The pandemic has intensified a bitter, years
The mobile unit has been tricked out to Dr. Coley King’s exact specifications. From the back of the van, his team — a nurse, caseworkers and often a volunteer — draws blood, checks vitals, conducts psychiatric evaluations. King is especially proud of the extra step and handle he installed, which helps patients climb into the vehicle when he visits the various homeless encampments around Venice, Calif. These include the one on Third Avenue, another on Hampton Drive, another on the boardwalk, one that used to be along Penmar — typically, clusters of tents, plywood structures, tarps strung up overhead. He also sees patients at a shelter and keeps hours a couple of nights a week at the Venice Family Clinic.
When King, who is 52, started practicing street medicine 14 years ago, he quickly became a local fixture, recognizable for his handlebar mustache and shoulder-length hair. He lives in Venice himself, surfing at the beach and biking in the Santa Monica Mountains, about 10 miles up the coast. “I’m immersed in this neighborhood,” he told me during one of his morning rounds in early April. “I live within blocks of encampments and the clinic. When I go to the grocery store, I see my patients. When I go to the beach to surf, I see my friends that I surf with and my patients.” As soon as he makes a stop on his rounds, patients emerge from cars and tents to ask about housing, about treatments, about the local gossip. King pulled up and parked his van beside the Third Avenue encampment, where 30 or so people were living. John Simpson, 64, peeked out from a ragged two-person tent. He wore a mask that covered his salt-and-pepper beard. King asked him if he’d like any medical attention.
“I’ve been drinking all morning? Is that OK?”
“I don’t care,” King replied. “Do you want me to be your doctor and sign you up as a patient?”
Simpson hesitated, but soon he scrambled up into the van. As his blood was being drawn, he kept apologizing for “wasting everyone’s time.” He explained that he had been homeless for 30 years — he is 64 — and that his family banished him because of his alcoholism. “I really shouldn’t be alive,” he told me. Simpson also said he had gotten his first Covid vaccination the week before and showed me his card. King pulled up Simpson’s file on his smartphone, from which he accesses patient records — the clinic had treated Simpson for a wound on his hand two years earlier. His blood pressure was lower now than back then, but still a little higher than ideal. King asked whether Simpson wanted to move into a temporary “bridge shelter” a couple of blocks away. He might get a bed, access to showers and three meals a day. “I still have a quart of vodka to drink,” Simpson said, “but I’m the friendliest drunk there is.”
“Bring it with you,” King said. Then he asked the social workers on his team to help find him a bed for Simpson to move into that day.
Though he spends his days working with the homeless, King is the rare Venice resident who doesn’t really get involved in the neighborhood politics of homelessness. And those politics have become bitter and all-consuming. The conflict can’t be separated from the gentrification that has transformed the area over the last two decades. Twenty-five years ago, you could buy a 2,000-square-foot house for $300,000; that same property today is worth close to $2 million. What was once a community with many income levels now has basically two strata: the wealthy and the homeless. Venice’s unhoused residents have formed dozens of encampments, several of which abut houses worth seven or eight figures that occupy lots where modest bungalows once stood. Many of these outsize structures have been built by the well-paid employees of what has become known as Silicon Beach, now that Google, YouTube, Hulu and Snapchat all have offices located within five miles of Venice.
The neighborhood has emerged as a flash point in the fight over how Los Angeles as a whole confronts its homeless crisis. Some housed residents want to relocate the homeless encampments to the south of Los Angeles Airport, seven miles away; others insist that the solutions should be found in Venice. But King, for all his careful political positioning, is worried. He has seen the Venice encampments expand during the pandemic, and he knows the homeless population he treats could become significantly larger still. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in two or three years,” King said. “It takes a couple years for people to burn through their resources, right?”
Los Angeles is now bracing for another, more immediate surge of unhoused people, with the state’s eviction moratoriums set to expire in September. A $5.2 billion rent-relief plan recently proposed by California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, will soften the blow, but it may not be sufficient. “The expectation a year ago was catastrophic, and now I would just say it’s bad but not terrible,” says Gary Blasi, a public-interest lawyer who has specialized in evictions and homelessness in Los Angeles for the last four decades. “The biggest uncertainty is that the state bureaucracies and the people they have employed to dispense money have so far been really terrible at it.” Newsom’s critics point out that many of those who need rent relief and qualify for Newsom’s program might be evicted before they receive it, and that could mean a significant increase in the unhoused population.
