Living outdoors along America’s most famous beach is dirty, difficult and dangerous

Story by Matthew Rodriguez | Photos by Maria Martin

Aaron “Woody” Lipke has been living at the beach since September 2017

The first year is the hardest, Aaron “Woody” Lipke says of being homeless in Venice.

“You are new to the scene. People don’t trust you. People don’t know who you are. They see a joker when you’re actually a king,” he tells me. “Slowly but surely you earn their trust.”

Lipke, who always wears a hat to conceal his thinning hair, lives next to the Venice Beach Basketball Courts in a tent that contains his drawings of naked women, poetry he’s written and everything else he owns. He’s gotten used to seeing apprehension or disdain on the faces of passersby, and that’s probably the initial look I gave him, too. I hesitated to shake hands with him because of his disheveled appearance. It’s safer to assume the worst.

But now I see Lipke, who worked as a bike messenger in San Francisco before a messy divorce sent his life on a spiral toward Venice Beach, as a guy trying to make it through tough times — one of 52,765 homeless people throughout Los Angeles County and 975 in Venice alone, according to last year’s official homeless count.

For each of them, simply staying alive can be a daily challenge. According to an April report by Kaiser Health News, coroner records show that 3,612 homeless people died in L.A. County from 2014 to 2018, the average age of the deceased being 51 for men and just 48 for women.

After speaking to several currently and formerly homeless people in Venice about what skills they had to learn to survive, eight common rules of engagement seemed to apply.

Carry Your Tools

“Always have a lighter,” cautions Lipke. Otherwise, “you’re a hobo without a lighter. … If you ask a person for a lighter, they’re going to ask you for a cigarette and if you got any weed.”

In other words, lighters offer independence or an easy way to make friends. You can trade them for other things that you need.

There aren’t any light switches outdoors, so another essential tool is a flashlight.

“Try to go through your stuff at night without a light, you’re not finding anything,” says Lipke. “I’m like a chicken with its head cut off when I’m trying to find stuff in my bag.”

Left: Kenneth Stallworth stretches out near the Venice Beach Basketball Courts
Above: Piles of homeless people’s belongings are part of the scenery south of Windward Avenue
Below: Ervin Glasgow, Walter Pratt and Aaron Lipke move their belongings during a Friday boardwalk cleanup (Photos by Matt Rodriguez)

Anything Sentimental Isn’t Essential …

After 36 foster home placements in Texas, Charles Rials decided he’d rather be alone in life than deal with another foster parent. At age 15 he bought a one-way bus ticket to Los Angeles and boarded with three heavy bags containing everything he owned.

Not long after his arrival, Rials concluded that carrying around three bags of stuff was unsustainable.

“You couldn’t move around comfortably with them. You couldn’t go five blocks,” he recalls. “I realized all of that stuff didn’t have any physical, practical value. It just had sentimental [value]. I just wanted to keep it. Slowly but surely, I started letting all that stuff go.”

That meant parting with a few remaining childhood toys, a folder full of letters from his mother while she was in jail, and a photo album containing pictures of his family and younger self.

Eventually Rials was left with $40 in his pocket, brass knuckles for personal protection, and a single backpack containing clothes, a shaving razor and identification documents. That was pretty much the status quo for nearly five years of intermittent homelessness.

“You have a backpack, and in that backpack you need certain things, like a wallet which has all your cards — Social Security, medical, ID,” explains Rials, who is now 24, no longer homeless, and a peer counselor assisting clients at the Venice-based homeless services nonprofit Safe Place for Youth.

… But Sometimes It Is

When Helen Folgar was 19 years old, her parents kicked her out of their house because they disapproved of her getting married. Instead of camping out on the street, she and her husband were forced to sleep in her subcompact Toyota Echo jammed full of trash bags containing all of their belongings.

“It was almost like playing Tetris,” recalls Folgar, now in her early 20s. “We just had to find a way to make it fit. Some of the things that we didn’t need or that didn’t really hold that much value at the time, we just had to throw them out.”

Folgar discarded a lot of clothes and shoes, but there was one thing she refused to part with and held onto throughout the entire ordeal: a Batman pillow.

“I had to keep this pillow,” Folgar explains. “I always feel like that’s my emotions pillow. I always had to have it and hug it, or else I felt like I couldn’t go to sleep.”

Folgar’s best friend bought her the pillow during a visit to Six Flags, when she still lived with her parents. Since then it’s been one of the few constant things in her life during good times and bad, even after she and her husband found their way out of homelessness and into a host family program when she was 22.

“Before I was homeless I would always cry into that pillow,” Folgar says. “Whenever I would cry or felt angry I would scream into the pillow and hold it. I just feel like it holds a lot of sentimental value that I’m not capable of letting go.”

Find Your Friends …

No one can make it through this world by themselves, especially the homeless. Without the help of his friends, 60-year-old Kenneth Stallworth believes he wouldn’t have made it through his first year on the streets — let alone the past six.

“It’s like going into a horror movie and not having a weapon — you’re scared of everything,” Stallworth recalls. But being part of a group “keeps the bad element from coming in because they see you are united. … It’s just one of those things that help you to start feeling more comfortable.”

“The homeless are very cliquish,” adds Lipke, who introduced me to Stallworth. “They all have their little cliques, and it’s probably because they all share the same interests — or the same drug habit. They also look after other’s belongings. They trust that [their friends] are not going to steal from them. … If it wasn’t for Kenny, my decision to move here homeless would never have been possible.”

When Lipke arrived in Venice in September 2017, Stallworth was one of the people who made the transition bearable. Right away, Stallworth and a handful of others taught Lipke how to obtain meals, showers and other services in a new city.

