At the edge of the sand of Venice Beach, rows of tents, recycled furniture and makeshift structures dot the palm tree-lined boardwalk, providing flimsy shelters for a community of unhoused people that has ballooned during the Covid pandemic.
The encampment in the tourist destination has become the latest flashpoint in Los Angeles’ homelessness debate, with councilmembers, mayoral candidates, police leaders, 活動家, anti-encampment protesters, TV crews, citizen journalists and service providers descending on the boardwalk in a vicious public fight over a growing humanitarian crisis.
The unhoused residents have been caught in the middle – and while the city has pledged to help find housing for those struggling to survive at the beach, many fear the intense attention will not result in long-term help.
“If we’re not here, then I don’t know where we’ll go,” Dawn Little said on a blistering hot morning last week, as cyclists and joggers sped by her tent next to the boardwalk. “I guess we’d find another sidewalk.”
Little and her wife have been living on the streets of LA for the past 16 月. They spent most of 2020 at a large encampment nearby but ended up moving to boardwalk after authorities shut the camp down in November amid an intense campaign from nearby homeowners.
Potentially forced to move again, Little said she was sympathetic to the frustrations of nearby homeowners. “Nobody wants to look out of their front window and see this," 彼女は言いました, gesturing to the dozens of tents up and down the boardwalk. だが, 彼女は言いました, she still deserves some compassion – and an opportunity to access private and safe housing: “Just because we live in a tent, we are below you? We just need a little help.”
Venice Beach has been home to an eclectic crowd of artists, street performers, vendors, skateboarders, surfers, 観光客, film crews and people without housing for decades.
With public restrooms and showers, the beach is a convenient spot for unhoused people. In the surrounding neighborhood, tents have popped up feet away from million dollar homes, high-end cafes with $20 grain bowls, and Google offices.
The pandemic presented a plethora of new challenges for cities across California facing longtime housing crises, and LA was no exception. At the start of 2020, より多い 66,000 people were homeless in LA county. Fearful of outbreaks, shelters reduced capacity, and other programs and services were shuttered. その間, “shelter in place” rules restricted the city from evicting homeless encampments, causing makeshift tent sites to grow. In Venice, hundreds of tents set up at the boardwalk.
“It was like a tsunami,” said Kenneth Stallworth, 62. “It was fun at first, I’m not gonna lie. It was a smörgåsbord, you meet new people, there’s fresh air out here and it’s beautiful.”
Stallworth has been unhoused in Venice for about seven years, starting to camp there amid a divorce and unemployment. He estimates the number of tents in the area tripled during Covid. パンデミック前, he was used to Venice Beach authorities forcing him to periodically take down his tent and move along, 彼は言った. But with crowds gone and encampment sweeps paused, he set up at the beach handball court, and was even able to bring a couch. It was ideal, but he knew it wouldn’t last for ever.
As LA has moved to reopen, officials have faced increasing pressure from merchants and homeowners to clear the beach. There are legitimate safety concerns: the conditions can be dangerous and unsanitary for unhoused people, some who suffer from severe health problems and are in need of urgent help. There have been distressing incidents of violence and fires that have concerned the unhoused and nearby residents and merchants. Across the city, unhoused people have been victimized そして killed at alarmingly high rates.
だが the fears have been exaggerated and exploited at times. One mayoral candidate used the boardwalk as a backdrop for the launch of his campaign, pledging to “clean” the streets and 逮捕 the unhoused who refuse to move.
ザ・ embattled LA county sheriff, Alex Villanueva, showed up with armed deputies at the beach (where his department typically doesn’t have jurisdiction), claiming the officers were doing “outreach” even as the sheriff warned that unhoused people from across the US were flocking to LA and were going to “destroy our community”.
This kind of standoff is not new in LA, where heavily armed officers helped evict a massive encampment at Echo Park Lake in March. But Venice has become the new site for this kind of political grandstanding because of the visible inequality in the area, said Sherin Varghese, the co-founder of Ktown for All, a volunteer group that advocates for unhoused people.
“You have a lot of concentrated wealth and power, and you also have extreme poverty," 彼女は言いました. “This is how it always goes, criminalization is the default.”
4月中, officials in Venice Beach launched an initial effort to clear the boardwalk, starting with the handball court. They started going section by section last month, and aim to finish clearing later this summer. The local councilman, Mike Bonin, 持っている pledged no one will be arrested, そして all encampment residents will be offered housing. But the process is a difficult one.
Stallworth said he knew the cleanup had been coming, and had moved his possessions to avoid them getting trashed. He didn’t move them far enough though, and his couch and tent ended up in the dump: “There were a lot of memories in that tent," 彼は言った.
He wasn’t too upset, しかしながら. He had gotten a placement in a nearby shelter, and while he disliked the rules at the facility and the ban on visitors, he loved the access to electricity.
