An LA Councilman Tried to Help the Homeless. Now He May Lose His Job. – The Nation

Mike Bonin faces a recall vote after supporting Venice Beach’s unhoused residents with sustained outreach and new housing.

In October, Los Angeles City Council member Mike Bonin sat in the courtyard of a Ramada Inn, talking to a slender 29-year-old named Ololade Oguntayo. After spending four months homeless on Venice Beach, Oguntayo had recently accepted transitional housing at the Ramada. Oguntayo told Bonin about moving back to LA at the beginning of the pandemic. “I figured the world was ending, so let me just live with my family,” Oguntayo explained. But they soon clashed with their mother’s partner, who wasn’t accepting of their gender identity. So they ended up on the beach, living with a group of other young people. It was a grueling and often dangerous experience. “Physically, I didn’t know how strong my body was,” Oguntayo said, “whether it was healing a wound or going however long without food or just finding ways to make the day go by and stay sane.” Bonin, 54, told Oguntayo that he could sympathize. His own father had struggled to accept that he was gay. And when Bonin was in his 20s, he spent nights on the waterfront, sleeping in his car. The two of them laughed at the realization that they’d both attended the same Sunday morning Alcoholic Anonymous meeting on Venice Beach, which had certain attractions common to such gatherings (coffee, pastries) and others—the crash of the waves, a view of the surfers entering and exiting the water—not found elsewhere.

It wasn’t obvious from the scene, but Oguntayo’s presence at the Ramada was intensely controversial. The hotel’s purchase and conversion into transitional housing had been fiercely opposed by some local residents, who appealed the permit approval, invoking environmental and safety concerns as well as claims that it would “severely” limit diversity by reducing tourists’ access to budget accommodations. “The City plans to house 33 chronically homeless, drug and alcohol addicted, mentally ill, and/or formerly institutionalized (jail or mental facility) individuals (and their animals and belongings) from all over the City,” the 70-page appeal claimed. That characterization would have been news to Oguntayo, who attended the AA meetings merely for the company and food.

The Ramada Inn is just one point of contention between Bonin and a bevy of his constituents, who accuse him, essentially, of ruining their neighborhoods. The conflict has given rise to a flurry of lawsuits, untold Nextdoor posts, protests, and the first recall campaign against a council member in Los Angeles in 37 years to successfully force a vote. On November 10, recall campaigners submitted over 39,000 signatures. While they still need to be individually verified, it’s well over the 27,317 valid signatures needed to trigger a recall election in the spring—which could come as little as one month before Bonin’s reelection primary in June.

In a city where homelessness has become the defining political issue, one that may well decide the 2022 mayoral race, Bonin is one of very few local politicians determined to eschew police enforcement of anti-homeless laws in favor of conducting sustained outreach and building new housing. But he represents the LA Westside, a district that is much whiter and wealthier than the city at large, and his efforts have incensed a group of Angelenos—white homeowners with resources—who have long wielded tremendous power. With those enemies, how long can he or any politician with a similar approach to homelessness hold on?

Today, Bonin lives in a modest Spanish-style home in the Mar Vista neighborhood with his husband, Sean Arian, and their 7-year-old son, Jacob. It’s been decades since the council member was housing insecure, but the ordeal—like getting sober, becoming a father, and the untimely deaths of his sister and other loved ones—has shaped his sense of what’s worth fighting for, and how to fight for it. “In my own life and through tons of others, I have seen tremendous change,” he told me. “It makes me believe the capacity for change is unlimited—for people, for the city, for the country.”

Bonin grew up Irish Catholic in Clinton, Mass. An unlimited Greyhound pass brought him to the West Coast in 1991. It was a wild time: mudslides, fires, the LA riots. “I remember writing to a coworker, saying, ‘I feel like I’m previewing the future,’” he told me. “Los Angeles is still a place for that.”

In those days, Bonin worked a series of jobs to stay afloat: security guard, matchmaker for a HIV-positive dating service, reporter for the Los Angeles Wave newspapers in South LA. He also struggled with alcohol and drugs, and the turbulence of addiction brought him close to homelessness, an experience he recalled before the city council this summer. “I can’t tell you how much turmoil there is in your heart when the sun is setting and you do not have a place to sleep,” he told his colleagues.

