said the program was implemented without a public process that would have enabled residents and other interested parties to weigh in.
Rosendahl said he hoped to notify street denizens of a new location by the end of February and have a new program up and running by March. He said he was working with the Los Angeles city attorney’s office to ensure that any seizures of items would be done legally.