After an hour or so at the Third Avenue encampment, King moved on to another one, a couple of blocks away. The economic realities of Venice were on vivid display as he drove by. There was Gjusta, a high-end bakery and sandwich shop, at the end of Third Avenue. Around the corner, on Hampton Drive, security officers for Google biked up and down the block, monitoring 50 or so people camped on the sidewalk. Buildings on both sides of the street were part of the Google campus, a place of security cameras and fences. On another corner, Gold’s Gym had moved its exercise equipment outdoors to the parking lot: A chain-link fence separated weight lifters from tents and their occupants. One woman in her 80s, a local volunteer, came by in a Prius with dozens of plastic bags filled with bread, apples, granola bars, vegetables. She held them out the window for anyone to take.
King double-parked his van, then approached Jenett Cornett, 67, who sat with her slight legs crossed in a pink folding chair next to Joaquin Leivas, 63. She was five feet tall and weighed 68 pounds. At one point several months earlier, Cornett had lost so much weight that King picked her up in his arms and drove her to the emergency room. But since she moved from the Hampton encampment, where she spent the previous year with Leivas, to the Cadillac Hotel two weeks ago, she had gained three pounds. The regular meals helped. “You were dying out here,” King said. “I told you, you’re too young.” Leivas had been “really despondent, man,” King said to me. “He didn’t know what to do. I told him that she might not make it.”
He turned back to the couple. “But here you are,” he said. “You’re stronger. And you’re doing all the right things.” For Cornett and Leivas, doing the right things meant support: access to regular meals, health care and a place to sleep. All of those survival basics, though, depended wholly or in part on city and state programs that had been funded as an emergency response to the pandemic. None of them were guaranteed to continue.
More than one-quarter of the nation’s homeless population lives in California. In February last year, Newsom devoted his entire State of the State address to the homelessness crisis. “It’s a disgrace that the richest state in the richest nation — succeeding across so many sectors — is falling so far behind to properly house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people,” he said. And that was before the pandemic pushed the figures even higher. In May of this year, Newsom announced that $12 billion, the biggest investment by any state, would be spent to fight homelessness. Housing advocates say that’s not nearly enough. For example, Matt Schwartz, the head of the California Housing Partnership, says that over the next decade the state needs to create 1.2 million more homes for low-income residents and those experiencing homelessness — which would cost roughly $17.9 billion annually. Newsom’s proposal doesn’t include a long-term plan or permanent sources of funding. ‘You’re going to bang your head again and again and again and again, unless you do the basics — densify and build a heck of a lot more housing.’
“We don’t have enough power over the most important drivers into and solutions out of homelessness,” Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, told me at the beginning of July. “And we’ll never have the local resources, even if we pass three or four more H.H.H.s,” he added, referring to the $1.2 billion bond earmarked in 2019 for 10,000 housing units. Garcetti acknowledged that over the last 12 years, his time first as a Los Angeles City Council member and then as mayor, he has seen vast increases in support: The money allocated to address homelessness in the city has risen to nearly $1 billion from $10 million. When we spoke, Garcetti was preparing to visit Washington to meet with members of Congress and President Biden’s cabinet in order to push for federal policies that tackle homelessness. Food stamps and Medicaid are entitlement programs available to whoever needs them, he pointed out. “But when it comes to housing, it’s not an entitlement,” he said. “It’s a lottery, and one with woefully inadequate resources.” He went on to say: “I’m not going to be mayor two years from now. I’m going to be an Angeleno, and I care deeply and live here, but you’re going to bang your head again and again and again and again, unless you do the basics — densify and build a heck of a lot more of housing.” According to the most recent annual count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, from 2019 to 2020 — the agency did not conduct a count this year because of the pandemic — homelessness in Los Angeles County increased by 12.7 percent, to 66,433 unhoused people; in the city of Los Angeles, the increase was 16 percent, to 41,290 people. In Council District 11, which includes Venice, the figures were up by 40 percent, to 3,165 people. Venice has the largest concentration of homeless people on the Westside, and everyone there agrees that this is a cruel, unsustainable situation. But the community, once a bohemian enclave, is divided over what to do about it. On one side, longstanding organizations like Venice Community Housing continue to advocate for equitable housing in the neighborhood; other residents file lawsuits opposing any new shelters or developments. Self-proclaimed progressives fight among themselves, in person and virtually, railing against each other on Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor and at community meetings. Some want the homeless shipped off to somewhere — anywhere — else, citing the violence, the feces, the bike thefts. Others support local shelters, arguing that housed neighbors don’t have enough compassion for those in crisis and that the city’s social services are severely lacking. Politicians lobby for beds. Both sides complain that the government takes too long to act and spends too much money. Neighborhood council meetings have been volatile to the point of requiring the presence of half a dozen police officers to keep the peace. “People are at their wits’ end, and I’m sympathetic,” Garcetti told me. “I’ve had plenty of unhoused people on my street, including the guy who yells every day at like 3 to 4 a.m. and wakes me up.” But in Venice, he said, “it’s been especially brutal to see the inhumanity. The situation in Venice, and certainly on the boardwalk, is absolutely unacceptable. I think that we don’t need to apologize for saying we’ve got to house people and return public space.”
