The lack of space, privacy and agency show Bridge Housing, one of the only options for unhoused residents, is extremely lacking.
On February 12, the Willows Bridge Housing had its virtual grand opening and announced that its 75-bed facility was open to moving people in. Stephanie Klasky-Gamer — the president and CEO of LA Family Housing, who runs the West Valley facility — proudly showed off the Willows to Mayor Eric Garcetti, LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and CD3 Councilmember Bob Blumenfield.
She explained that they had already moved in 16 people — LAHSA estimated that around 6,700 unhoused people live in the San Fernando Valley in 2019, with at least 885 in Councilman Blumenfield’s district. Kuehl seemed pleased with the facility’s progress, highlighting that it is one of the only facilities to permit couples as well as its namesake being a reference to the Tongva Nation that originated on this land. “The Tongva Nation nurtured this site and has deep roots in the community. During our development of the Willows, we worked with Chief Anthony Morales of the Tongva Tribe and received his blessing for this project and we coordinated with them on the naming of the property, The Willows,” said Klasky-Gamer. “What we learned in the process was that the Tongva People used willow branches to construct their homes, or what they called at the time their shelters, when they lived on this land. So, collectively we chose the name the Willows out of respect for the people and the history of this space.”
Mayor Garcetti even sang of the bridge home’s perceived accolades to the tune of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.” He also suggested that they would incentivize the unhoused to come into a bridge home by offering vaccines there, “when the supplies allow us to do that.”
Meanwhile, at the actual facility, the West Valley People’s Alliance, Street Watch LA, and Services not Sweeps Coalition organized a protest against the bridge home’s nearest SECZ — special enforcement cleaning zone — which allows for indiscriminate, random sweeps of the area around the bridge home in Canoga Park. Prior to the grand opening, the facility had already been moving unhoused people in, and the nearby SECZ had already caused great distress to at least one of its new residents. The protesters demanded that Blumenfield call for a stop to the sweeps, end his support for amending LA municipal code 41.18 — which would effectively further criminalize homelessness by introducing a new ban on sitting, sleeping and storing property in public space — and find a way to return the belongings of Kevin Hills, one of the residents who was swept last week.
Kevin, a talented artist with roots in the San Fernando Valley, has been building custom bikes and scooters for customers for years. On February 8, he was accepted to the new Willows Bridge Home in Canoga Park. As he was in the process of moving, his property and art were swept away due to the SECZ. Kevin’s tools and family heirlooms were also taken. “It’s like they kick me in my balls and spit in my mouth,” Kevin said. “It just compounds my situation because now I owe money [to customers]…I got duped. I had no idea the bridge program had to do with these zones. If I had known that, I wouldn’t have signed up for it.”
While bridge homes allow a limited amount of unhoused people to get off the street (the Willows Bridge Home has 75 beds), they only offer congregate living and next to no storage. One protester noted the massive storage complex right next door to the Willows. “They continue to use money as an excuse not to house people,” he said.
It can be exceedingly difficult for someone with property — or like Kevin, who runs a custom bike business— to make the arrangement viable. Kevin’s setbacks were particularly severe, as he was in the process of building bikes for his customers, and now says he owes them money. He put $500 into building one of the bikes that was taken, and says he had to put his chopper on top of his trailer so it couldn’t be taken during the sweep.
“They set me up for failure…they should be held accountable for what they did to me,” he added. Kevin is from the area and worked in his father’s shop nearby growing up. “I went to school right across the street. Was ROTC, squad commander, the whole nine yards.”
Councilman Blumenfield has indicated that he is aware of the situation, and is working to figure out how to return Kevin’s items and figure out why the sweep — which was supposed to be a spot cleaning — ended up being so egregious. Advocates set up. a GoFundMe to support getting him back on his feet. While we were speaking to Kevin outside of his trailer, we saw officials from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) observing Kevin. They drove away when he attempted to speak to them.
