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Venice Beach Press Conference - Our Future LA Coalition Stands Up Against Punitive Response to Homelessness

EASTSIDER - When you think about it, the reality is that homelessness has only been an inconvenience for most Angelenos since they have been under the radar except when our politicians wanted to pass taxes to “help them.” Then came Echo Park Lake and most recently, Venice Beach. 

Suddenly the increasing number of homeless people has become a threat and the City Council is deciding to criminalize these individuals with a new Ordinance. While a lot has been written about the Echo Park Lake debacle, relatively little has been written about Venice Beach other than Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s “manly act” in hauling the unhoused miscreants off the beach. What a guy. 

So I found myself Tuesday morning in a very large LA City parking lot on the corner of North Venice and Pacific, just a couple of blocks from Venice beach, to cover a Press Conference. 

It was jointly held by a number of community groups, including Venice Community Housing, United Way of Greater LA, LA Community Action Network, Abundant Housing LA, and actual unhoused Venice community members. 

The reason the Press Conference was held in the parking lot is that this will be converted into about 140 new homes for people who would ordinarily be unable to have a home and will include supportive services to boot. Becky Dennison from Venice Community Housing led off the discussion. 

She, and most of the other speakers, indicated that SB 679 (Los Angeles County Affordable Housing) currently live in the legislature, should be the backbone of law to actually help the unhoused instead of criminalizing them. You can find the current text of the bill here. 

In a quote from her after the event she makes the case for a positive government posture towards the homeless: 

"All residents, particularly extremely low income Angelenos, deserve an equitable LA County where they live in a safe, secure home that is affordable and where they do not have to live in fear that they will end up on the streets. If we work to keep Angelenos housed, vastly expand affordable housing, and stop criminalizing unhoused residents, we will be able to end this crisis," said Becky Dennison, Executive Director of Venice Community Housing.’ 

The Troops 

After the presentations, I was able to speak to a couple of local residents, a self-described homeless person and a resident who has a house near the beach. 

The homeless person is names NAS (standing for Never Angry Smile). She was quite articulate and had a couple of observations that make sense. First, she talked about LASAN’s (LA Sanitation) reality of overflowing, smelly recycling dumpsters, and how little actual recycling gets done. If you doubt this reality, just check out Controller Ron Galperin’s Report:

The City of Los Angeles is responsible for maintaining the sidewalks, streets and alleyways within its boundaries. But what is open for use by everyone is being abused. Businesses and individuals are illegally dumping tens of thousands of tons of garbage, debris and harmful substances, contributing to urban blight and public health risks and leading to a lesser quality of life in impacted neighborhoods. This report evaluates L.A.’s push to eliminate illegal dumping and urges the City to better address its root causes. 

It’s a great read, and you can find the report here. 

Her suggestion, which makes sense, is to convert that trash into aviation fuel.  Don’t know if that’s possible, but if so, it would beat what’s happening to the landfills. 

She also had a suggestion about “biodomes.” Turns out the concept is happening now, doesn’t pollute, and can be recycled. For more information, check it out here. 

Clearly the homeless are not stupid, and have some good ideas, as opposed to the stereotypes. I’d never heard about biodomes before and learned something new. 

The other person I talked to was Steve Diaz, who has a home in the neighborhood. He had two observations, one positive and one a sad truth. The sad truth, he observed, is simply looking at Venice Beach. There is no way that the local business can survive, and if history is a guide, the goliath real estate developers will gobble the properties up at some point. With assistance from the City Council. 

His suggestion was that there should be some large physical area or areas designated for the homeless. Assuming that they would provide shelter and supportive services to re-enter the housed rest of us. 

United Way LA 

Other than the presentations, I was able to personally talk to Eric Ares from United Way LA

He has clearly thought through all the ins and outs of the current, growing crisis, and had a fairly clear set of suggestions to actually make life better for us all.Here are some quotes from him: 

“The idea that we have to either sweep people off our streets OR ignore the public health crisis on our sidewalks is a false choice - and one that we should reject. We can have clean and passable sidewalks without violating the rights of our unhoused neighbors. We can meet the public health needs of those living in encampments with public health infrastructure - like hygiene stations, portapotties, storage, and regular and consistent sanitation services. We can address mental and behavioral health needs of those living outside with street medicine, multidisciplinary outreach, and harm reduction services.” 

“Bottomline: We need and HAVE the short-term strategies to address street homelessness if we choose to implement them - and these solutions do not and must not come under the threat of enforcement, displacement, or arrest. We need street engagement and services led by providers NOT street enforcement led by officers. But we also need the long-term solutions to address the root causes of the housing crisis, not just its symptoms. This is why solutions like LACAHSA and SB 679 are critical as they will actually create the types of housing that these folks need - and at the scale that we need it. LA County’s future can’t be like its past - and our approach to unsheltered homelessness must not continue to punish our most vulnerable neighbors for our region’s policy failures. So we call on all local electeds to fully back SB 679 and help us build the housing we need so that everyone in LA County can have a safe and secure home. And, until we can do that, let’s create reasonable, effective, and compassionate policies to meet the needs of those currently living outside. 

He makes a heck of a lot of sense to me. Certainly, more than government’s current actions. 

The Takeaway 

It was clear from the Press event that the groups advocating for the homeless have a much more positive attitude and actual practical solutions that are sadly missing from our elected officials and law enforcement. 

By the time you read this article, the City Council will have voted on their new Ordinance to basically outlaw the homeless. Is it a coincidence that many of them are up for elections in 2022? And don’t want to take the blame for spending billions of dollars on homelessness with a result that the number of unhoused people in LA is up? 

Or take a look at LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s political power grab under the banner of law and order. Bust them and haul them off. Wonder how much that had to do with solutions, and how much had to do with a bigger budget and a reelection campaign? 

I am encouraged that there are positive solutions out there that will not cost more than government is already spending, and they won’t simply make the big developers richer. 

At the same time, even as I write this article, the LA City Council is poised to vote on their draconian Ordinance. As the LATimes put it: 

The ordinance, set for a second and final vote on Wednesday, prohibits sitting, sleeping or storing property on public property near libraries, parks, day-care centers, schools, freeway overpasses, recently opened homeless shelters and other locations. Yet it also states that enforcement in any of those locations cannot take place until the City Council has reviewed the location and given the go-ahead. 

Contrast the Councils attempt to use law enforcement to punish Angelenos for the City Councils own broken system, with the Coalitions rebuttal: 

“Legislative and legal policy decisions like these would have a large and sweeping impact on the lives of tens of thousands of unhoused Angelenos sleeping on our streets while doing nothing to increase access to shelter and housing.” said Steve Diaz of LA Community Action Network, a member of the Our Future LA coalition. 

“For too long, policies on housing and homelessness have been created piecemeal in response to the complaints of a small but wealthy, influential, and typically white group of residents. These self-selected spokespeople do not reflect the broader realities of LA County where, for example, 67% of Black and 70% of Latinx residents spend more than 30% of their income on rent. This disjunction plays a significant role in why, of the 3,007 counties in the United States, LA County ranks dead last in housing affordability and overcrowding and has the highest rate of unsheltered homelessness.” 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Photo: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez.    Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.