Venice Councilman Mike Bonin Wants to Change the Narrative Around Homelessness

The outspoken official talks about the homelessness crisis, mental illness, and his own ”brush” with living on the streets of L.A.

In late September, activists showed up to city hall en masse to protest a strict rewrite of a law that regulates where homeless individuals can sit or lie on sidewalks in the city. Chanting “house keys not handcuffs,” demonstrators urged the City Council to reject the law, saying it would only make life harder for the tens of thousands of individuals currently living on the streets of L.A.

During the discussion that followed, several council members also critiqued the proposal for criminalizing—as opposed to assisting—L.A.’s unhoused. Leading the charge was District 11 councilman Mike Bonin, who was one of the first city leaders to speak out against the proposal. During the discussion, he called the draft “ass-backwards,” and offered a sharp critique of the city’s strategies for addressing the growing crisis. “We cannot legislate homelessness away,” Bonin said. “We can house it away, we can service it away, we can prevent it away, but we cannot legislate it away.”

It wasn’t the first time Bonin—who’s been in office since 2013—had taken a strong stance on homelessness in the city. In recent years, the outspoken councilman has pushed for L.A. to diversify its stock of homeless and low-income housing, opened up the parking lots of his own Westside field offices to homeless constituents, and proposed that the city create a commission of individuals with lived experiences of homelessness. We caught up with Bonin to learn more about why he’s taken on the crisis as one of his core issues, and what he thinks it will take for the city to solve it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start by talking about the recent controversy over the sidewalk laws. You spoke out against this proposal at a time when many other councilmembers hadn’t yet. Why?  

Well I had some pretty strong objections to the proposed ordinance. I get the frustration people feel with encampments. I feel the frustration myself. I drive by them near my house; I walk my kid by them. It is a symbol of society’s failure to deal with homelessness. But it’s my belief that that policy made out of anger and frustration is generally not effective and is often counterproductive, and this was an example of that.

While I think we could probably get away with some discrete restrictions near shelters, in order to build community support, this was vastly overreaching. I don’t think we should be regulating where people can sit and lie. It was making it virtually impossible to exist in the city.

The other problem was the language. Some compared it to Florida’s Stand Your Ground legislation, because it was written in a way that said you could be penalized for doing something that causes someone else to feel afraid. I don’t think you need to spend much time studying racial history in the United States or in Los Angeles to understand that that would be applied in a very discriminatory manner. I thought it had to go.

Not long after, you introduced a pair of proposals to expand the types of homeless housing used by the city. Can you tell us about those?

Yeah. I was really frustrated during that meeting because the most frequent and longest discussions we have about homelessness in City Council tend to be about criminalizing or punitive measures. We really need to be having conversations about how we can house people more quickly and less expensively, and how we can prevent people from falling into homelessness. So there are a number of solutions that suggested several years ago that I brought back recently.

Master leasing, I learned back in 2014, is a very effective way that the County has used to house people quickly. The way it works is the leasing agency, whether it’s the county or a nonprofit or housing manager, goes out and leases a bunch of units. And then when there is someone they identify for housing, they have a place to put them right away. This makes it easier for people who have vouchers to get housing in a hot rental market. Another solution is shared housing. There’s this organization SHARE—Self Help and Recovery Exchange. They rent a whole house, maybe it’s four bedrooms. They’ll do eight beds, a shared common space. It’s sort of a peer support model—people help each other and they develop a sense of community.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority recently came under fire when an audit revealed the agency had failed to meet many goals. What changes would you like to see at LAHSA?

Well, the audit [performed by Controller Ron Galperin] was a little off, because it looked at a single contract of LAHSA’s with the city. Not to let them off the hook, I still have issues with them. But the city was paying them to do outreach at these sweeps, which is a horribly ineffective way to engage people and try to get them into services, because you’re taking away their stuff. The fault, I think, was with the city for having that approach to outreach, and the city is now changing that.

How so?