Three years ago, in his State of the City speech, Garcetti announced an initiative called A Bridge Home, which would provide temporary emergency shelter in each of the city’s 15 council districts, along with food, health, employment, counseling and social services. The expectation was that the chosen sites would be fast-tracked from application to construction; red tape and environmental restrictions would not be allowed to slow things down. That ambition was curbed in part by lawsuits and high building costs. In certain neighborhoods — like Venice and Echo Park — A.B.H. proposals sparked fierce NIMBY pushback. Venice homeowners voted for R.V. and overnight parking restrictions; online, residents kept tabs on tent cities and argued for their removal. Large flower boxes were put out on the sidewalks to prevent people from sleeping there. Threats of violence erupted on community websites.
In 2018, when the mayor — accompanied by Mike Bonin, who represents Venice on the City Council — put forward the plan for the neighborhood’s A.B.H., to be built at a former bus yard two blocks from the Venice boardwalk, he faced intense opposition. Signs were held up in the audience. “Venice Beach! Where human poop and needles are part of the fun.” “A bridge to crime, to waste, to nowhere. Venice says no.” One online opponent referred to the Venice “homeless-industrial complex” and claimed that “because their tents are now protected by law as private space, they not only serve as housing, but also as pop-up drug retailers and brothels.” The same online commentary warned that the A.B.H. “would be a ‘wet’ shelter, meaning druggies and drunkards will be able to come and go as they please.” It would, the claim continued, become “a hotel for freeloading partyers.” Residents have lobbied against every proposed form of low-income housing and shelter: a 140-unit project on the Venice Boulevard median, a 40-unit supportive-housing project on Lincoln Boulevard, a 98-unit affordable-housing project for low-income senior citizens and families at the city-owned Thatcher Yard, a former maintenance lot. As Garcetti put it wryly when the local A.B.H. facility, Pacific Sunset, opened in late February 2020 despite years of opposition, “Venice brings it.”
The residents who express exasperation and disdain, rather than empathy, for the homeless — describing them to elected officials as a health crisis and a blight — are not necessarily wrong. Homelessness is a physical and mental health crisis. Even before 2020, Los Angeles’s homeless community had experienced outbreaks of typhus, hepatitis, H.I.V., syphilis and tuberculosis. And the pandemic has been especially difficult for the unhoused to navigate. How do you follow the “stay at home” guidance when you have no home? Housed residents stayed in; encampments grew. The pandemic has intensified an already explosive debate, and both sides of the homelessness issue have seen in it an opportunity to push their agendas. Those opposed to supportive housing have cited the encampments as evidence of A.B.H.’s failure. Advocates for the homeless see an increase in housing vouchers and efforts like Project Roomkey — Newsom’s plan to house as many homeless Californians as possible in vacant hotels and motels — as programs that could help the homeless faster than before. “Human beings can absolutely solve this,” Garcetti said. “But the question is: Do you want to solve it for the minute? Do you want to solve it for your block? Do you want to solve it for the long term?”
Several days after the Pacific Sunset bridge shelter opened, Mark Ryavec, the president of the Venice Stakeholders Association — the group’s self-described mission is to promote neighborhood safety and support beautification projects — began amassing ammunition against it, collecting incident reports from neighbors living nearby. They felt increased harassment after the shelter’s opening. A car’s front windshield had been bashed in. Bikes were being stolen. Women walking alone were scared: They were being followed and catcalled. “This is a single female’s worst nightmare,” one woman wrote. “You cannot deny that this is a dangerous time to be a female living in Venice Beach, living within close proximity to Bridge Housing.”
