‘Constant emergency zone’: Calls for change mount as homeless encampment fills Venice boardwalk, crime increases

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With a homeless encampment stretching across much of the Venice Beach boardwalk and a spate of recent crimes alarming residents, the calls for city officials to take action have grown to a cacophony.

“I’m 75 years old. I need to be off this boardwalk,” said Michael Solomon, who lives in a tent on Venice Beach. “I want to be in housing so I can be stable.”

Solomon is one of the people living in the tents lining the boardwalk. On Sunday, KTLA counted about 115 tents in the boardwalk area.

The number of tents on the beach has grown since 2020, when the pandemic hit, leaving millions jobless and creating more housing insecurity in a city already dealing with a homelessness crisis.

At last count, there were nearly 2,000 homeless people in Venice, according to a Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority count done in January 2020 that found more than 41,000 unhoused people citywide. (This year’s count was skipped due to the pandemic, but experts expect those L.A. figures to continue climbing into 2023.)

The numbers were already increasing before the pandemic: 2020 data showed a 57% increase in the number of homeless people in Venice over the previous year — far greater than the increase in the city as a whole, which was 16.1%.

“It’s the worst I’ve seen in 20 years,” Venice resident John Betz told KTLA.

The increasing number of tents along the Venice boardwalk have generated calls for city officials to clear the area for residents and tourists, as well as to provide shelter and services for the unhoused people who take refuge by the beach.

And with local COVID-19 restrictions easing and more visitors expected at the tourist destination, hundreds of residents signed an open letter this month demanding that local leaders take immediate action, adding that locals counted more than 200 tents along the boardwalk.

The letter also connected the growing encampment to increases in crime.

“Local children are refusing to come to the beach because they’re frightened by what they’ve witnessed. Seniors who live on or near the boardwalk are terrified of walking in their own neighborhoods,” the letter reads in part.

The area has indeed experienced a spike in crimes compared to last year, and the homeless population is contributing to many of the incidents, an LAPD official told the public safety committee of the Venice Neighborhood Council on May 5.

As of May 1, robberies were up 177%, assaults with deadly weapons were up 116%, burglaries were up 85% and thefts from are up vehicles 60%, according to the figures provided during the meeting.

“This is despite the LAPD going out and doing more enforcement than any time,” the official said, adding that officers are giving out a lot more citations and making more arrests than the same time last year.

“A law-enforcement-only model approach right now is not working right now,” he said. “We’re writing as many tickets as we can, but it has zero effect unless we remove the encampment.”

But it’s not as simple as just clearing out the tents, according to Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice.

“I want to make sure anytime there is enforcement action, we are offering people housing,” the councilman tells KTLA.

To limit the spread of the coronavirus, the City Council voted last year to temporarily stop enforcing a law requiring tents to come down during the daytime in many public areas.

Furthermore, cities can’t prosecute people for sleeping on public property unless they are able to shelter them — thanks to a December 2019 Supreme Court decision to let stand an appellate ruling on a case out of Boise, Idaho. The ruling, which struck down as unconstitutional Boise’s bans on sleeping and camping on public land, was a victory for advocates for unhoused people — but it made it much harder for cities in the West to clear homeless encampments.

As for Venice — where the boardwalk camp has become one of the symbols of L.A.’s failure to successfully address homelessness — Bonin said the the current situation is “absolutely unacceptable.”

The city is responding to residents’ concerns, clearing up some public space for vendors and around the volleyball courts, he said.

“As we are doing that, we’re trying to house as many people as we can along the way,” Bonin said. “We’re not doing a massive fortified, militaristic sweep as we’ve seen elsewhere.”

In late March, LAPD officers moved in force to clear out a commune-like encampment at Echo Park Lake, on the other end of the city, leading to violent clashes with protesters and more than 180 arrests. Bonin’s colleague Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who represents the area, came in for bitter criticism over that incident. The park is scheduled to reopen this week after 35 tons of trash were removed.

O’Farrell said earlier this month that nearly 200 people living at Echo Park Lake were placed into “transitional housing with clean beds to sleep in and wrap-around services including three nutritious meals a day.”

But from some housed residents’ perspectives, what the government is doing isn’t working.

And Bonin has faced criticism from residents for his handling of the city’s homelessness issues and his proposal to have two parks, three beach parking lots and a waterfront parking lot in Marina del Rey be evaluated as possible locations for overnight camping.

“I think the entire problem we are experiencing here is a lack of leadership,” said Venice resident Heidi Roberts.

Asked about the backlash, Bonin, who calls for more housing for homeless people, said: “I’d say we’d be a hell of a lot better off in this crisis right now if we had not faced so much litigation stopping what we’re trying to do, and if the city, the county and the state had been funding and authorizing some of the programs I’ve been calling for the last five or six years.”

The councilman said one way to get people off the streets is buying hotels to house homeless people.

Next month, Bonin says 33 rooms in Venice will open for people living on the boardwalk at a hotel bought through Project Homekey, a state-run grant program for agencies to acquire hotels, motels, apartments and other buildings to house those experiencing or at risk of homelessness. (After this story was initially published, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office told KTLA the city has purchased 23 such properties, a higher number than was originally provided by Bonin’s office.)

But for some in Venice, the process is too slow.

“You’re basically saying just sleep on the boardwalk … until we have something better,” said Shawn Stern, a homeowner who has been living in Venice for more than three decades.

And the crimes and rash of recent fires has been concerning for both housed and unhoused alike.

“We have a 10-foot fence. People have climbed over our fence,” Roberts said. “It’s just a constant, constant emergency zone right now.”

One unhoused person told KTLA he was woken up at night to find a tent being set ablaze. “It’s just chaos out here,” they said.

Some have moved out of the boardwalk encampment in recent weeks. And the Bridge Home site in Venice began taking intakes to bring in additional clients, L.A. city officials told KTLA.

At the Venice handball courts, 10 of the 15 people who had been living there went directly to housing, and one couple was added to a list for a room from Project Roomkey and have since been housed, according to L.A. City officials.

Solomon ended up leaving his beachside tent and accepting an offer from homeless services outreach workers to temporarily move into a Monterey Park hotel room — some 20 miles east of Venice Beach.

“I’m gonna go for it because I need a shower and I need to get off of this boardwalk right now,” he said.

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