Venice’s temporary housing discussion is fraught with anxiety and political theater

By Kyle Knoll

A volunteer for the Garcetti-Bonin temporary housing canvass signs in amid a backdrop of protesters opposed to their effort
Photo by Kyle Knoll

In Venice there is a widespread consensus about “the homeless problem” among longtime residents, more recent transplants, community leaders and even the homeless themselves: Yes, there is a problem here, and that problem needs to be addressed.

But that’s where agreement tends to stop. Ask Venetians about potential remedies for homelessness and responses can be as multifarious, cacophonous and eccentric as the characters you’d find holding court along the boardwalk on a late summer afternoon.

Fueling discord is that the pervasiveness and visibility of homeless encampments in Venice make the issue a canvass for fed-up homeowners, contrarian activists, community volunteers and the politically ambitious to project their viewpoints and agendas before a regional, even national audience.

The political theater surrounding homelessness in Venice was on full display during a community canvassing effort and counter-protest on Saturday, Aug. 11, at the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center on Venice Boulevard.

The offices of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin hosted the training event to prepare more than 100 volunteers to canvass Venice in support of city plans for a 100-bed temporary housing facility on the former Metro bus depot at Main Street and Sunset Avenue. Supporters describe the facility as a “bridge” to permanent housing elsewhere in the city; opponents refer to it as a “homeless shelter” and a magnet for public nuisances.

While the event had all the trappings of a made-for-TV photo-op (including a podium that later disappeared), Garcetti and Bonin didn’t turn out. But that didn’t stop dozens of protesters from picketing the event and trying to engage with volunteer canvassers.

Temporary housing opponents carried signs that depicted Garcetti and Bonin in the tacky orange and blue tuxedos in “Dumb and Dumber” or with slogans that compared building a homeless facility near the beach to “putting a rehab facility in a casino.” At one point a presumably homeless woman walked by a poster board with pictures of a homeless encampment and told the man holding it “That’s not me! I don’t look like that!” The protester replied that homeless people are “cockroaches” that need to be swept off the streets.

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Temporary housing opposition organizer Travis Binen goes toe-to-toe with a community canvass organizer
Photo by Kyle Knoll

Many of the people who showed up to support or oppose temporary housing came from outside Venice, but the loudest and most organized contingent of the opposition was homegrown.

“More homeless services creates more homeless people,” said Travis Binen, an organizer for Respect Venice, an online interest group created in opposition to the temporary housing proposal. The group’s Facebook profile picture is of two hypodermic needles lying in the sand.

Rolling up to the event on a skateboard and wearing a blue striped Henley tank top and a trucker hat, Binen expressed a common sentiment among local temporary housing critics: that people sleeping on the street or the boardwalk are taking unfair advantage of lax community standards to live rent-free in an expensive neighborhood that others who live here must work very hard to afford. A software developer, Binen moved to Venice in 2011.

“Instead of getting a job and living where they can afford to live, they’re simply gaming the system,” Binen said. “They’re getting free meals and living at the beach, living the easy life.”

Later, inside the training session at Beyond Baroque, Binen had a heated confrontation with a staffer wearing an “Eric Garcetti @MayorofLA” T-shirt after he asked Binen, who was recording the training session on his phone, to refrain from taping the volunteers in attendance.

MaryJane Morrison, a Canadian-born artist who moved to Venice 23 years ago, shared many of the sentiments expressed by Binen.

“Why more services here?” she asked, expressing fatigue that Venice has time and again expanded services for the homeless, only to see the homeless population increase. “I feel like Venice has been taken advantage of.”

A week later, Morrison had registered the domain name VeniceSaysNO.com, which she intends to use as a resource for opposition to expanding homelessness-related infrastructure in Venice.

In response to homeless advocates’ arguments that Venice needs more homeless services to address the concentration of homeless people already here, Morrison says that “just because homeless people show up in a neighborhood doesn’t mean you have to put the services there. … There’s no logic in that.”

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Mic’d-up lectern wired to large audio speakers illuminated by gorgeous mid-morning natural sunlight? Check.

Local art deco landmark with a weathered, neutral paint job for use as a backdrop? Check.

Volunteer signup sheets on staffed tables under a Bonin-branded popup tent? Volunteers in those black Garcetti T-shirts? Check and check.

The only missing piece from this photo op were the mayor and councilman themselves, who abandoned the press conference — as well as clashing with demonstrators — and by 10:45 a.m. had gone straight out to personally canvass Venice’s walk streets.

Bonin, who describes temporary housing as an organized way to get people out of Venice encampments and on track toward permanent housing, said he had hoped to circle back to Beyond Baroque to speak with volunteers about what they’d heard on the beat, but was unable to do so after being approached by Respect Venice on the Park Avenue walk street.