Early last year, when I met with Ryavec, we sat in his breezy second-floor dining room, which overlooks the street. A neighbor called up to him to chat local politics from the sidewalk. Ryavec wore a polo shirt and had a neatly trimmed goatee. A retired political consultant who likes to go road biking on the weekends, he explained to me that his opposition to shelters in Venice was personal. His brother was an addict and died young, and he felt that his parents enabled his brother’s habit. He explained that he supported homeless shelters — but in other, nonresidential parts of the city. “What they’re doing now is enabling more people in magical thinking that they’re going to make it as artists or fulfill the Hollywood dream,” he said. “They provide free places for the homeless to sleep in one of the most attractive places in the world.”
While Ryavec claims neighborhood safety is his primary concern, he acknowledges that property values also play a role. If he moved, the proceeds from the sale of his house would have to support him for the rest of his life, he said. “My real estate agent says that there is a definite impact on prices due to the significant increase in the homeless population and the lack of any enforcement.” A few years ago, during the peak of the tech industry’s investment in Venice, he listed his house — an expansive duplex just off Abbot Kinney Boulevard, the upscale shopping street that cuts a diagonal path through Venice — for $4.2 million. When no one met his price, Ryavec stayed. “Venice is stuck with me, and I’m stuck with Venice.” Sign up for The New York Times Magazine Newsletter The best of The New York Times Magazine delivered to your inbox every week, including exclusive feature stories, photography, columns and more.
He gave me a guided tour of his neighborhood. He showed me the planter boxes, filled with succulents and yucca, that had been placed strategically to block sidewalk camping; he watered them daily. We passed homeless teenagers, who sat on the corner a couple of blocks from his house. He pointed out a dozen or so parked vans where people lived, explaining that they were rented out for $150-$300 a month by a former beer-truck driver and World Series of Poker dealer named Gary Gallerie, also known as the Vanlord. Outside Google’s Main Street campus, R.V.s lined the streets. “I’ve asked the Google facilities manager to sign a petition against this,” Ryavec told me, “but they refuse, because they don’t want to be perceived as unsympathetic.” When I told him I was going to the Venice Neighborhood Council meeting later that night, he said it was going to be an interesting one.
It should have been boring, its agenda focused on issues like litter and community gardens. But the standing-room-only crowd in the school gymnasium where it was held suggested otherwise immediately. The particular significance of this meeting was Item 6 on the agenda, “Removal of Board Member Matt Fisher.”
Fisher’s standing as an elected representative of the community was under review because some members of the board felt his tactics on behalf of the homeless were too aggressive. It had long been his practice to show up for almost every sanitation sweep on his cruiser bike, riding alongside city officials to capture any violations on video, and to make sure the homeless people knew their rights. Fisher usually wears a baseball cap, an unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt and, around his waist, a hoodie with “Dogtown” printed on it. He’s not from the area, though: He was born outside New Orleans, and as a child bounced around foster homes. When he was 13, he caught a bus to Los Angeles. For 15 years, he lived at the beach, homeless, selling crystals or temporary tattoos, until he saved enough money to buy an R.V. During that time, he also got his G.E.D.
For the last decade, Fisher, now 41, has been studying legal statutes and working on behalf of homeless rights. The unsheltered population knows him; housing advocates know him; developers know him; sanitation workers know him; the Los Angeles Police Department, Pacific Division, knows him. He acknowledges he is an irritant. His Facebook page once featured a quote from Bob Marley: “The people trying to make this world worse don’t take a day off, why should I?” ‘A lot of us need support and direction, but not to just get swept up. We ended up in Venice for a reason.’
The 16 present board members, including Ryavec, sat in a semicircle, an American flag projected on the wall behind them. Right after the Pledge of Allegiance, a member in the audience, Lydia Ponce, spoke into a portable mic: “Now, we are going to assert our rights to Native American prayer afforded to us by the American Indian Movement, 1978.” A drumbeat accompanied by persistent clapping began as Ponce and a fifth-generation Venice resident named Mike Bravo chanted into the mic. When several members of the board grew restless, Ponce said: “Sorry if you’re inconvenienced. Try 500 years.” Cheers followed. A few board members stood up to protest the protest. Several in the audience grumbled about how this had become a typical Venice community meeting: drama, conflict and very little resolution. When it came time for public comment, dozens of people spoke for their allotted minutes on behalf of Fisher. “Matt needs to stay because he represents everything that you don’t,” Ponce said. “The people that I know simply need a good word and a sandwich.” Naomi Nightingale, one of the first board members on the Venice Neighborhood Council, said, “When we formed the council, it was for the people, by the people, of the people.” After the board voted, the result was 12 in favor of removal, four against, one abstention. Fisher left. Protests reverberated through the auditorium. Assorted matters followed: a restaurant’s liquor-license application, requests for alleyway repairs and tree plantings, $500 allocated for a tsunami-awareness campaign. But almost every contentious moment of the meeting — which went five hours, well past midnight — centered on the homelessness crisis.