Pilar Schiavo, a co-founder of West Valley People’s Alliance who spoke at the protest, noted the reality of there being not enough housing: “We have 30 people on our list who were interested in this bridge housing, only two that we know have have actually gotten it…So the reality is there is not housing for folks who need it.” She noted that the sweeps are set up with the justification that those people could have found housing in the area, but that logic is deeply flawed. “Number one, housing that’s offered doesn’t provide storage, it’s not sufficient for what people actually need,” Pilar says. “So we’re not meeting the needs of the community that we’re supposed to be serving. Number two, it just doesn’t have to happen. These are violent sweeps.” Another issue is that most bridge housing is congregate housing, which means that they’re more like large dormitories with little privacy. “It needs to be non-congregate housing, and it needs to be safe,” she says.
KNOCK reached out to the manager of the Willow Bridge Home for further clarification at the protest and they declined to comment. After the protest, I spoke to Katie Tell, the Chief Development Officer at LA Family Housing — the real estate development group and service provider behind the Willows — about whether or not the organization could do anything to help stop the sweeps. Tell was adamant that LAFH does not support the sweeps: “We’re in active conversations with Services Not Sweeps…We want to support their efforts. I think our head of programs is speaking with their leader today. We don’t see sweeps as a solution. We see the harm that they do. And we’re willing to talk with our local elected officials to try to come up with solutions. Not sweeps. And we look forward to that opportunity.” Tell said the organization was surprised by the protest, as they were unaware that Kevin was swept until after the fact.
Despite the year long process to develop The Willows and the presence of organizations like the West Valley People’s Alliance in the area, the staff’s lack of awareness of the sweeps and seeming lack of effort to engage with local officials until this protest, is discouraging to say the least. Regardless, sweeps still occur regularly and often use bridge housing developments as an excuse.
LaDonna, an unhoused speaker at the protest, highlighted the dangers of living in an open living arrangement like the Willows, specifically for women: “Women in there seem bothered and harassed by staff and the people… I don’t want to live with a bunch of horny dudes.” Not to mention, 75 people in what is essentially one large room, means the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is extremely high: “There’s no walls. If someone has COVID then everyone’s got it.”
The bridge homes also have strict security and rules for those living there, which can leave residents feeling patronized, surveilled and as if they’re living in a halfway house: “I don’t have a record — I’m a square from Delaware. I’m an adult. I don’t know why I gotta have a curfew and be told what food I can bring in. What I need is sustainable living with low rent.” Katie Tell told me: “We have 24/7 security people so that they can buzz in and out anyone that is a resident there at any time. There is total freedom of movement, of coming and going, in terms of whether they sign in or out I’m not familiar with the intricate details of how to manage the safety and security of our residents but if you need more information I can get back to you on that. We don’t put limitations on what food people bring into their rooms. We do serve three meals a day. And they’re very healthy meals, so we encourage people to take advantage of that and to benefit from that offering.”
Rebecca, another unhoused neighbor, lived on Edna street before Airtel — one of the housing options offered under Project Roomkey — was built across the street. Then, once she rejected the offer of bridge housing, they swept the area, removing or destroying most of what she owned. “It’s hard because every week we’ve got to go through these sweeps and everything gets thrown away,” Rebecca said. “At times, it’s your tent, everything you own, and it gets hard because it’s they they want us to pick ourselves up, but how do we pick ourselves up if they keep throwing our stuff away?” She outlined how psychologically draining the sweeps can be, as you have to be ready to move all of your belongings at a moment’s notice: “They block [the street] off with yellow tape that looks like a crime scene, and if your stuff’s not gone by the time they close it off then your stuff’s gone and you’re arrested.” Rebecca also fears for her life in the wake of the pandemic: “I wanna live. I don’t wanna die — if one has COVID [in a bridge home] then everyone’s gonna get it.”
The speakers called on our elected officials to stop the sweeps and follow the example of Boise, Idaho, whose courts decided that it was unconstitutional to punish the unhoused for eating, sleeping and other activities when there was nowhere that they had a right to lawfully be. They called for more permanent solutions to housing, rather than the punitive measures that go along with committing to live in or near a bridge home — or anywhere else for that matter.