Like the story of the emperor’s new clothes, California’s utterly failed homelessness policy rests on the willingness of bystanders to believe what officials tell them. As long as everybody sticks to the story — the people holding public office, the government employees who implement the failed policies, the “experts” at the non-profit organizations that cash the government’s checks – anyone who sees a different path to solving the crisis can be ignored.
That’s why Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s intervention in Venice is earthshaking. The area is in the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Police Department, but the LAPD has told residents of Venice, and other areas of the city, that its hands are tied when it comes to enforcing laws against public camping. Frustrated residents and business owners have watched as public spaces have been taken over by homeless encampments and the fiery problems that accompany them.
The sheriff is not playing along with the prevailing fiction that public officials have no choice except to allow unlimited public camping, anywhere that people choose to set up camp.
He is not going along with the official message that the public must tolerate homeless encampments until there are a sufficient number of free apartments, with a full complement of supportive services, for every unhoused person living on the streets, freeway embankments, beaches, parks, sidewalks, public plazas and rivers.
According to a federal report, there were 161,548 people experiencing homelessness in California in January 2020. According to the Los Angeles City Controller, the average cost of building one unit of housing for the homeless in L.A. is $531,000.
At that price, it would cost more than $85 billion to build an apartment for each homeless person living in the state as of January 2020. That’s just the construction cost. Taxpayers would also have to pay for maintenance, operations and services.
Obviously, as any naked emperor would confirm, it can’t be true that nothing can be done to preserve public spaces for their intended use until taxpayers provide a free apartment to everyone who lacks one.
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department swept into Venice, sending deputies along with the Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST) to the boardwalk. Villanueva blasted L.A. city officials for preventing LAPD from taking action to stem the violence, chaos and misery that has taken over the beachfront community. Last year, the L.A. City Council imposed a moratorium on clearing tents during daylight hours, effectively allowing permanent encampments anywhere in Los Angeles.
“Public space belongs to the entire public, not to one individual,” Villanueva said. “And that is the fundamental responsibility of government. That’s the fundamental failure of the Board of Supervisors, L.A. City Council and the mayor of L.A.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti responded to Villanueva’s Venice sweep by calling it “political theater,” but in other parts of the city, residents responded with just three words: “Come here next.”
Council Member Mike Bonin, who represents Venice, accused Villanueva of a “publicity stunt.” That was answered when residents of his district served notice to Bonin at his home on Tuesday that they have launched an effort to recall him. The petition states, “Our streets have become de facto campgrounds, sanitation policies are failing, crime is rising and Mike Bonin remains unresponsive.”
What is the L.A. County Sheriff doing about homelessness in Venice? The department says it will not be making arrests, at least for a few weeks. Deputies and mental health professionals will assess the needs of the hundreds of people living in tents and work to connect them with services.
The city and county are already paying employees of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to do that, but LAHSA is a costly failure. L.A. City Council Member Joe Buscaino, another dissenter from the official message, has called for the city-county agency to be abolished.
Villanueva said he’d like the Venice Boardwalk cleared of homeless encampments by July 4. LAPD Chief Michel Moore said his officers could not assist unless the City Council or the mayor gave him a directive to help.
That’s not likely to happen. Garcetti recently said homelessness is like World War II, and the answer is to “mobilize an entire country to do even more.”
Even more what?
Maybe more of what Villanueva is doing.