Abbot Kinney, an asthmatic tobacco millionaire and real estate developer from New Jersey, was seeking fresh air and a respite — and a way to capitalize on both — when he planned the seaside resort called Venice of America in the early 1900s. Nearly 300 acres of marshland, 15 miles west of Los Angeles, were transformed into a homage to Venice, Italy, complete with dredged canals and imported gondoliers. Within five years of developing the property, Kinney built an amusement park that included camel rides, a minirailroad, a saltwater bathhouse, a casino, a boardwalk with barkers promising views of living cannibals and the world’s smallest woman, a yacht club and more, all adjacent to a pristine Pacific Ocean beach. Venice even served as the backdrop for the 1914 debut of Charlie Chaplin’s silent-film character the Tramp, one of the first cinematic references to homelessness.
Venice of America was also one of the first places in Southern California where a Black American neighborhood took root. Though racially exclusive housing covenants were prevalent throughout most of Los Angeles, they were not in effect in a roughly one-square-mile portion of Venice, largely because the Abbot Kinney Company relied on Black workers to run the resort. That part of the city became known as Oakwood. In 1910, Arthur Reese, a New Orleans transplant who had risen to become the head decorator for Venice of America, helped found the First Baptist Church of Venice. It was one of the earliest Black congregations in Los Angeles. (A couple of years later, Reese became the first Black homeowner in town.)
In 1920, Kinney died, a fire destroyed the Venice pier and Prohibition cut into the resort’s profits. By 1925, Venice voted to consolidate with the city of Los Angeles. In 1929, the Kinney-built canals were filled with dirt, then covered with concrete to make way for cars. Venice of America was all but defunct until just after the stock-market crash of October 1929, when oil was discovered and wells were dug, as they were in many California beach communities. At their peak output, hundreds of wells in Venice produced 48,000 barrels of oil daily. The oil stopped flowing after a few years, but the environmental damage lingered. Schools closed. Venice became known as the “slum by the sea.”
In October 1943, the National Housing Authority planned to build an integrated public housing project in Venice. The neighborhood never welcomed its Black residents — on more than one occasion, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on front lawns — and white property owners protested to the City Council, presaging the arguments of the homeless fight to come decades later. “I personally own 68 pieces of property in this area,” one resident wrote, “and if this project goes through it will depreciate my property to practically nothing.” Another wrote, “Despite the housing needs of the moment, we must not lose sight of the recreational needs of our white people in the future.” The project was dropped a month later. By the 1950s, the cheap rents had led to another transformation of Venice. “Our barbarians come bearded and sandaled, and they speak and write in a language that is not the ‘Geneva language’ of conventional usage,” Lawrence Lipton wrote at the end of the decade in his book “The Holy Barbarians,” an account of the Beats who lived near him in Venice. The Doors came together as a band in Venice in the late 1960s. The performance artist Chris Burden crucified himself on top of a Volkswagen Beetle in the 1970s. Just a few years later, Venice birthed modern skateboarding as Jeff Ho ran the Zephyr team out of a local shop. As it has been for many, Venice was an escape for me as a teenager. My grandmother’s house was a few miles from the boardwalk; my mother went to Venice High and still lives in the neighborhood. As a kid in the early 1980s, I roller-skated on the bike path. Compared with other Los Angeles beach communities — Santa Monica, Malibu, Pacific Palisades — Venice was different, grittier. I bought dirt weed on the boardwalk; took photos of the piano player who rolled out his baby grand every day; walked with Harry Perry, the electric-guitar-wielding, turban-wearing in-line skater; ate sausages at Jody Maroni’s. Runaway teenagers begged for loose change next to pit bulls in bandannas. There were comedy acts, magic shows, tarot-card readings.
But beginning in the 2000s, wealthy newcomers started moving in. Abbot Kinney Boulevard went from having one or two local restaurants and a couple of junk shops where you could barter drawings for cowboy boots to being the “coolest block in America,” according to GQ. Four years ago, the First Baptist Church in Oakwood was sold to the media mogul Jay Penske for $6.3 million. He planned to remodel the A-frame structure into a single-family home of nearly 12,000 square feet.
