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St. Joseph Center Move Draws Large Town Hall:

The normally exuberantly diverse Venice community was tested last Tuesday evening, February 6, at a Penmar Recreation Center town hall meeting convened by Los Angeles City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl to consider the relocation of St. Joseph Center’s Homeless Service Center.

Over 200 neighbors and other interested parties assembled, listened to Rosendahl’s program of “city service enhancements” designed to mitigate the impact of the move, and then spoke their minds in a “public comment” session that ran from 7:40 until shortly after 10:00. It was an evening to behold. To borrow from a recent Mirror headline, “This is what democracy looks like.” It is perhaps a sad comment on the appearance of democracy these days that the issue, at least for the short term, had already been decided before the forum was held.

St. Joseph Center, which operates a variety of services for homeless and low-income persons and families at various locations, has been providing services to the homeless at 4th and Rose avenues in Venice since at least 1982. Over time, that location became its Homeless Service Center, where people could get a shower, wash their clothes, get mail, use the phone and talk to a case manager; no meals or shelter are provided there. Recently, the Center lost its lease at that location and, after searching about, decided to relocate the Homeless Service Center to a building it used as one of its seven thrift stores at Lincoln Boulevard and Flower Avenue about eight blocks away.

By the time that neighbors in close proximity to Lincoln and Flower learned of plans to convert the thrift store into a homeless services outlet, and certainly by the time of the February 6 town hall, their objections to such a homeless magnet were in vain – the move was an accomplished fact, awaiting only final approvals from the Building Department on some remodeling. St. Joseph expects to open its Homeless Service Center there by the end of the month.

And so, depending on one’s point of view, the Penmar session last Tuesday night was (a) a councilmember’s CYA exercise, (b) a chance for people to vent, or (c) an opportunity to clear some air and open a dialog between the Center and its new neighbors – and, it turns out, among its new neighbors – that may improve relations for the future.

Rosendahl opened and referred to a December 2006 meeting he had at the home of Carol Bolander with over 100 neighbors upset at the prospect of the move and claiming that he had kept them in the dark about it. They charged that he had been assisting the Center in obtaining approvals for the move at times when he claimed to know nothing about the planned relocation. Many neighbors formed SONIC (Save Our Neighborhood’s Integrity Committee) to oppose the Center opening at Lincoln and Flower.

The councilmember introduced St. Joseph executive director Rhonda Meister to review the work of the Center’s many programs, the circumstances that forced the move and the operations planned at the new location; LAPD Cpt. Bill Williams and Ofcr. Craig White to describe increased police presence in the area already underway since the December meeting; DWP representative Becky Sherrill to explain street and alley lighting enhancements already begun; and Public Works representative Mike Patonai to report on the progress of closing alley access so that only one end of an alley would remain open for ingress/egress.

It would not be unusual in such a neighborhood forum for the public comment period which followed to consist of angry denunciations of the homeless, forebodings of the impact of the Center’s move on the quality of neighborhood life and accusations of secrecy and even duplicity on the part of the councilmember who did not inform and seek counsel from his constituents. And all of that happened.

But this is Venice. There were, by a very rough count, a nearly equal number of equally passionate voices raised supporting the work of St. Joseph Center, the need for its services in this very neighborhood and the specific relocation itself. (There were occasional cries of carpetbagging, to be sure, as when Chrysalis CEO Adlai Wertman – who also chairs the Empowerment Congress Homelessness Committee in Rosendahl’s 11th City Council District – spoke in support of St. Joseph Center and its move.)

And even those opposing the Center’s move, for the most part expressed sensitivity to the plight of at least the “true homeless,” but suggested another, less residential, location would be more appropriate.

Five opponents of the move ceded their two-minute speaking allotments so that one of them could take 10 minutes to express their position in more depth (Venetians are nothing if not inventive). The designee, Andre de Montesquiou, complained, among other things, that the City of Santa Monica had contributed $75,000 to St. Joseph in an effort to move homeless persons from Santa Monica to Venice. (Mr. de Montesquiou lives in Encino, but his California Chicken Café just opened a restaurant down the block from the Lincoln and Flower location.) Rosendahl jumped into the public comment period at that point to say, “The City of Santa Monica has been a trailblazer on the issue of homelessness – with a population of only 86,000, it is doing more than its share.”

Amy Thiel and her husband Patrick Meighan, who live on Flower Avenue within a block of the new location (albeit across Lincoln), each spoke passionately of their desire to teach their two-year-old daughter compassion and tolerance as well as to provide protection for her, and so they welcomed the Homeless Service Center to their neighborhood.

Carla Barrett said that she had great respect for the work of St. Joseph Center, but was concerned that it did not provide enough service at this particular facility; because it did not require persons to participate in fuller programs, she feared the location would attract a “service resistant population” that would be loosed on the neighborhood when the center closed for the day at 4:30 p.m. (Executive director Meister later told the Mirror that St. Joseph had a complete case management system available, and that it had a history of getting people into housing and shelters and helping them become self-sufficient and independent.)

And so it went. The occasional catcall aside, the crowd was attentive and respectful. For the most part, speakers of all opinions were articulate and reasoned. (Although, Venice being Venice, this reporter must note that after making “pro” and “con” columns in his notes to keep a rough – very rough – straw poll of the speakers, he had to add a third “out there” column to account for a couple of speakers whose position he could not determine.)

In the interest of full disclosure, it must be said that after an hour of public comments, when Councilmember Rosendahl announced that he still had 40 more speakers who had filled out cards, this reporter left for prior commitments. But knowledgeable observers on both sides of the issue have reported that the last 90 minutes went pretty much the same as the first 60 minutes of public comment.

The news is that St. Joseph’s Homeless Service Center will move to Lincoln and Flower, probably by the end of this month. The news also is that its new neighbors are a diverse lot, though perhaps not as exuberantly so as is usual for Venice. The hope is that the Center will do its job, its patrons will respect the neighbors, and all will live in peace…maybe even exuberantly.

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