We’re changing it so LAPD is not engaged, so it’s much more proactive, so there is a public health component. We just initiated showers at one of our encampments this morning, actually, in Mar Vista. We’re trying to get more mobile toilets. Treating it as a public health issue and not as a trash issue makes it easier to do outreach and establish relationships to get people into housing.

A recent L.A. Times investigation suggested that LAHSA had also underestimated the number of homeless people suffering from mental health issues in the city. What was your takeaway from that?

The L.A. Times numbers differed from LAHSA’s numbers because each agency measured different things. LAHSA was counting people with a definition of mental illness that meets the standard of chronic homelessness under the federal formula. L.A. Times was counting anybody who indicated they’d ever had an experience with mental illness, which would include me—I’ve suffered from depression in my life. I think the real number of people experiencing trauma that has been caused or worsened by mental illness is probably somewhere in between. What I found helpful about the story, though, was the renewed focus on mental health.

Being homeless is a traumatic experience, but it’s one that perpetuates additional trauma almost inevitably. If you have a mental illness you’re gonna get a lot sicker living on the streets, and you may manifest for the first time a mental illness. It’s hard to get well sometimes when you’re housed, when you have great access to health care. But when you’re living on the streets it’s a hell of a lot harder. And I think that that what we need to appreciate when we do outreach is that people’s experience with trauma makes it harder to establish a trusting connection, so it means we need to keep working harder, to not write people off as “service resistant.”

“Being homeless is a traumatic experience, but it’s one that perpetuates additional trauma almost inevitably. If you have a mental illness you’re gonna get a lot sicker living on the streets.”

Most experts agree that a lack of housing is still the main cause of homelessness, though. How can the city quell the rising rate of displacement and evictions?

There are a couple of elements to this. I think most government folks and a lot of advocates agree housing is the issue. But the public is not fully accepting that housing is the issue. So part of what we have to do is to continue to work on the narrative about what the actual solution is. Even if someone on the streets is suffering from a mental illness or engaged in substance abuse, housing is still part of the solution.

The second part is making sure that as we build more housing, we have a significant portion of it that is genuinely affordable and low income. I was supportive of the linkage fee we have, which requires developers to pay into an affordable housing pot. I’d also like to see us do inclusionary zoning—instead of council members and the community having to fight to get affordable housing into a project, it’d just be baked in. I’m also pushing, for the 2020 ballot, an empty homes fee or vacancy tax. By some estimates, L.A. has 100,000 vacant units, and it might force some of those back on the market.

“Even if someone on the streets is suffering from a mental illness or engaged in substance abuse, housing is still part of the solution.”

And then the final piece is eviction prevention. The new state legislation on rent control helps somewhat, but more tenant protections can and will be done. We’re working on restrictions on the reasons for eviction, and we’re also looking to provide a right to counsel for people who are facing eviction. And then another strategy that some of my colleagues and I have been talking about is, if someone can be spared from eviction by a short-term gap finance situation—a couple of months’ rent—that is a damn worthwhile investment for the city to make.

You recently proposed that the city create an advisory commission of people who are or have been homeless. What role do you see this committee playing? 

I proposed this commission because it’s common sense. We’re designing and implementing programs that are spending millions of dollars to serve a population, and we’re not asking them often enough how well we’re doing at it. As middle-class, relatively well-off housed people on the City Council, we are going to lack a certain understanding of what needs to be done—we might think “Oh we’re spending so much money on all these outreach workers, everybody’s getting contacted.” But if you talk to somebody who’s sleeping rough, they’re going to tell you that they call their outreach worker and the voicemail is full, or they no longer work there. And so we need that information to figure out if what we’re doing is working.

You’ve talked about your own brush with homelessness before. How did that experience inform your perspective?