In June of last year, the boulevard pivoted from pandemic quiet to the central artery of protest in Venice, its shops and restaurants boarded up for fear of looters, the plywood spray-painted with messages of support for Black Lives Matter. Just a few blocks away, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority set up plastic folding tables and chairs on the boardwalk, in front of the Cadillac, the pink-and-aqua hotel that faces the Pacific Ocean and was built in 1914. Charlie Chaplin stayed there on occasion; now its doors were open to homeless residents as part of Project Roomkey.
By August 2020, Venice was crowded with tourists again — some masked, some not. An encampment of about 45 people moved on to a block abutting Thatcher Yard, an abandoned, city-owned former maintenance yard in the Oxford Triangle, a south Venice neighborhood. A few years ago, Thatcher Yard was proposed as a site for a homeless shelter, but the resulting controversy was so great that the project could gain approval only by providing affordable housing to seniors instead. (The development is scheduled to break ground later this year.) By September, housed residents had planted yucca on one side of the lot and spread gravel over the ground. It resembled some of the defensive landscaping I saw with Mark Ryavec.
One resident at the Thatcher Yard encampment, Sean Tyrell, told me last summer that he had driven from Washington State to Venice, hoping for a new life apart from his estranged wife and children. His shaggy blond hair fit the Venice artist stereotype, as did his predilection for wearing kilts and going shirtless. He tried busking and selling the paintings he made, but most of his income sources dried up once the pandemic hit. When he moved to Thatcher, he built a two-story structure out of plywood. It had a door with a lock. He hung his paintings on the outside and chatted with his housed neighbors as they walked by on their way to the bike path. “I never would have dreamed that I would be able to do this and have the freedom to just be this creative and show my art to as many people,” Tyrell said. “But I’ve got to figure out a way to get my credit cards back, because I’m basically bankrupt.” By the end of the month, residents of the encampment were packing up. Gene Siegrist, the housed neighbor who spearheaded the landscaping at Thatcher, says he paid some of them $50 to leave. One unhoused man, who was rumored to be running a bicycle chop shop, told me that several security guards from the large apartment complex across the street had warned them they would be fined or arrested if anyone was still living on the street by nightfall. That was threat enough to move elsewhere.
But Tyrell dug in his heels. “I’ve been asked to leave and harassed ever since I got here,” he told me. “I got beat up on Monday, but thankfully it wasn’t bad enough that I had to go to the hospital.” He showed me scratches and bruises near his ribs. “I don’t have anywhere to go, so I’m just going to stay here,” he said. A week later neighbors planted more yucca and laid out more gravel. By Halloween, Tyrell’s refusal to leave had become a hot-button issue on the social-media platform Nextdoor. Siegrist posted several pictures of Tyrell’s structure. Another neighbor suggested reporting it to Bonin’s office. To that, Siegrist replied: “Don’t waste your time with that idiot. He caused this entire mess.”
One night in March, city workers fenced off the Echo Park Lake section in the Echo Park neighborhood, on the other side of Los Angeles, and forcibly relocated hundreds of unhoused people. The episode drew national attention and prompted widespread protests throughout the city. Some imagined that Los Angeles might finally do something about its homeless problem. But in Venice, others wondered if the same harsh tactics could be used to clear the encampments on Third Avenue, Hampton and the boardwalk, near the beach, where 250 or so unhoused residents were living.
On June 7, Venice Beach served as backdrop and example when the councilman Joe Buscaino chose the boardwalk as the place to kick off his campaign for the mayoral election in 2022. Ryavec stood behind him, along with 75 or so supporters. Some held signs. “Beaches and parks are sacred,” a few said. “Save us Joe,” said others. Just as Buscaino finished speaking, a teenager who camps on the boardwalk and goes by the single name Angel was detained by the police after she was seen with a knife. Someone in the crowd later told The Los Angeles Times that she said, “I’m going to start killing people.” But while she was being handcuffed, Angel explained that the knife was for protection and to slice fruit. Buscaino, whisked away by private security, later released a news release: “This is exactly why I was in Venice Beach today, charting a new course for our city, and I am convinced, now more than ever, that bold action is needed to make our city safer for everyone.” Angel, 19, was let go the same day as her arrest. “I’m trying to figure out what kind of power we have,” she told me, when I asked what she would do if the boardwalk encampment was razed. “I really don’t want to get pushed off,” she said. “A lot of us need support and direction, but not to just get swept up. We ended up in Venice for a reason: because we can be ourselves here.”
