Death in Venice: a Failed Homeless Policy's Role in a Senseless Summer Tragedy

MAILANDER’S LA - Living in LA is like being on acid all the time, a writer and transplant from Brooklyn told me about a decade ago—and the top expressive high of the LA trip has long been the walkway running along the Westside's Venice Beach.

The trip that is Venice's pedestrian-filled Ocean Front Walk is most vibrant and most populated and is the City at its dingiest too on a perfect summer Saturday afternoon—the kind of afternoon that brings out a kaleidoscope of festival adornment, a swap meet ethos of Day Glo hair bands, homegrown hemp attire, steel guitars, and also '70's burnouts and millennial degradation.

It's a place where tourists can dependably come to engage the panoply of LA beach life and that transients can come to eke out a few extra dollars from the promenading tourists.

The topline of Venice is fun in the sun and peace and love. But when a vehicle allegedly driven by a local transient suddenly accelerated onto Ocean Front Walk last Saturday, injuring dozens and killing a beautiful Italian tourist visiting Venice on her honeymoon, the whole bottom-feeding economic underside of Venice was exposed for all to see.

The late-model car accelerated indiscriminately into tourists and hipsters alike, homeless and merchants and homeless merchants, musclemen and musicians and families too—the people who have made Venice a different kind of happening for decades, the people who come to watch it all, and the people who have made it one of the City's most shameful junkyards in the eyes of many who remember it being something better than it is today.

On Wednesday, I spoke at length with one of the top providers of homeless triage services to the area, Loren Franck. Franck runs West Side Homeless Outreach, Inc. of Playa del Rey.  He's a Venice High grad and has been hitting the area known as the Venice Boardwalk for 45 years, of late mostly to distribute clothes and to feed the poorest there.  He was distributing clothes and meals on the Boardwalk the Friday before the tragedy.

"The area—especially a summer Saturday, is going to be probably its busiest.  Chronically homeless, transient homeless, sightseers, honeymooners—the last thing they are going to expect is some goofball screaming off of Dudley Court running over people."

Franck is not anxious to lay any blame on City or County homeless policy, even though he's very critical of it.

"I don't think that the City or any of the agencies were negligent by the way," Franck told me. "I don’t think it’s practical to seal off Ocean Front Walk. I don't think there's anything we could have done.  It's a very unusual occurrence."

But he also sees a lot of wasted money in the system—money that could go towards helping bring more dependable shelter to the City's vast homeless population, and provide better for the alleged perpetrator of Saturday's tragedy.

"A lot of money could be spent more efficiently more effectively.  We have housing only for a sliver of the population."

In Franck's opinion, to be really useful, the County's homeless count to be tuned up and conducted much more scientifically.

"If the homeless count is 3,000 on August 7, it may be totally different on August 15. We also need to make sure there’s a uniform definition of homelessness—which there’s not."

Unlike a lot of the agency heads that Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles fund, Franck is unsalaried.  At some of the local homeless agencies, salaries for top executives approach $200,000 a year.  The units they build for the "slivers" of the homeless population they serve can pencil out between $300,000 and $400,000 a unit, exceeding the price of an average County home.

"I do not have a Lexus in my parking spot.  I’m not a part of that machine.  One problem that we have is that these big well established agencies are really businesses. They’re non-profits, but they’re really businesses."

Franck also speaks of uncoordinated efforts between the various agencies.  "There's this continuum of care they say we have, from street to emergency shelter to transitional housing to Section 8 housing and finally low income housing.  That's the model, and you really don't see that succeed very much."

"It doesn't work that way, because there are so many degrees of homelessness.  Many compare shelters to jails.  They say they're worse than jails.  Not every homeless person is adaptable to the environment."

Franck also tells me that one of the downtown homeless missions was presently taking in a million dollars a month in charitable contributions.

"Are the homeless there getting a million dollars a month in services there?" he asked.


Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.)   






Vol 11 Issue 64

Pub: Aug 9, 2013