Venice Beach becomes flashpoint in Los Angeles homeless crisis

David de Russy rode his bike through a sparse crowd of midweek visitors descending the Venice Beach Boardwalk in Los Angeles between multi-million dollar homes, T-shirt shops and restaurants to one side and vendors peddling paintings, peddling crystals and offering tarot card readings on the other.

For the first time in about a year, he was happy that the ocean view was largely clear of the misery of the homeless camps that mushroomed along the sands during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Thank goodness it is clearing up,” de Russy said, although a group of remaining tents renewed what he described as “that nauseating feeling that comes with seeing human beings in this state.”

An effort to house the homeless and eliminate the congestion that has proliferated is nearing completion. But residents unhappy with the government’s inaction that allowed the problem to spiral out of control are suspiciously watching how it unfolds and whether the cleanup takes hold.

A problem once largely confined to the Skid Row section of downtown has spread to virtually every part of Los Angeles. The country’s second-largest city also has the country’s second-largest homeless population – 41,000 of the city’s total population of 4 million, according to the latest survey before the pandemic.

Venice has a disproportionate concentration with around 1,600 homeless people in the neighborhood of around 40,000.

The area has become a flashpoint due to its visibility as a a landmark of LA – the promenade attracts around 10 million visitors a year – and a high-profile political row over how to solve the problem.

When COVID-19 hit, the streets were already lined with manned motorhomes and sidewalks overflowing with tents, collections of bicycles, furniture and shopping carts. Encampments have sprung up along the beach when restrictions on camping were not enforced in stay-at-home orders.

At one point, more than 200 weather-damaged tents had grown along the sand and grassy hills that stretch between the bike path and Ocean Front Walk, the concrete boardwalk. The mattresses were stacked next to the volleyball nets. Sheets reinforced with pallets, fencing and plywood created larger shelters. Sofas and chairs served as open-air lounges.

A philosophy of live and let live has long prevailed in the bohemian, gritty beach bungalow community which in recent years has become home to the wealthy as tech companies have moved in and sleek modern homes have been built. built.

A certain nervousness has always coexisted with a peaceful vibe, but the concentration of homeless people has left residents and business owners frustrated and angry.

Videos posted to social media showed a homeless man being shot, men and women throwing wild punches and struggling on the promenade, and a burning tent in the sand. A man was found clubbed in his tent last month and another homeless man was arrested as a suspected killer.

Locals tell stories of break-ins and theft, seeing people using heroin in the alleys behind their homes or defecating in their backyards.

“This is no way for people to live,” said Brad Neal, lawyer and owner of 10 buildings in Venice. “Everyone is suffering. Not only the non-accommodated, but also the accommodated.

Neal, who recently armed himself with a stick to get to his car after saying he was almost assaulted, said he worried about his tenants.

Neal overcame drug addiction years ago and echoes the sentiment of others when he says he knows he might end up on the streets. But he said residents who genuinely care about the well-being of people living outside – many of whom struggle with addiction and mental health issues – are starting to lose empathy.

Residents ranted at City Councilor Mike Bonin, claiming he had neglected the area for too long. Brash LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva stepped into the debate, stepping outside of his traditional jurisdiction and receiving somewhat of a hero’s welcome when he showed up on the promenade in a cowboy hat last month by promising a cleanup.

“Everyone was waiting for someone to ride their horses,” said Cari Bjelajac, a resident who helped form the group. Walk of the friends of Venice. “It was hilarious it was the sheriff.”

Villanueva, whose department is under state investigation for excessive force and other alleged wrongdoing, has come under heavy criticism from the local political establishment for wading through the city’s territory. He called city and county leaders the “architects” of the homeless problem and rejected a more measured approach.

“There is a point where you have to call people up and just cut through the BS,” he said. “It was at this point in history that the whole region said to itself, ‘Enough is enough. Let’s get the job done.

Of the 250 homeless people the sheriff’s team spoke to, 20 moved to shelters, five went to mental health or addiction programs, and six were reunited with family and friends, a said Sheriff’s Lt. Geff Deedrick. They finished their work once the city program started.

Two weeks after the sheriff’s appearance, Bonin announced a more comprehensive “home camps” plan that promised permanent housing to 200 people. City records show Bonin requested $ 5 million to fund the program long before Villanueva arrived for the “carnival”. He said Villanueva had no idea of ​​the resources available and the groups already working with the homeless.

On Tuesday, at least 175 people had agreed to be placed in shelters by workers from the Saint-Joseph Center, said the association carrying out the Bonin plan.

One of the main questions is whether people will accept housing and stay there. A similar effort to remove a large encampment near the Penmar Golf Course – a nine-hole public course about a mile from Venice Beach – succeeded in clearing the area, but many people ended up on the streets.

Some went to a temporary shelter installed by the city in a former bus station. But neighbors complained that others had pitched their tents outside the shelter. Some who stayed indoors overnight maintained tents where they could keep their belongings or use drugs and drink during the day.

Bonin, who is the target of a recall campaign, said one of Penmar’s weaknesses was that it offered temporary stays, but permanent accommodation was based on “hope and prayer”. A lesson from this experience was to line up permanent housing vouchers for beach dwellers in advance.

Some homeless advocates have complained that displaced beach residents will be given priority over those who have waited longer for housing.

Va Lecia Adams Kellum, president and CEO of St. Joseph, defended the decision to prioritize people on the boardwalk and said they wouldn’t necessarily pass more vulnerable people.

“We believe the public health crisis warrants it,” said Adams Kellum. “It sounds like a life and death mission. That’s how we attacked him.

As de Russy pedaled along the beach so he could update his friends on the progress of the cleanup, he had mixed emotions when he reached an area with around 45 tents left.

He was optimistic that the beach camps would be done away with and relieved that so many had been helped. But he wonders about the fate of the most resistant and wonders where they will end up.

“We are in new territory with new hope,” he said. “But this is not a solution to the homeless problem. It’s a solution to the Venice Beach problem.

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