Stallworth tells me he was already in the L.A. area when he became homeless, having alienated his wife and family through compulsive gambling that continued past bankruptcy. At one point he contemplated ending his life, but discovered a bag of food and clothing in his darkest hour and took it as a sign that God would give him a second chance. Developing a support system has helped Stallworth keep the faith.

“You have to pick good friends down here,” concludes Stallworth. “People that are coherent. Somebody that you could trust.”

… And Learn Whom to Avoid

Other reasons that homeless people look for friends they can trust is because they’ve been burned by others before and encounter a lot of unstable, aggressive and even hostile strangers on a regular basis. One of the key skills for surviving on the streets is to stay alert for those who may try to harm you.

“Everybody’s already been pushed over the edge. That’s why they’re out here,” cautions Stallworth. “You still got to remember that all these people at some point might go the full fall, and you don’t know whether that’s going to be going crazy and fighting, stealing or overdosing on drugs.”

Stallworth tries to avoid people whose only motivations in life are to do drugs and drink alcohol. The last time he and his friend group took in a drug addict, the guy stole a backpack while everyone was sleeping.

Lipke adds that being able to get a quick read on other people’s intentions and state of mind is an essential survival skill.

“The ones that are looking at you or talking to themselves,” says Lipke, are automatically people to avoid. “They think you owe them money or you had sex with their girlfriend.”

Gender Roles Are More Defined

Jessie Horvath grew up in San Jose, graduated high school and earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara. Her parents taught her that women could achieve anything they wanted to, same as any man.

“I wasn’t really taught male and female roles,” Horvath recalls. “Like chicks could do anything. You can make your own [path].”

She idolized successful women and hoped to emulate them. But after graduation she struggled to find a job, couldn’t afford stable housing and turned to the bottle in her frustration.

“I got put through 13 rehabs,” Horvath says of how she became homeless. “My parents tried just sending me to rehab and they figured I’d come back fixed. It doesn’t really work like that.”

At age 26, Horvath decided she’d had enough of that rollercoaster and moved out of her parents’ home and onto the streets. Not wanting to be homeless in her hometown, Horvath made her way to Santa Cruz and slowly worked her way down the coast. She’s found that more so than up north, the Los Angeles homeless community tends to reinforce outdated gender expectations.

“L.A. has more defined male and female roles on the street, and there are some things that I go too strong on and it’s too much,” says Horvath. “I act too much like a man.”

That can present problems for Horvath’s partner, Matthew “Soundtrack” Bryan-Ward. Guys who take issue with Horvath will tell him things like “keep your woman on a leash,” usually reinforced with direct or implied threats of violence. One time a stranger who told Horvath “you need to respect men” became suddenly enraged and attacked Bryan-Ward, who left the confrontation with a broken rib.

“Knowing my role — it’s shitty,” Horvath says.

Mind Your Own Business

Starting a conversation with a stranger can be dangerous when you’re homeless. Even a compliment can be taken the wrong way if somebody’s in a bad state of mind. One time on the boardwalk, Lipke complimented a stranger on his sports jersey and the guy hauled off and hit him.

“It’s not Venice Beach unless you get punched in the face once or twice,” Lipke declares.

Taking a punch isn’t nearly the worst that can happen out here. Gang members have beat a homeless man unconscious with a folding chair and shot a homeless man to death during one-sided confrontations on the boardwalk.

Never confront taggers, says Lipke, because they might have gang affiliations.

LAPD Pacific Division brass has told The Argonaut on multiple occasions that the homeless on Venice Beach are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators, often at the hands of people who are homeless or hiding out among them. According to Kaiser Health News, at least 800 of the aforementioned 3,612 homeless people who died on the street in L.A. County were trauma victims, and about 200 of them were shot or stabbed.

On a recent weekday morning, a conversation with a homeless couple is interrupted by an agitated man shouting from across the Venice Beach Basketball Courts.

“I’ma f**k all y’all up at the same time,” shouts the stranger, pointing at 53-year-old Walter Pratt, his partner, and this writer. “I’ll send you to the hospital. All three y’all.”

Stallworth is nearby and says the agitated man has been to jail several times, but doesn’t do anything when people just walk away.

Sometimes minding your own business means refusing to be baited into unnecessary confrontation.

Beware of Fridays

Ervin Glasgow, 60, lost the use of his left eye due to glaucoma. He depends on prescription medication to treat symptoms of the disease, but recently lost that medicine— along with his birth certificate and medical records — to one of the city’s Friday morning cleanups along the Venice Boardwalk.

“I lost so much I can’t even keep track,” says Glasgow, who has been homeless in Venice for the past seven months. He’s lived on the streets in L.A. before, but for the past decade he’d been staying with his sister in the Midwest.

L.A. Department of Sanitation workers clean up the boardwalk every Friday morning, and the homeless who live there are given a single 60-gallon bag to store all of their personal possessions. What doesn’t fit can be confiscated, so many of the homeless hustle to move additional belongings out of sight.

On this particular day, Lipke is keeping a watchful eye over his and Stallworth’s stuff, hidden under black and silver tarps in a nearby alley. There’s a couch and at least 10 bags, boxes or carts filled with miscellaneous items, including Lipke’s art, an assortment of broken sunglasses, a folding chair and a beach umbrella.

When homeless people’s property is confiscated by city workers, they’re forced to reclaim their belongings from
a storage facility on Skid Row. Getting downtown is a hassle, but carrying a lot of stuff on a city bus complicates the situation even more — and often it isn’t worth the trouble.

“[I’m] just trying to hang in there,” says Glasgow, “… just trying to hang in there.”

Matthew Rodriguez is a recent graduate of Loyola Marymount University. He developed this story while an intern at The Argonaut.