I lived in L.A. for seventeen years, most of them in a small studio in Los Feliz. But I had beach city dreams and when I “made it,” I knew there was a beautiful seaside oasis in Venice Beach or Hermosa Beach just waiting for me. I would often go to Venice just to write in one of the local coffeehouses for several hours and then cap the day off with a stroll through the canals or on the boardwalk – dreaming of a home there.
Today, I feel as if I dodged a bullet. Of course, I wish I had enough money so that buying that Venice Beach home had ever been an option. But there are few residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles County that are as problematic with regard to their homeless population and the violence that has accompanied it.
The tent encampments are not just unsightly – they are dangerous
I’ve seen several videos of Venice Beach’s homeless community and they are disturbing. One man kicks another in the head repeatedly; one person drags another by their pants until the pants come off; two or more people will gang up on a single individual; there are seemingly endless fistfights, screaming, and threats. One man is filmed throwing an accelerant into someone’s tent and it is immediately consumed in fire.
Off-camera, the stabbings and shootings are escalating at record levels. Violent crime is up 177% in this neighborhood from the previous year and assaults with a deadly weapon involving a homeless person are up 162%.
If you have lunch or dinner at one of the boardwalk restaurants, you’ll not only get a close view of the tent encampments but there’s also a good chance you’ll witness some of the violent or threatening behavior that has become so common there.
Under these circumstances, it’s extremely difficult to resume life as usual. Children and seniors are afraid to walk alone on the boardwalk. Most residents wouldn’t dream of going out at night now. One local homeowner could only scream inside her home as security cameras captured a homeless man trying to enter her home.
You may have heard the case of the local barber who was not only attacked by a pit bull that was owned by one of the tent dwellers but was also assaulted and knocked unconscious with a skateboard. His assailant was arrested, but released within days because jails have been trying to release as many prisoners as they can because of the high probability of coronavirus outbreaks amongst inmates. So that violent man is back on the beach with his skateboard and the understanding that he will face minimal consequences for any further acts of violence in the near future.
What are residents to do?
Well, many of them were rather inspired by the clearing of the Echo Park homeless encampment across town. They want the same thing to happen on their own boardwalk, which is a similar size to the Echo Park homeless community, but more problematic in its higher levels of violence. (Which is not to say that Echo Park was summer camp – there were assaults, drug use, and a few deaths at that encampment.)
But for both humanitarian and logistical reasons, you can’t just have a “sweep’ of this homeless community without providing them with an alternative place to go. Otherwise, they will set their tents up elsewhere and the same social problem continues. One thing that the Echo Park operation got right (amidst its controversial heavy-handedness) was that they offered temporary housing to everyone who was being vacated from the park – mostly at hotels.
Many accepted the offers of hotel rooms, but some didn’t. One major problem with providing housing to the homeless is that they aren’t always willing to accept the restrictions that come along with their new residences.
Sometimes they can only bring in two bags of belongings. How can they just throw away all their other belongings when they represent the last assets and security they have? They can’t use drugs. But they know they’re going to. They don’t like curfews and restrictions on their freedom to come and go - because the freedom to come and go is about the only thing they have left and many are not willing to relinquish it.
Helping the homeless is never going to be straightforward or easy
To state the obvious, this is a social group filled with trauma, histories of abuse, drug addictions, and mental illness. (Not all – I’ve seen a number of very calm, lucid homeless individuals interviewed. They fell on hard times and with L.A.’s housing prices, they couldn’t find a route back to being housed.)
Assuming that the homeless on Venice Beach can be provided with emergency shelter, it’s likely that there will be equal, if not greater resistance to forcing them to leave their home. The homeless have lived in the Venice Beach/Santa Monica area for many years. Prior to the pandemic, their tents or carts or sleeping bags were cleared away frequently and the homeless were forced to keep a much lower profile.
But because of the pandemic, the police were ordered to not move the homeless encampments for fear of spreading the virus around. Homeless people were relieved to be able to have a long-term place to call home that they wouldn’t be pushed out of. Their tent sites expanded. They could collect more personal items. They had a place to call home – so much so that many advocates for the homeless began to call them “unhoused,” because many considered these encampments to be their homes.
But even more danger for the homeless than for Venice residents
The encampments are not only an unsustainable solution for the residents and the business owners but for the homeless as well. LAPD statistics show an 83% increase in crime where the victim is homeless.
One thing I’m struck by when I watch the taped episodes of violence on Venice Beach is that it has the appearance of a prison community. When you know that the people in your immediate environment are capable of violence, you do everything you can to not look like a victim. You have to respond with a loud, belligerent rebuttal to any aggression against you. Brandish a weapon and let the world know that you’re not going down without a fight.
As much security as the encampment provides, its residents know they are in a powder-keg that threatens to explode at all hours of the day. Though they will hate being moved, their lives and safety are going to depend on it.
What would I like to see happen?
Homelessness feels like an impossible thing to tackle when you step back and look at the big numbers. I think it’s easier to take action when you get closer to the ground and deal with the smaller numbers. There are two hundred tents in Venice Beach whose occupants need to be housed and provided with intensive social services.
It would ideal for everyone there to have a caseworker assigned to them. Maybe one caseworker per three to five people. Someone who can get to know each individual and their issues. Someone who drops by with a sandwich for them a few times a week and wins their trust. And someone who’ll be able to talk them into alternative housing when it’s available and follow up with them frequently to assess their needs and let them know they haven’t been abandoned.
State and local funds are going to be key. So are responsive politicians. As concerned and active as homeless advocates are, they don’t have the resources to provide permanent housing. Until that’s a reality, there should be doctors, mental health professionals, and well-trained (in de-escalation) police officers stationed daily at Venice Beach. For everyone’s sake.