Where Unhoused People Saw Freedom, Their Venice Neighbors Saw A 'War Zone'
For months, homeowners living near Venice's Penmar Golf Course complained to anyone who'd listen about filth, crime and late night noise coming from the large homeless encampment on Rose Avenue.
The encampment had started with just a few tents last year. When the pandemic hit and homeless people got pushed out of other areas, it grew into a bustling community of about 100 people living in tents and structures made of tarps, blankets, and wooden pallets.
The makeshift homes lay against the golf course's chain link fence, on a dirt jogging path under a canopy of trees.
"I think you have to be a particular kind of person to live in Venice," said Jenny Cooney, who's lived in the neighborhood for 21 years. "There's something about it. That's I think what attracted the people who live in Venice to it. There's a little edge to it. And that edge was fine, until recently."
Most of the men and women living in the encampment arrived there after the coronavirus outbreak shuttered homeless services and disrupted daily survival routines.
Ian Richards had been homeless in Long Beach before setting up his tent in Venice.
"We make our own little systems that get us money in the day, but all that stopped with the Covid," Richards said. "I was like, 'I'm either going to watch everyone I know start scrambling for resources and backstabbing each other, or just go figure out a new way in a new place anyway.' So I ended up here, and I like it out here."
LIVING IN A WAR ZONE
Normally, the city would be doing encampment sweeps that would force people to temporarily take down their tents and move. But due to COVID-19 health concerns, those were stopped. So the tents stayed and the encampment grew. Cooney claims that's when things really began to affect homeowners' quality of life.
"All of the sudden we all felt like we were living in a war zone," she said. "Active drug dealers, prostitution, and bike chop shops everywhere. We'd call the police and the police would say, 'Sorry, we'd like to help you, but we're being told we're not allowed to do this, this and this.'"
The homeowners say they tried everything to get the city's and county's attention.
They petitioned the city to move the jurisdiction of the jogging path to the Recreation and Parks Department, and ban camping on it. That didn't work. They tried to piggyback on a federal lawsuit forcing the city to clear encampments near freeways. That didn't work, either.
They even hired a private security guard to patrol the encampment and an outreach worker, for a couple of months, to assess people's housing needs.
"But there was a certain point where we just couldn't afford to pay for it, and we were feeling like, this is crazy, we're paying for all of the things the city is supposed to pay for," Cooney said.
Many of the unhoused people camped along Rose Avenue said they appreciated the sense of community.
"There's some magic going on," said Johnny D. Gibbs, an encampment dweller who grew up in Riverside. "Venice is blessed. I love the town. I'm into diversity, meeting people of all cultures. It's more than just being a bum, because I'm not a bum. I'm a person who is socially displaced."
A few shelters down, a mohawked man who goes by "Ka" (pronounced "Kay"), echoed those sentiments.
"There's nowhere like Venice in the world, it's a great place to be, especially, honestly, with the homeless community," he said.
"Because, unlike these guys," he said, pointing to the homes across the street, "how often do you see these guys actually talking to their neighbors or actually just sitting outside? I don't know this man from Adam. I just know his name. I don't even know if that's his real name. But I live two doors down from him, and I trust this man at my house if I'm not home or vice versa."
As the encampment grew, Cooney joined with dozens of other residents to collect evidence showing how it was creating a dangerous situation for the people living in it, as well as for neighbors across the street.
Homeowner Chie Lunn was at the center of this neighborhood watch effort, conducted primarily on Slack and Nextdoor groups as well as mass emails.
"Imagine getting five emails sometimes a day, from five separate incidents with video, audio," Lunn said. 'It's about documenting what's going on in your area and bringing that all together."
The audio and video included disturbing sights and sounds that came from the encampment at night: drug deals, arguments, even assaults.
When Lunn purchased her family home last year, the encampment wasn't there. As a parent, she's now dealing with problems she wasn't prepared for.
"When you move anywhere in Venice, you know that your heart is about small businesses, artists, creativity, helping your brother, neighbor, all of these things," Lunn said.
"But it's not about defecating on sidewalks. It's not about explaining to your daughter why there's penises out when you bike ride to the beach, having your son almost get hit by a car because he can't go on the sidewalk or the bike lane. Those are not the things that you expect to have to deal with on a day-to-day basis."
They shared all the information they gathered with St. Joseph Center, the main homeless nonprofit in Venice, and Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the lead agency managing homeless services in L.A. County, as well as L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin's office and other local agencies.
But nothing on the street changed, and the homeowners got more frustrated.