Teresa Vernon’s experience was initially rocky. Vernon, a 63-year-old art vendor, said she had been a “nomad” for years, but had few options for shelter after her son’s home burned down in a 2019 wildfire. While camping, she dealt with a terrifying mice infestation around her tent, and also repeatedly had her belongings stolen, 彼女は言いました. “I’ve had to start over so many times.”
After she was moved from the beach, Vernon was placed in a space at a shelter that felt like a cubicle, 彼女は言いました. She had little room or privacy, 彼女は言いました, and hated it. “I’m too old for that," 彼女は言いました. After she left the shelter, the city placed her and her dog, Nacho, in a private motel room through Project Roomkey, a statewide initiative to get temporary motel rooms for unhoused people during Covid. The arrangement works well for her, Vernon said.
To homeless advocates, Vernon’s skepticism towards the shelter options offered by the city does not come as a surprise. パンデミックの前に, unhoused residents complained that living 条件 で some shelters were deplorable. While Project Roomkey was an unprecedented effort to get people private shelter, with roughly 1,800 rooms currently occupied, the initiative has fallen short of its goals and unhoused residents have complained about the strict rules and difficulties accessing permanent housing at the end of their stays.
Unhoused people have often been let down so many times that it is hard to convince them to accept housing options, said Dr Va Lecia Adams Kellum, the CEO of St Joseph Center, the lead service provider in the area, which is doing outreach on the boardwalk.
"時々, people have gotten too used to an inhumane existence and adapted to poverty," 彼女は言いました. “When we offer housing, some people don’t know if they want to open their hearts back up, but it’s our job to keep coming back.”
Dawn and Kia Little, camped at the section of the boardwalk that has not yet been cleared, said they were wary of entering any temporary housing program, fearing they’ll end up somewhere with little privacy or many restrictions. “There’s a difference between ‘housing’ and putting us in a motel,” said Kia, 36.
The couple came to カリフォルニア from Las Vegas, where authorities had impounded their RV. After their first encampment in Venice was cleared, the city placed them in a motel, but “it felt like we were in jail”, Dawn said.
Occupants were searched when they entered, Dawn said, and there were curfews and other rules. The couple said they watched people get kicked out of the program or exit without transitioning into permanent housing. “It was like a revolving door,” Dawn said. “My wife and I just need some stability. We’re mentally capable and physically capable of living alone and having our own home.” But the two also lost their ID documents, which has made the struggle to access help even harder.
While the couple is worried about being forced out, life on the beach hasn’t been easy, また. Kia said she was assaulted and robbed multiple times.
On a recent morning, the mobile outreach van of the street medicine team with Venice Family Clinic showed up to their tent to offer medical care. Kia was grateful for their arrival; she was overdue to get stitches removed from her eye after a recent attack.
Dr Coley King with the clinic tried to encourage them to accept housing offers, but was sympathetic to their negative experience.
King’s unhoused patients on the boardwalk suffer from “tri-morbidities”, 彼は言った, noting that many have severe illnesses like cancer and heart disease, while simultaneously struggling with mental health challenges, trauma and addiction. It can be nearly impossible for patients to get better while living outside.
“When I follow a patient after they’ve gotten shelter, I see their numbers have improved, and their face looks more healthy. Housing is one of the most critical health interventions, if not the most important,” said King.
Outreach workers say they’re making some progress in providing housing to the estimated 200 residents at the boardwalk. In the first phase, St Joseph, the area’s main service provider, has placed 91 people into shelter – three of them into permanent housing, そして 39 on track for permanent programs, Adams Kellum said.
While the city has promised a humane approach, the city council last week also passed new restrictions on encampments. And LA city police officers have in recent days cleared sections of the encampment in the middle of the night, forcing some campers to move.
Law enforcement involvement in outreach can destroy trust and lead people to scatter without getting housing, said Lisa Redmond with Venice Catholic Worker. “It’s prioritizing the public space over actual human beings.”
The pressure from the media and officials like the sheriff isn’t helping, 支持者は言う. Theo Henderson, an unhoused activist and journalist, said it was particularly frustrating to see people cast the unhoused at Venice as “outsiders”, given that the majority of unhoused people were living in LA before they lost housing. そして, he pointed out, Black residents had helped build Venice in the early 1900s (but they were banned from owning property at the boardwalk).
“Venice was historically Black and Indigenous," 彼は言った, 追加, “White people who have one, 多分2つ, generations here have the nerve to talk about people taking ‘their beach’. It’s really disingenuous.”
After more than a dozen groups and officials issued a joint letter calling for Villanueva to back off his threats at the end of June, the sheriff did not return.
A week later, Stallworth, the 62-year-old now in shelter, was biking by on the boardwalk and stopped to watch sanitation workers finish a sweep of a tent site. It appeared to him to be a return to the pre-pandemic routine of shuffling people along.
“The biggest difference right now," 彼が追加した, “is there are more cameras.”