When he finally got sober, Bonin started to envision a different life for himself. He couldn’t get the recycling symbol out of his head. “I felt that it was sort of emblematic,” he told me, since he was “taking the life I had trashed and making it reusable.” A chance interview led to a job with Council District 11 in 1996. He has worked for the office practically ever since. In 2012, after his boss, suffering from cancer, decided to forgo reelection, Bonin ran in his stead, and won handily. “I was elected as a neighborhood guy,” he said. “It was a relatively peaceful and prosperous time.”

In the years since, Bonin has become a bit of a firebrand, frequently at odds with his colleagues. Though the pandemic and last year’s uprising following the murder of George Floyd pushed him further to the left, the issue of homelessness has been at the center of his political transformation. Early in Bonin’s tenure, he clashed with activists over overnight parking restrictions. He tried to craft what he saw as a compromise, allowing people to sleep in their cars on some streets and not others. “A lot of activists that I work with now really hated it and thought it was criminalization,” he told me. His office also tried “sanitation clean-ups,” more commonly known as “sweeps,” which activists criticize as cruel and ineffective—and which Bonin now rejects. “It did not help homelessness,” he said. “It, I believe, made homelessness worse.”

Meanwhile, Bonin grew frustrated by the city council’s often circular discussions about enforcement. “I bet if I counted the number of minutes we have spent debating criminalization ordinances, it would dwarf the number of minutes we have spent talking about how to house more people more quickly with less cost,” he told me. “If there’s any constant in Los Angeles,” he went on, “it’s that we will be debating a policy of how to make things harder for people living on the streets.”

Nowhere is the issue more fraught and visible than the Westside, which the cooler, breezier climate makes more hospitable to outdoor living than other parts of LA. The number of unhoused people in Bonin’s district has increased by 38 percent in the past five years, and housed residents are organized and ready to mount legal challenges. Stephanie Popescu, the cofounder of Grassroots Neighbors and a constituent of Bonin’s, does outreach at Westchester Park, where there was an encampment of around four dozen people in mid-October. “It’s funny,” she said. “We’re all working towards the same thing. Ultimately, nobody wants tents in the park.” But, she continued, “people want instant results.… there’s nothing instant about this.”

At the same time, Bonin has found himself repeatedly stymied when he has tried to build or convert housing for the homeless. “So many of the people who are saying the solutions are too expensive and too slow have actually slowed down solutions and made them more expensive,” he said. His policies have spawned a number of oppositional groups and news sites, and turned existing neighborhood organizations fiercely against him. Then there is the recall campaign itself, which blazes ahead even as concurrent efforts imploded. (The campaign’s leaders, Nico Ruderman and Katrina Schmitt, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Underlying all of this is a certain nostalgia: the sense that Venice as it once was no longer exists. It is a force that any politician would be hard-pressed to combat, powerful in part because it can be transposed onto all manner of political complaints: park encampments, crime, homeless shelters, luxury development, tech companies, rising rents, income inequality. Take Bonin’s dispute with restaurateur Tyler Wilson. The two first butted heads in 2019, when Bonin sent Wilson a letter asking him not to evict a Latino family with an autistic son from the property they’d rented for over two decades. Recently, Wilson hosted an “Oktoberfest Recall Bonin” event at his German beer garden in Venice. Since the council member took office, Wilson told me, “there’s no private property, no police services…. Venice should be beautiful.” Bonin, he added, “doesn’t care about businesses. He doesn’t care about anything other than giving away money to homeless people.”

Bonin is also up for reelection: A June 2022 primary will pit him against Traci Park, a lawyer who lives near the Ramada Inn and spearheaded its permit appeal. Park told me she believes in enforcement “particularly around sensitive-use areas—our beaches, our parks, around schools,” and thinks the City needs to focus on constructing shelters rather than costly permanent housing. She has, however, opposed two recent temporary housing projects in her district—the Ramada and a shelter on Sunset Avenue—but said it’s because “the community at large has suffered,” adding that “service providers aren’t held accountable—there’s no performance standards or accountability metrics.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, the city council voted to suspend the confiscation of unhoused people’s tents and belongings, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. But as time wore on, many residents grew increasingly bitter about encampments in their neighborhoods. In March, police acting at the behest of Councilman Mitch O’Farrell cleared a large encampment at Echo Park Lake, arresting 200 protesters, residents, and journalists in the process. Outreach to park residents had occurred beforehand, but the process was incredibly opaque—“secretive,” according to the Los Angeles Times journalist whose reporting broke the eviction date in the absence of official updates. The park remains fenced off, and its clearing has inspired similar efforts in downtown’s MacArthur Park.

