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Housing and Homelessness

In Venice, Two Approaches To Homeless Outreach Are On A Collision Course

L.A. County Sheriff's deputies stand next to a small jeep vehicle at the Venice Beach Boardwalk.
Los Angeles Sheriffs Department (LASD) deputies take part in efforts to connect homeless people with housing in order to clear the boardwalk of encampments.
(PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
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City Councilman Mike Bonin announced a new effort last week to connect homeless residents of the Venice boardwalk with shelter and permanent housing. But the six-week program is arriving while people living in the encampments on Ocean Front Walk are weighing an ultimatum from L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva: accept deputies’ offer of shelter, leave the area by July 4th — or you may face arrest.

The seemingly contradictory approaches are set to collide when Bonin’s “Venice Beach Encampment to Home” program starts on Monday.

In a letter posted online, Bonin laid out a plan to ramp up homelessness outreach services on Ocean Front Walk, where hundreds of tents now line the beach for more than a mile of the iconic Venice shoreline. His goal is to clear most encampments by early August.

“Our goal is threefold: to humanely address the homelessness crisis on Venice Beach through housing, to return space back to general public use, and to look out for the public safety needs of both people who are housed and unhoused,” Bonin said in an interview.

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With help from L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Mayor Eric Garcetti and fellow council member Mark Ridley-Thomas, Bonin says he has secured resources for 200 placements in some type of permanent housing: a mix of converted motel rooms through Project Homekey, rental vouchers for apartments or shared housing.

The Los Angeles City Council was set to vote last week on $5 million in funding for the effort, but that vote has been rescheduled to Thursday.

The strategy will still launch on Monday, however, with the non-profit St. Joseph Center leading the outreach to connect people with interim shelter while the permanent housing becomes available. Those temporary options include congregate settings, such as A Bridge Home shelters, and Project Roomkey motels being run by the city.

Va Lecia Adams Kellum, CEO of St. Joseph Center, said temporary placements could last between two-to-six months before clients are connected with long-term solutions. Many of the organization’s outreach workers have experienced homelessness, she added.

“There's a lot of hopelessness, and there's a lot of lack of trust out there,” Kellum said. “It is the leadership of our outreach teams that make all the difference in how we connect — with a sense of empathy.”

Bonin’s plan is launching at the same time Sheriff Villanueva has made himself and his deputies a regular presence in Venice in recent weeks.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva wears a cowboy hat and stands talking to City Council member Joe Buscaino, who's in a polo shirt.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva (L) speaks with Councilmember Joe Buscaino during the Watts Juneteenth Street Fair on June 19, 2021.
(PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

The sheriff has vowed to clear the Ocean Front Walk encampments by July 4, and he says if people do not accept the services his outreach teams are offering, or don’t leave the boardwalk on their own accord, deputies could start arresting people.

It’s not clear what will happen as the holiday weekend — and the sheriff’s deadline to sweep the boardwalk — approaches.

In a press conference Wednesday, Villanueva excoriated local elected leaders and nonprofits for allegedly wasting “billions” in taxpayer money meant to ease the homelessness crisis. He also claimed a large number of people camping on the boardwalk were “nomadic travelers” from out of town or “dual residents” who have a place in a shelter but still keep a tent at the beach. (A 2018 study by LAHSA found that nearly two-thirds of homeless people in L.A. had lived here for 20 years or more, and 75% had a residence in L.A. before ending up on the street.)

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“It’s time to move,” said Villanueva, addressing the unhoused population of Venice Beach. “You don’t have the right to negatively impact the community and to claim public space as your own.”

If homeless residents don’t leave, by accepting shelter or voluntarily moving, Villanueva said, “We will enforce the laws that exist already. We don’t expect to get to [that] option.”

Does that mean arrests are coming as the holiday weekend approaches? Lt. Geff Deedrick, who directs the LASD Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST), did not respond to KPCC/LAist questions via email, phone or text message. And on Saturday, Villanueva also would not answer questions from a Knock LA journalist about plans to detain homeless residents in jail if they do not comply with orders to leave the waterfront.

In a YouTube interview posted on Thursday, Deedrick said he was open to delaying enforcement “for a few weeks” while Bonin’s plan moves forward, “because it’s important to do this the right way.”

When asked what will happen to homeless people who don’t move by a certain date, Deedrick answered, “Well, it depends,” noting reports of violence at the beach.

“While our focus is not that, those options of enforcing the law are always available,” Deedrick said. “And we have to have rules for a civil society.”

(On Friday afternoon, a 49-year-old homeless man was found dead from blunt force trauma in a tent near Ocean Front Walk. An arrest was made later that day.)

The Sheriff’s Department’s HOST deputies made roughly 140 contacts in their first two weeks in Venice, according to Deedrick, connecting 42 people with services, and made zero arrests. He claimed 15 people were placed in interim housing, but admitted the department doesn’t know the resolution of those cases once they’re handed off to service providers.

Bonin says the LASD threat of arrests is criminalizing homelessness and breaking the trust between social workers and vulnerable unhoused people. He accuses the Sheriff of doing more harm than good in Venice. The Sheriff’s Department can enforce laws anywhere in the county, but it is rare for them to encroach on matters inside the city of L.A.

“All of a sudden [homeless people] see law enforcement with unfamiliar uniforms, badges and guns, and that just confused the whole thing,” Bonin said. “So I really wish the sheriff hadn't been there and I wish he would go away.”

L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin stands at a podium next to the American flag
Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin attends the Palisades Village grand opening private ribbon-cutting ceremony at Palisades Village on September 22, 2018 in Pacific Palisades, California.
(Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Getty Images North America)

Speaking to KPCC/LAist, unhoused activist and longtime Venice resident David Busch-Lilly called Sheriff Villanueva’s recent push to clear the boardwalk, “John Wayne posturing, full of ad-hominem political attacks and recycled myths about homelessness.”

He also questioned how Bonin obtained 200 permanent housing slots for the boardwalk, when rental vouchers are in preciously short supply in Los Angeles. “Vouchers are supposed to go to the most needy, longest-waiting, and most ready for housing from all the rest of the homeless suffering here,” Busch-Lilly said.

In response to an LAist/KPCC inquiry, a LAHSA spokesperson said in a statement, “At this time, LAHSA has increased the amount of Recovery Rehousing slots for St. Joseph Center, which includes both motel voucher[s] and time-limited rental assistance.”

People living at the beach is nothing new in Venice. But some housed residents and business owners report encampments have expanded over the past year, becoming more disruptive to other activities on the boardwalk.

Homelessness has become more visible in Los Angeles as a whole over the past 14 months of the pandemic, as more makeshift shelters, tarps and tents popped up in parks and green belts across the city. While the economic effects of COVID-19 pushed more people into homelessness, and CDC guidelines advised against moving tents for fear of spreading the coronavirus, shelters cut capacity to a fraction of their usual number of bed spaces.