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

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?

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