This summer, as the number of unhoused people living on Venice Beach grew, Bonin set up a “Encampment to Home” program to bring as many residents as possible indoors—and ultimately into permanent housing, using vouchers funded by the federal Covid-19 stimulus act. “In many ways we did it to try to be a counterpoint to Echo Park Lake,” Bonin told me. “We didn’t want hundreds of officers swarming in. We didn’t want things to be sudden. We didn’t want things to be unclear.”

Caseworkers did outreach to around 270 people, an effort that was complicated by the arrival of sheriff’s deputies on the boardwalk. “I’m gonna be honest—I was, just like everybody else, very suspicious,” Oguntayo told Bonin at the Ramada Inn about his program. “A lot of us have been burned in the past.” Eventually, though, Oguntayo decided to give it a shot. In total, 213 people moved indoors. The process wasn’t perfect; Oguntayo described it as “chaotic.” Still Bonin called it an “accomplishment,” noting that no fences were ever erected on the boardwalk, but said that he won’t count it as a victory until everyone’s into permanent housing.

Oguntayo described the sense of relief they felt after moving into the inn. Recently, they had been hired as a barista and received prescription glasses from a nearby clinic. “I feel like I can do anything now,” Oguntayo said. “If I survived on the beach and couldn’t even see past my hand, it’s all up from here.” When we spoke later, though, they noted that the transition to permanent housing was taking longer than expected, and they felt micromanaged by the daily check-ins and room inspections. And it was painful to witness the struggles of friends who were still on the street. “It just sucks to see the parallels,” Oguntayo said. One friend, they added, had gone missing.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Westchester Park has become another contested space in a district filled with them. A recall supporter who lives nearby recently said that his park had been “taken over” by homeless people. “Out in the desert, there’s lots of land,” he mused. It is a sentiment that seems to suffuse both policy and rhetoric in LA: the tacit wish that unhoused people would simply disappear.

Dreu Viator, who goes by Sunshine, had been living in Westchester Park for 10 months, and she was exhausted. Communication with her caseworker had been challenging. And she had faced harassment and worse from housed people: One morning, she said, a man woke her up by kicking her in the head and accused someone in the encampment of stealing his walkie-talkies.

On October 18, the Department of Recreation and Parks, acting independently, swept the southernmost part of Westchester. Miraculously, Sunshine got into a hotel to transition to shared housing the same day. “I’m groovy,” she texted me. In the weeks that followed, Bonin secured $1.1 million from the city council to replicate the Venice Beach process in Westchester, and his office has been working with service providers to get people into temporary motel housing. “It’s been amazing, going to the motels and seeing park residents well-rested, showered, and so much more relaxed and happy,” Popescu of Grassroots Neighbors told me, noting that there were only 14 residents left in the park as of November 9.

Though Bonin has been able to eke out another small victory in his district, recent citywide developments appear comparatively bleak. “The push for stronger enforcement is huge,” he said. “It’s at the point…where an individual council member [can’t] hold it back.” This July, the council passed a punitive new law that reduces the options for homeless encampments in LA, banning them within 500 feet of schools, parks, libraries, and day care centers, among other restrictions. Bonin and progressive newcomer Nithya Raman cast the only dissenting votes. The council also voted to spend $2 million in homeless-service funds on signs printed with the text of the new law—with Bonin and Raman again the lone dissenters. And just recently, a council committee advanced a measure to arm LA park rangers, who act as de facto law enforcement in the city’s parks. Given the high rate of police and sheriff killings in Los Angeles County, it is easy to see how such a law could lead to increased violence against LA’s unhoused population, about a third of whom are Black.

Bonin is heartened by the number of progressive challengers running for city council next year, and especially hopeful that his longtime ally Karen Bass’s entrance into the mayoral race could herald a change in the city’s policies. Before then, however, he will have to defend his own seat, from both the recall election and a number of primary challengers whose beliefs may align better with his district’s most vocal residents. But the backlash from the recall supporters has seemingly only strengthened Bonin’s resolve. “If the price of being in elected office is having to advocate for those failed, expensive, criminalization policies,” he told me, “it’s too high a price.”