I’ve been clean and sober from alcohol and drugs for 24-and-three-quarters years. Before I got sober, when I was fairly new to California, I was—I really think of it as “having a brush with” homelessness. A couple of nights I slept in my car, and a couple of nights I slept on the beach, and did a lot of couch surfing and staying in rundown motels and stuff like that. And it was a very defining experience for me. It was, you know, four or five years after graduating from Harvard, and I was a drug addict on the edge of homelessness on the streets of Los Angeles. That’s a memory and a perspective that sticks with you. And it certainly gives me a sensitivity to the issue and to some of the nuances that are harder to grasp. It taught me very clearly that we are all broken, and that we all fall down, and sometimes we need help getting up. And once someone’s helped you up, it’s your obligation to help someone else.

“I was a drug addict on the edge of homelessness on the streets of Los Angeles. That’s a memory and a perspective that sticks with you.”

Homeless Angelenos and advocates have reported a swell in anti-homeless rhetoric and violence in the city, and there have been a number of high-profile attacks against the homeless in recent months. What do you think is driving this trend?

There’s tremendous anger out there. I hear it when I talk to constituents and in the e-mails I get, but you can taste it on social media. I’ve read posts where people say, you know, we should throw bleach on people or hose them down or drive up next to them and honk the horn really loud until they leave. Some really hostile stuff.

I think what makes the homelessness crisis difficult is that government and social service agencies are particularly horrible at narrative storytelling. And a lot of the press sucks at it too. The narrative that is getting stronger that every homeless person in Los Angeles is a violent, mentally ill, drug-addicted criminal, and that the city’s solution is to give each of them a $700,000 beachfront condo. And as long as people think that, we are never going to get people to accept homeless housing in their neighborhoods, or get buy-in for programs and the services we need.

I think we need to do a dramatic telling of homeless people’s stories. Like a big effort—the same kind of public-private partnership that went into, you know, winning the Olympics for Los Angeles needs to be marshaled to tell these stories.

In the meantime, is the council looking at any ways to better protect people?

I know LAPD has been has been paying a lot of attention to this. And my colleague Monica Rodriguez spearheaded an effort to endorse state legislation which would have made it a hate crime, which ultimately failed. We probably need to revisit that. And I think that those of us around on the council need to be hearing more directly about what’s happening out there. There are some really good activist organizations that are trying to tell the stories, and they’re finally starting to penetrate the media.

Can you talk about the role of that growing homeless advocacy movement?

I think a lot of activists have done a phenomenal job shaking up the conversation and making people look at things a little bit different. As council people, we tend to hear people who are upset, but we don’t hear in the same fashion from people who don’t want the punitive measures, and want us to do the more nuanced and effective work to actually solve the problem and get people housed. The presence of the activist groups at City Hall has been a sort of wakeup call to people that there are other voices out there, and that those voices are willing to make some noise and do some work.

A lot of those groups and people have taken their own their own resources and used them to elevate people’s stories. For instance, there was an encampment cleanup a year-and-a-half ago where the city seized someone’s heart medication, and he died a week or two later. I don’t know that we would have heard about that if it weren’t for the activist groups. I don’t know that we’d have as much information about what’s working and not working on the streets. So I’ve been mostly glad for their presence there, though there are times I get slapped as well.

Are you referencing the planter debacle

I wasn’t specifically, no [laughs]. I’m glad the Board of Public Works has come up with a policy to deal with the installation of planters. If there are things that are blocking the public right of way, whether it’s a Bird scooter or an encampment or a planter, it shouldn’t be there period. But of the myriad of fights to pick over homelessness, that’s not the issue where I’ve chosen to put my focus.

Do you have any advice for Angelenos who want to help solve the homelessness crisis?

Much like homelessness, there isn’t one answer. Some are inclined to volunteer with an organization and serve a meal because they want to make that human connection. If there’s a CEO who has the ability to serve on a nonprofit’s fundraising board and help raise funds for a program benefiting homeless youth, that’s where I’d like to see them take their energy. If there is some young person who is fluent in telling stories on social media to humanize the faces of who’s on our streets, that’s where I would direct them. If you have the ability to build an accessory dwelling unit on your property for homeless or affordable housing, the county has made that very inexpensive. There are as many different ways to help as people have abilities.

RELATED: Crimes Against the Homeless Have Risen, and Advocates Are Searching for Answers

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