Two years ago, the Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church on Norris Avenue in Pacoima became an Emergency Winter Shelter for the homeless.
The problems for the neighborhood began soon after, residents say.
While the destitute could stay in the shelter at night, they lingered on the streets nearby during the day doing drugs, urinating and defecating on the street, and having sex in the open, according to Laura Contreras, who lives nearby.
The shelter didn’t open last year, but the homeless never left. They remained in the area harassing, stealing and posing a safety hazard, residents say, until they complained about the issue a couple of months ago during a community meeting and authorities removed them.
But citizens who live there, and those that take children to at least three nearby elementary schools, worry that the problem will come back.
The shelter is scheduled to be open once again, from Dec, 1 through Feb. 28, 2018, and Contreras — whose two young children attend Pacoima Charter Elementary School just down the block from the church — is concerned.
“I feel very unsafe,” she said, regarding the prospect of having homeless people near her house again.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen when they’re on drugs,” she adds. “They cuss, they’re violent. I don’t want my kids to see that.”
She is not the only vocal opposition.
Contreras and dozens of other parents and residents, along with children, teachers and community activists attended a community meeting at Vaughn G3 -– another nearby school — on Monday, Nov. 13, to discuss the plans for this year’s winter shelter program at the church.
Holding signs and chanting, community members expressed their opposition to the refuge. They say opening the shelter threatens their safety and is detrimental to the area.
“We’re not opposed to shelters,” said resident Isabel Villegas. “We have a heart. But we don’t want them near our schools or in our neighborhoods. There are industrial zones where they can put them.”
Villegas criticized LA Councilmember Monica Rodriguez, saying she has not listened to residents’ complaints on this issue. Villegas feels that the homeless are being “dumped in Pacoima” because “they think people are going to remain quiet.”
“If this was Calabasas, this wouldn’t be happening,” Villegas said.
Rodriguez, who was present at the meeting, noted that there is a “homeless crisis” throughout the city and “addressing this problem is very important to me.”
She said she has created the first Homeless Task Force in the district, made up of police, community organizations and residents to help people get off the street.
To date, 21 homeless individuals have found housing through the task force.
The fact remains, however, that there are many people on the streets that must find a warm and safe place to sleep in the cold winter months. Finding one is not easy, said Ken Craft, founder and CEO for Hope of the Valley, the nonprofit organization that runs the shelter.
He said he’s traveled all over the San Fernando Valley looking for a suitable place for a winter refuge — one with handicapped access, emergency exits, and fire sprinklers — but so far hasn’t been able to find one. That’s why the church along Norris Avenue, which meets all this criteria, is a place to have a shelter.
But this time, Craft detailed new “Good Neighbor Policy” measures he hopes would mitigate issues raised in the past.
Among the changes is not accepting any walk-ins. Homeless men and women will be picked up at designated spots throughout the Valley and taken by bus to the shelter. Once inside, they won’t be able to walk in and out; there will be privacy screens on the gates.
There will also be 24-hour security guards on site, and “no trespassing” signs posted along nearby streets will make it easier for law enforcement to discourage or clear loitering.
During the daytime, the homeless will be driven to a site in Van Nuys.
“The goal is to create an environment where there is no loitering, no trespassing and you will not even see (any) of the homeless,” Craft told the packed school auditorium, while many spectators shouted “no shelter” at him as he spoke.
He also acknowledged that “nobody wants it (a homeless shelter), but we must show some compassion.”
“Give us a chance,” Craft pleaded to the community. “These are human beings. It gets cold in the Valley.”
Chris Hicks also wants people to give him and others like him a chance. He’s in a sober living program and came to the meeting to support those struggling on the streets.
“Homeless people should be welcomed,” said Hicks, who carried a sign noting that the homeless once had a home.
Paul Dumont of Community Sober Living said a shelter improves public safety. It’s a cheaper and more effective method of helping the homeless.
“A person on the streets is seven times more likely to commit a crime,” Dumont noted. “They’re a lot more desperate.”
But that’s not a consolation for those near the site.
Angela Tilghman, a kindergarten teacher at Pacoima Charter Elementary School who showed up to protest the plan, said, “We don’t feel safe having a shelter so close to the school. We’ve known people who were attacked by homeless.”
She said the homeless who remained in the area after the shelter was placed there used to congregate near a store across the school, and many of the staff simply stopped going there.
“This is already a tough neighborhood for the kids. They don’t need this here,” Tilghman noted.
Residents said they are not concerned with those homeless who follow the rules and remain inside the shelter, but with those who stay outside.
“Not all of them go inside. They remain outside doing drugs, prostitution,” said Hilda Ramirez. “Children pass by and they see all that.”
By the end of the meeting, many of the residents expressed frustration over the fact that despite their protests and opposition, the shelter will open in a couple of weeks.
But they vow to keep fighting. Villegas said a protest is already planned for Dec. 1 — the day the shelter is scheduled to open.
“This fight is only starting,” Villegas said.
Ken Craft of Hope of the Valley said that people can report any problems to the Pacoima Emergency Winter Shelter at (818) 687-8744.