Right after the councilman’s event, the Los Angeles County sheriff, Alex Villanueva, wearing his cowboy hat, walked the boardwalk and told a local news crew that he wanted to see the boardwalk cleared of encampments by the Fourth of July. The next day, 16 armed sheriff’s deputies from the Homeless Outreach Services Team patrolled the boardwalk. When they reached Angel, they offered her shelter in Bell, a Los Angeles neighborhood 17 miles inland. She didn’t seem interested.
Villanueva, who is up for re-election in 2022, referred to Garcetti, the Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors as “architects of failure,” and asked the board to declare a state of emergency. Their inaction, he said at a news conference devoted to the homeless problem in Venice, forced him to step in. “If I thought press conferences housed more people, I’d hold them every hour on the hour,” Garcetti told me when we talked about Villanueva. “I always love when people say, I’m going to help, I’m going to solve this problem, where people haven’t, because I think the moment they get kind of stuck in the swamp, they realize that it’s a hard slog. People who do outreach welcome a role for law enforcement to be able to make them feel safe in tough situations — but not to lead.” Critics also noted the timing of Villanueva’s actions: For the last year, his department has been under investigation after a whistle-blower complaint alleged criminal gangs within law enforcement. (Two days after Villanueva’s news conference about Venice and homelessness, a judge ordered the Sheriff’s Department to turn records over to The Los Angeles Times on thousands of cases of deputy misconduct and on-duty shootings.) Shortly after the Echo Park sweep, Mike Bonin, the Venice representative, introduced a motion before the City Council calling for temporary “safe camping” or single-occupancy “tiny homes” to be permitted at a county-owned beach lot in the Pacific Palisades; at a vacant, privately owned lot in Del Rey; and at several other sites. The proposal aroused vehement opposition, as well as skepticism that any motion would be passed. Bonin then announced a plan to clear the boardwalk by early August. On July 1, the City Council allocated $5 million for immediate interim housing in Venice.
Garcetti, after visiting the encampments in late June, told me that outreach workers had already found shelter for 63 people. Then, after midnight on July 8, the L.A.P.D., sanitation and outreach workers and L.A.H.S.A. continued clearing the boardwalk of encampments. Some people went to A.B.H., some found housing through Projects Roomkey or Homekey and some got vouchers to go to motels for up to six months. “People probably say, If you could do it so quickly, why didn’t you do it earlier? This takes months of preparation,” he said, when we spoke in early July. “The question is, Do we have the capacity to do this and get ahead of the curve in enough places? The numbers might begin to go down overall, because we might have a good success story in Venice this year. And then Hollywood says, Well, it doubled while you were doing that. Then, the West Valley says, We got neglected. Then there’s Skid Row, the biggest of them. The speed with which we get ahead of the curve is all going to depend on whether those resources are available.”
To his point, his own pledge of a billion dollars, while encouraging, is hardly guaranteed. The same day the mayor’s budget was announced in the spring, a federal judge ordered Los Angeles to provide housing or shelter by October for every homeless person in the Skid Row area of Downtown. He initially ordered the city to place the funds Garcetti was counting on for all of Los Angeles in an escrow account. The judge has since given the city 60 days to present a concrete plan for the funds instead.
Through all the turmoil, Dr. Coley King has continued to make his rounds. “My usual sort of baseline rate of losing about three patients per month, it’s still there,” King told me. “We had one patient die of a fentanyl overdose, one patient die of cancer complicated by substance dependence and we had another die of alcohol dependence and end-stage lung disease. None of those deaths, that we know of, had anything to do with coronavirus. So again, I’m reminded that it’s very, very dangerous for our folks out there.”
When the van isn’t available, he walks to where the medical care is needed, his supplies stuffed in a backpack. On its exterior, King has pinned a picture of Frank, an unhoused patient he treated for years. “In loving memory,” the pin says. Frank died from cardiovascular issues, no signs of Covid. “Once we realized he was sick, we tried to put him in a place where he was happier,” King told me. “It would not be atypical for this to happen because he had years of stimulant abuse.”
I asked how old Frank was. King said he would have been 56. In other words, he said, “pretty close to the average age of death for chronic homelessness.”