“We’ve been doing a lot of outreach on this,” Bonin said later. “Despite noise on social media, we’ve found that people are really, really hungry for a solution to homelessness — particularly to the problem of encampments in our neighborhoods in Venice.”

Bonin and supporters of temporary housing took heat during an information open house in June at Westminster Avenue Elementary School, where several locals expressed concern that the city hadn’t completed an architectural plan for the site.

The Venice Neighborhood Council Homeless Committee, which has opposed Bonin’s plan to let local homeless store their belongings at the former Westminster Senior Center, gave temporary homeless housing a 7-0 endorsement on July 30. Amid strident public comment this Tuesday, however, the full council postponed a final vote pending additional information about the facility’s design and how it would operate.

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Not all of the demonstrators outside Beyond Baroque objected to temporary housing as increasing the presence and visibility of homeless in Venice. A number of homeless rights activists fear the proposal is intended to erode the rights of homeless people to sleep in cars or on the street; they argue the city should legitimize homelessness in Venice, not try to eradicate it.

“It’s an affordable housing issue. … We’re going to have to regularize and legalize some camping areas,” said David Busch, a homeless advocate who’s been sleeping on the streets of Venice for a decade. Wearing a green skirt, he has the deeply wrinkled skin, inconsistently toothless smile and long, weathered hair of someone who has not been living the easiest of lives. “We’re ground zero between the community that has traditionally had the most affordable housing at the beach and the rich people who now want to own everything in California.”

General Dogan, a member of the Los Angeles Community Action Network who reportedly ripped up a mayoral commendation for working to establish public restrooms on Skid Row, accused Garcetti of “kicking the can down the road” by investing in temporary housing he equates to a homeless shelter.

“The bridge homes are a bridge to nowhere,” said Dogan, who was born and raised on Skid Row. He wore a black mesh shirt, a black hat and a “black power” tattoo on his neck. “When the shelters are over with, then what?”

Nick Antonicello, a 25-year Venice resident and L.A. City Hall critic who’s leading a campaign for Venice to become an independent city from Los Angeles, interjected during our conversation that city leaders are trying to “contain” homelessness in Venice to keep it from spreading into Pacific Palisades, Mar Vista, Westchester and other neighboring communities.”

“There’s homelessness all over the city, not just in Venice,” answered Dogan. “Homelessness is the No. 1 political issue not just in Venice, but in the whole damn state of California.”

Binen introduced me to Ted Hayes, a homeless community activist for three decades who previously ran the defunct Dome Village in downtown Los Angeles. He wore a matching white linen pants and shirt combo, a hard-thatched safari hat, dark sunglasses, a Star of David necklace and an American flag bandana around his neck. I asked him what he believes keeps homeless people on the street.

“Freedom. They found freedom,” he replied. “They say, ‘You know what? I’m going to lay back here on the beach, smoke my joint, drink my beer.’ … We have to deal with that mindset in the community.”

A Respect Venice contingent confronts Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Mike Bonin on a Venice
walk street
Photo by Respect Venice via Facebook

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One might argue that the vitriolic exchanges and feelings of abandonment, abuse and neglect expressed in arguments about homelessness — not just in Venice, but across the city — suggest that neighborhoods are becoming less like communities and more like people living in silos, unable to see past the increasingly taller walls outside their homes.

Alan Pick, a resident of the Venice Canals for more than 30 years, describes life on the canals as an indefinite vacation. When we met at a coffee shop near the boardwalk to discuss his participation as a pro-bridge housing canvasser, Pick told me two stories: one that punctuates the tragedy of isolation, the other about the elevated personal dignity that comes with being seen.

Pick believes fear is the primary motivation of homeless services opponents, and that fear is infectious and divisive. He spoke of being good friends with the head of his local neighborhood watch until a recent exchange about homelessness. Long story short, a woman messaged the group that she was going to call the police on a person rowing a boat in the canals who appeared to be homeless. Pick shot back a tongue-in-cheek request to establish a dress code to help identify homeless rowers, hoping people wouldn’t mistake him for one in his usual rowing attire of “a torn tank top, unshaven, and a dirty hat.” The watch captain refused to disseminate Pick’s response, and the two haven’t spoken since.

The other story is what happened when Pick said “good morning” to a disheveled man sitting on the ground alongside the boardwalk: “He looked up at me and said, ‘Nobody talks to me. Nobody talks to me.’ And I sat down and talked to him,” Pick recalled.

“People look at homeless as if they’re invisible,” he said. “One of the most important things you can do is just talk to these people and let them know that you recognize them as a human being.”

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