Outreach groups and sheriff’s department work to relocate homeless on Venice’s Ocean Front Walk

Asher Ali

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One member of Venice's homeless community, Robert, had been developing his structure for weeks before vacating the area.(Anju Saravanan/Hopes For Homeless)

(VENICE, Calif.) The shores of Venice have long been an attractive area for residents, tourists and transients to locate themselves. An accompaniment to the neighborhood's ocean scenery is the homeless presence in the area, which has increased tremendously during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, authorities are scrambling to rectify the situation and move people off the beach’s boardwalk.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the city of Los Angeles put a moratorium on removing sidewalk tent encampments in order to quell the spread of COVID-19. In July of last year, City Council only reimplemented a ban on tents specifically around shelter facilities in order to complete “comprehensive” cleanups in those areas.

However, the city didn't expand those cleanups to areas outside of shelters until July 2 this year, and by that time, the homeless presence particularly on the Ocean Front Walk in Venice increased expontentially. As tents and transitory structures burgeoned on the walkway during the pandemic, Los Angeles Police Department’s pulled back to deal with issues elsewhere, social workers stopped showing up as frequently and residents of the neighborhood became wary of strolling the beachfront walkway as it became less safe.

Pamela Connolly and Joel Post witnessed the entire development of the situation while they served the homeless on the boardwalk through the pandemic, just as they have for the past six years. Masked up, Hopes for Homeless, the nonprofit that the two help run, continued to show up on the Ocean Front Walk every Thursday and Sunday to serve breakfast. Every Tuesday, the organization provides dinner for the area’s homeless as well.

Through their work, Connolly and Post developed personal relationships with the people on the streets of Venice and have been able to provide assistance outside of just food provisions. When more and more new faces began showing up on the boardwalk, they felt like they had more work on their hands as other outreach groups that normally provide aid seemingly abandoned the area.

“We’ve done a lot over the past year especially,” Connolly said. “People stay with us sometimes if they need a solid address to use and we pet-sit too, but when other organizations kind of left the area, a whole number of new groups of displaced people came in and it really complicated the situation here.”

At least 130 tents were placed on the shores of Venice as many resources receded from the area, a time during which violence and crime also escalated. According to the LAPD, assaults in the area were up 43% in 2020 from 2019, and robberies were up 46%.

Connolly explained that the arrival of new groups disrupted the harmony of the homeless community already inhabiting the walkway.

In an urgent attempt to incite change, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced during a Facebook Live video on June 9 a new ultimatum for the homeless people on the walkway. He said that all homeless people on the walkway would have to vacate the premises by July 4 or risk facing arrest from his department, despite Venice being under LAPD’s jurisdiction.

The sheriff’s office still has general authority throughout all of Los Angeles County, and after hearing about the new decree, LAPD Chief Michel Moore reached out to Villanueva the next day so the two could work on the situation together.

Villanueva’s team was out on the boardwalk to engage in outreach and notify transients that they would have up until July 4 to relocate. They put up flyers and worked alongside other outreach groups in an attempt to connect with the people on the boardwalk, but the sudden reaction to the issue kept the July 4 ultimatum from being upheld.

Two significant outreach groups, St. Joseph Center and Los Angeles Homeless Security, had been widely vacant from the boardwalk throughout the pandemic. Villanueva’s stern call for change galvanized the groups into returning to the Ocean Front Walk to provide the vagabonds in the area with resources to get them off the streets.

Generally, those without a place to go who have been on the boardwalk for an extended period of time are offered three housing options to get them off the streets.

Shelters are one option, typically gymnasiums or warehouses which provide homeless people with a place to rest overnight temporarily in hopes that they get back on their feet. There is also transitional housing, which sets people up in communal living situations where they can be more independent.

If people on the streets are seeking rehab or mental health assistance, outreach groups are capable of getting them placed in rehabilitation facilities that can house and get them off the streets.

Even with those options available, some on the streets find their own way of life more accomodating, and regardless of the threat of relocating ever-present, don’t intend to find a place to stay.

“I came here originally in the 70s and really kept this neighborhood intact back when it was known as a free speech zone,” said a Venice transient who goes only by Happy. “Now what’s happened is that people let this place go to hell and they don’t know what they’re doing to restore that peace, they need peacekeepers like me out here to do that.”

As Villanueva pushed his hardline initiative to clean up the shoreline streets of Venice, Los Angeles’ City Council began to establish a position themselves. Some on the council backed Villanueva’s presence in Venice like City Councilman Joe Buscaino, but the entire council also recently agreed to allocate $5 million to Councilmember Mike Bonin’s “Venice Beach Encampment to Home” program.

The program went into effect June 28 and plans to house at least 200 people over a six-week period. Outreach groups like St. Joseph Center, LAHSA and Safe Place for Youth are at the forefront of this program’s outreach as Bonin hopes to downplay the police presence.

The timeline for Bonin’s plan, which plans to have the boardwalk cleared by Aug. 22, isn’t congruent with the ultimatum that Villanueva gave of July 4. Although Villanueva has since delayed that date in order to purportedly give the homeless enough time to gather their things and make a decision, his department has been doing sweeps in the area throughout the past two weeks to coerce people off the premises.

On July 16, the city of Los Angeles began its big push to remove tents and shacks from the Ocean Front Walk.

The sheriff’s department and LAPD will first give homeless members residing on the walkway the chance to take up housing offers from the outreach groups in Venice. If they turn down those offers and don’t willingly leave the area, then the transients will be forced off the premises.

“I question what the sheriff thinks he’s doing,” Post said. “Coming in here looking like you’re ready to go to war and trying to get people to leave what has been their home is going to lead to mistrust and it’s harder to connect. I see why it has to change, but I’m not sure this is the way to do it.”

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Hello, my name is Asher Ali and I am excited to contribute to NewsBreak content as a fellow over this summer. I'll primarily be reporting from the Los Angeles area, but will begin my beat in Eastern Washington as I'm still up in Spokane while attending Gonzaga University. At Gonzaga, I study journalism, international relations and French, and I have a genuine passion for evincing the tales of those unrecognized in the world. No matter how local of an issue, I find every individual story out there to have unquantifiable value, and I hope that through my work with NewsBreak, I'll be able to deliver those stories to all who follow along.

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