Meanwhile, the unhoused residents didn't appreciate being constantly filmed, and weren't shy about letting the homeowners know.
Chie Lunn got the message.
"I don't know who's living in this trailer," said Lunn. "I don't know who's living in this structured house right here. I know that on the street, right here, right outside my home, the woman across from me wrote that 'this is war. F--- your peace, this is war.'"
'OUT HERE, WE'RE FREE'
Across the street, Ashley, the woman who wrote that message, stood outside her shack made of tarps, sheets, and old furniture.
It was a street sweeping day. As the machine hummed along the curb towards her, Ashley stood on the black asphalt next to her bike, refusing to move. It veered around her and continued on its way as she yelled after it.
"We don't tell you how far your crap can be from the street, we don't tell you what kind of car you can drive, so why do it to us?" she shouted.
Ashley moved from Arizona three years ago with her now ex-husband. She'd been camped outside the Penmar Golf Course for five months. The standard sweeps may have stopped, but she said city workers had been coming through about twice a week, hassling her to make sure there's three feet of space on the path for pedestrians.
"Even though nobody really walks over here because they are scared of us," Ashley said. "But they will go and touch your stuff, and they'll take it. And depending on who's working on the sanitation crew, some of them will destroy it and take it."
She says she feels dehumanized, having been recorded by neighbors, harassed by city workers and insulted by passing drivers. Even with all that, the encampment is still where she wanted to be.
"What about the fact that maybe some of us like being out here because we're free?" Ashley said. "We don't pay any bills. We don't have any curfews. We don't have to follow anybody's rules. Out here, we're free."
That's where things stood on Rose Avenue. Tensions rising on both sides of the street, and no resolution in sight.
The situation began to change one morning in September, just after 6 a.m., when Chie Lunn looked out her window and saw the tall pine trees across the street engulfed in flames. The fire had spread from a camp stove in one of the tents underneath the overgrown trees.
'ENCAMPMENT TO HOME'
Lunn said she was immediately worried for her unhoused neighbors.
"It's not about us," said Lunn. "We have freaking sprinklers, water hoses and such. The thing we've constantly expressed over and over again is we don't want deaths."
It was one of about a dozen fires reported at the encampment in recent months -- a fact of life for encampment residents like Ashley.
"The one that burnt the tree there worried me, because I thought the other trees were going to catch on fire," she told me. "Somebody threw something on the grill because they were mad. It was a vengeful thing."
Meanwhile, Councilman Bonin had become increasingly concerned about what was now the largest encampment in his district.
He wanted to try a new approach, known as "Encampment to Home," where shelter would be offered to everyone in the group at the same time, rather than providing services to people on an ad hoc basis.
"People in an encampment are a community, and addressing a community collectively is often an appropriate and helpful strategy," he said.
Bonin was having a hard time getting traction for the idea. But when the homeowners, concerned about the fire risk coming from the overgrown trees, asked the city to trim them back all along the golf course, the situation began to shift.
To do that, the city said it needed access to the trees, which meant it would need to clear out the homeless encampment.
With 100 people facing displacement, Bonin said that's when L.A. County and local housing agencies finally agreed to provide outreach, services and hotel rooms to the encampment dwellers.
"It should not take a trigger like that to get this sense of urgency," he said. "This is the sense of urgency we should have everywhere."
The proposed solution relied on Project Roomkey to provide vacant hotel rooms for encampment dwellers on Rose. The program, which was set up by California, L.A. County and LAHSA during the pandemic, provides hotel rooms for thousands of homeless people who are older than 65 or have a health condition, although it's shutting down next year.
Throughout October, social workers with the St. Joseph Center went structure to structure, offering one-week motel vouchers and the promise of long-term housing to anyone willing to turn in their tent, pack up their belongings and agree not to come back.
The effort's initial results were mixed, St. Joseph Outreach Coordinator Dawan Moses said while making his rounds one day.
"So far, we tried to get what we call the low-hanging fruit, the people who we knew were interested, that we had rapport and relationships with," Moses said.
Some were saying yes to the motel offer, including a man named Art. His hands and face were covered in abscesses, which, he said, had developed over recent months.
"I have to, for my health," Art said, as he reluctantly packed his belongings. "I told them I was injured yesterday and I needed time and they still came and tried to rush me."
There was no shower at the Rose-Penmar encampment -- just a portable toilet shared by dozens -- and Art said he desperately wanted to wash his body.
