Violent confrontation underscores simmering tensions between the housed and the homeless

By Gary Walker

Rick Swinger suffered a broken arm after confronting a homeless man who was screaming outside his bedroom window at 4:30 a.m.
Photo by John Copeland

A longtime Venice resident who has become one of the most vocal critics of the perpetual homeless encampments on Third Avenue, venting frustrations through social media and making frequent calls to police, is recovering from a fractured arm and elbow after a violent altercation with a homeless man.

Rick Swinger has lived near Rose Avenue and Hampton Drive for nearly 25 years. About a year ago he began actively complaining about the situation on Third between Rose and Sunset, posting photos of related trash piles and human waste to a popular Venice-themed Facebook discussion group and turning out for a protest against Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin.

At about 4:30 a.m. on May 18, Swinger and his wife were awakened by a man shouting to himself behind the former church on the northeast corner of Rose and Hampton, where Swinger had often seen the same man camp before because the spot is almost directly underneath the couple’s bedroom window.

Only this time, Swinger decided to confront the man and left his apartment with a can of pepper spray in hand.

Swinger said he asked the man to quiet down and tried to touch a book in the man’s possession, at which point the man began to yell at Swinger and move toward him. Swinger doused the man with pepper spray, he said, and began to move away from him, but the man gave chase and knocked Swinger down after running into him, the fall causing his broken bones. The homeless man left the scene and Swinger called police, who escorted him to a hospital.

On Tuesday Swinger said police told him that they had since taken a suspect into custody, but The Argonaut was unable to confirm by press time either the man’s identity or whether he has been charged with a crime.

LAPD Pacific Division Det. Robyn Salazar, who was not directly involved with that investigation, said members of the public should not confront people who appear to be agitated.

“If someone is disturbing the peace or committing a crime, never confront them. Call 9-1-1,” Salazar said.

When asked why he chose not to call the police, Swinger said officers often don’t respond to noise complaints due to higher-priority crimes, or by the time they do show up the target of his complaints has already left the scene.

“I’ve literally called the police hundreds of times with noise complaints. If you call LAPD 100 times with noise complaints and no one responds, you get tired of it,” Swinger said.

Swinger also said he doesn’t so much have issues with the homeless as he does with L.A. City Hall’s shortfalls in responding to homelessness and related quality of life issues.

“Most of [the local homeless] are really nice and are really struggling, but there are some who are criminals and mix in with the others,” he said.

As for the man he tussled with, “I’m not mad at this guy. He’s mentally ill,” Swinger said. “I blame Bonin.”

Bonin, who helped spearhead recent voter-approved tax hikes to fund expanded homeless services and accelerate the construction of affordable housing, declined to comment.

During Bonin’s recent reelection campaign, Swinger supported challenger Mark Ryavec, an advocate for expanded enforcement of anti-camping ordinances whose Venice Stakeholders Association issued a press release this week about Swinger’s confrontation and injuries.

City workers conduct weekly cleanups of Third Avenue that include police rousting the homeless from their encampments, and last year the nonprofit Lava Mae began operating a mobile shower and hygiene trailer there once a week.

If nothing else, Swinger’s misadventure illustrates the increasingly fragile coexistence of homeless encampments and gentrifying residential housing, not only along the beach but also on gritty-turned-trendy Rose Avenue. Right where Third meets Sunset, young professionals dine on gourmet cuisine while dozens of homeless people lay in sleeping bags and tents across the street on what some have called Venice’s Skid Row.

Los Angeles County officials plan to expand the number of mental health outreach workers in Venice this summer after funding becomes available through Measure H, a county homeless services initiative approved by voters earlier this year.

“There are people living on the streets who are suffering from different types of mental illness, including schizophrenia, psychosis or bipolar disorder, and it’s best to interact as little as possible because they are not going to be logical,” said Mimi Lind, director of behavioral health and domestic violence services for the nonprofit Venice Family Clinic, based on Rose Avenue. “Being aggressive back [to them] is never helpful.”

Managing Editor Joe Piasecki also contributed to this story.