Coexisting With Venice’s Homeless Population

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It is Friday morning and Ocean Front Walk looks like the scene of an Ebola scare, City workers in hazmat suits rifle through the belongings of the beachfront homeless community, a nearby dump truck crushing the loads of trash the workers carry away.

One worker has bagged a guitar, he carries it to a yellow City truck which will take all belongings that are not trash to a collection facility in downtown Los Angeles. From here people have 90 days to claim their property, if not, it will be destroyed.

“It was never meant to be like this,” said Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Association.

The original plan for the bi-monthly clean up included belongings being taken to a City storage facility, much closer, on Abbot Kinney Blvd., and teaming up with a non-profit whose counselors would help guide the homeless off the street.

“It’s marginally effective in removing the junk, but it’s light years from what it was supposed to do,” Ryavec said. “It was supposed to stop people from camping in the park.”

While Venice Beach and the Boardwalk is classified a park, unlike other parks across Los Angeles, the City has not been enforcing the “no camping” ordinance, which would prohibit people being in the area between the hours of midnight and 5 am.

This coupled with the recent Jones Settlement which has resulted in the City agreeing to not enforce the “No lying, sitting, sleeping” ordinance has seen the number of people sleeping in the streets throughout the Venice Beach Recreation Area increase.

“There’s an estimated 800 to 900 folks permanently on the streets of Venice,” Ryavec explained.

Venice has a long history of homelessness and the California drought and mild weather make it a more comfortable place, compared to other cities, to live outdoors.

While homelessness is rarely a choice, to the many that do find themselves without a roof over their head Venice has a reputation of being an easy place to live.

However, things are set to change.

According to Ryavec, the City of Los Angeles has only agreed to not enforce its “No lying, sitting, sleeping” ordinance until it has built 1,250 units of permanent supportive housing.

With around 1,100 units already built and others currently under construction the Housing Department is on track to deliver by fall this year.

Ryavec said this meant the LAPD can go back to enforcing the “No lying, sitting, sleeping” ordinance.

The Venice Stakeholders Association has, according to Ryavec, “…encouraged the City Attorney and LAPD to put in place a program that would team LAPD officers with social workers to offer those violating the ‘No lying, sitting, sleeping’ ordinances near residences in the future a choice of transport to a shelter bed, leave the area, or a citation.”

How effective future plans for addressing the homeless crisis will be, remains to be seen and until then a wave of discomfort is washing through the Venice community.

Just last month, local business owner Clabe Hartley, 72, was attacked by Jonathan Lemmons, a 31-year-old transient.

Lt. Joseph Sanchez, of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Pacific Division, said Lemmons was arrested shortly after the attack about 9:30 am on Saturday, March 21, at the cafe at 34 W. Washington Blvd. Bail was set at $150,000.

Lemmons was booked on one felony count each of mayhem and criminal threats. He later pleaded not guilty to biting off Hartley’s fingertip, which could not be reattached.

Lemmons returns to court on April 20.

One local and Cow’s End regular at the scene told Yo! Venice, “There was a lot of commotion and we thought someone had been attacked by a dog, then we realized it was a man that had bitten off the finger.”

Venice local Kelly Ott, who used to work as Chuck Norris’ stuntman, said he grabbed Lemmons from behind during the incident.

“He was clawing at Clabe’s eyes,” said Ott. “I got him in a hold from behind and then everyone, the man, Clabe, and I fell to the ground.”

This is when Ott noticed blood all over his arms, he looked up to see “blood spurting out of Clabe’s finger.”

Lemmons spat out the fingertip and ran, but Ott chased after him, eventually holding him at knifepoint.

“He was crazy strong, I couldn’t hold him but when he saw the knife he calmed down and I was able to flag a passing police cruiser,” Ott said. “There are these radical, aggressive professional vagrants.”

Ryavec said there are now “younger far more aggressive, anti-social transients” around Venice.

“I don’t want to confuse people like this, do not confuse them with truly needy homeless people,” Hartley said. “It is our obligation as a civilized society to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. We have a responsibility to help those who want to help themselves.”

Kevin, 51, has lived in Venice all his life and he’s spent 10 years on the streets.

He said that while the younger generation of homeless are aggressive it’s more a reflection of society as a whole.

“Kids raised in the 90s are impatient and they’re going nowhere fast,” Kevin said. “They don’t have the same respect the older generation does.”

He added that Cow’s End tended to attract the homeless.

“In Venice they know they can go to Cow’s End, buy a coffee and charge their phones,” he said. “The owner has enabled that and then he gets angry when there’s homeless around.”

After the attack at Cow’s End, business owners along Washington Blvd. met on the evening of March 23 to discuss ideas for future improvements they hope will benefit not only businesses but residents in the surrounding in the area.

The meeting had been planned weeks before but the timing coincided with the attack.

One of the issues on the agenda, how viable creating a Business Improvement District would be.

The BID would run from the Pier up Washington Blvd. to Lincoln Blvd. and its role would include hiring private security to help deter violent vagrants from the area.

Hartley said he was cautious about the idea.

“I’m not so sure if it’ll work in this neighborhood because these young vagrants, they call themselves travelers, they’re pretty savvy on the law…and I’m not sure private security can really do anything…I would rather have LAPD,” Hartley said.

However, last fiscal year Los Angeles faced a $95.28 million shortfall, most of this due to underfunded police overtime.

City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said that in the police department, overtime costs, salary adjustments for 950 sworn employees and a hiring shortfall account for $69.78 million of the $95.28 million deficit. Already the LAPD force costs more than the City can afford.

A spokesperson from United Guard Security said that the goal of a private security contractor is to work to assist LAPD, not replace them.

A study of the effect of business improvement districts on the incidence of violent crimes published in the online journal, Injury Prevention, found the implementation of a BID was associated with a 12 percent reduction in the incidence of robbery and an 8 percent reduction in the total incidence of violent crimes.

There are over 30 BIDs already operating around Los Angeles. In downtown, the Downtown Center Business Improvement District’s Safe & Clean team offers supplemental services to maintain cleanliness and safety.

“Our safety staff serves as additional eyes and ears for the Los Angeles Police Department,” according to the BID’s website.

The DCBID also has a Bid Action team, which is a special homeless outreach team.

“I’d like it to co-exist,” Hartley said. “I’m not sure if it can. I’m not sure it would work. I’m not sure if everyone would pitch in and pay for the service.”

Already a consortium of business owners along Ocean Front Walk are well into the planning stages of setting up a BID along the Boardwalk from Navy St. to Venice Ave. They have so far raised an initial $40,000, but ultimately annual costs are estimated to be $2 million.

So why not merge the two BIDs into one? Because of the large residential stretch along Ocean Front Walk from Venice to Washington for the two BIDs to merge residents would have to volunteer funds for that to happen.

“I would love our have our eclectic subculture co-mingle and it can and should but they put too many restrictions I believe, on LAPD,” Hartley said.

While he may have one less fingertip, he still has a whole lot of love for Venice.

“Even with all this that has happened to me I still wouldn’t trade it for anything else,” Hartley said. “It’s still the only place in the world I want to live, I love this community.” However, he said the issue of safety does need to be addressed.

“The people that live here, the people that are merchants, and the people that come vacation here…they want to feel safe,” he said.

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