While Art rode off on his bicycle to Venice's Marina 7 Motel about a mile away, others declined the offer.
Leo Ferguson, 53, who has been camping in Venice for 30 years, wasn't interested.
"When somebody's, like, paying for me to stay at a motel or that stuff, I feel like I'm kind of under their supervision, or I'm their responsibility now," Ferguson said.
Cameron Prior, who's been living in a tent along the Penmar Golf Course fence for a year, said he'd probably just move to a nearby street.
"When they kick us out to trim the trees, it seems like we're not going to be able to come back," Prior said. "It's for the benefit of the golf course. Those guys pay good money to tee off and play their nine holes, they don't want a bunch of homeless people hanging around."
'TOO MUCH LIKE AN ULTIMATUM'
Some who were approached with the motel offer dismissed it as unfair, including Ka.
"I'm turning it down because it's too much like an ultimatum," Ka said. "In order to get the hotel, we have to make it so we can't be here. And if we return here, then we lose our hotel. And then they're telling me they might not have any rooms available that would be pet-friendly. Well, I have a dog. So you're handing out ultimatums, not helpfulness."
Ka was preparing a pan of jumbo shrimp with his neighbor, Kyle Freeman-Smith, who also didn't like the offer.
"They're just going to keep on seeing what they can get away with because we allow it," said Freeman-Smith. "I'm tired of allowing it. So, I'll go to jail, if that's what I have to do. I'm staying here."
Gabriel Durkin-White, a West L.A. resident who organizes with Streetwatch LA, also said the offer isn't fair to the men and women camped at Rose-Penmar.
"I don't think they should be offering people services in that punitive a way," said Durkin-White. "It's not a choice when the city comes in and says, 'We're evicting you because your wealthy neighbors don't want you to exist across the street for them,' and handing out one-week motel vouchers."
When I returned to the encampment a few days later, even more tents had disappeared. I found Kyle Freeman-Smith, cooking pancakes this time, who was sticking to his guns.
But his friend Ka had changed his mind. Social workers had found him a dog-friendly room in South L.A.
"Yeah, I'm taking the deal," said Ka. "It seems like the easiest thing to do, seems like the smartest. Get me inside, get me resources, get me what I need, and I ain't gotta worry about nothing. They're giving us a chance."
A FRAGMENTED SYSTEM
Freeman-Smith may have wanted to stay, but when I returned to Rose Avenue on tree-trimming day, the entire jogging path had been cleared. The whole street was closed to traffic, aside from the two dozen yellow city trucks working on the trees.
Chie Lunn's husband, Phil, was standing on the sidewalk.
"I'm just blown away that the city has mobilized, what, six cherry pickers? I've never seen a city operation like this before, it's crazy," he said.
The effort on Rose Avenue was being met with a mix of hope and skepticism on both sides of the street.
"It's happening and we're grateful, and we support it, but we're not going to believe it until we see the actual results," said Chie Lunn. "And that'll take about a month and a half. I think that a quick cleanup is going to be really great. I just hope to see that everyone is getting long term care."
Without long-term housing, neighbors worry they'll see the same people across the street again soon, or in another part of Venice.
"I'm glad we were able to find a solution that included getting housing," said Jenny Cooney. "Not a solution to just get them off the block, because that's like a game of whack-a-mole. We don't just want to have police come and kick people out. You are going to have to keep doing outreach."
Throughout their efforts, the members of the homeowner group said they learned just how disorganized L.A.'s system to address homelessness really is.
"It's too fragmented," said Arya Rahimian, who purchased his home on Rose Avenue, his first, last year. "You've got the city responsible for housing, the county responsible for services. Nobody knows how or why there's a division. You also have all these other agencies and nonprofits involved. They all want to help, but nobody really wants to take the responsibility."
Cooney said it's up to the neighborhood to get the various agencies on the same page.
"It's staggering to me that it's such a mess here. They do not talk to each other," she said. "We need to get all the people in the same room and do something about this."
A total of 70 people who were living in the former Rose Avenue encampment have been put up in local hotels on a week-to-week basis, according to the St. Joseph Center. But whether they'll find permanent housing is up in the air.
Those who didn't accept the motel offer simply moved on to set up tents in other parts of Venice.
When the metal fence around the jogging path comes down, it's unclear what authority the city would have, if any, to prevent people from returning to their former community.
I called Kyle-Freeman Smith recently, to ask him about his next moves. But he didn't answer.
So I texted him: "Will you come back to the street after the tree-trimming?"
He texted back just one word: "Yeah."
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