One of my biggest worries about sleeping on the street is harassment by people who have homes

By Tani Elliot

No camping, no dogs, no disturbances — poor people understand the rules of the beach apply only to them
Photos by Joe Piasecki

The Nov. 14 issue of The Argonaut includes a news article about residents of Mar Vista feeling “under siege” by the local homeless community. One man who was quoted said he believes that sleeping outside must be criminalized. As a homeless person in the area, I want to respond to him and others who share his view.

I arrived in Venice about six weeks ago, escaping the cold back east where I was also homeless, even though I was working. I had left my home there for the streets a few months prior — ironically, it may seem, to avoid toxic influences and get sober. Within a week of my arrival I found a job on the Venice Boardwalk. Although I am sober and employed, earning minimum wage and not having any savings or credit has made it nearly impossible to find anywhere remotely affordable to stay for more than a few nights at a time. Often, my partner and I have been forced to sleep outside.

Recently I spent a cumulative period of about two weeks sleeping along the beach on the Marina del Rey side of the Venice Pier. Because I am female and several months pregnant, I felt unsafe sleeping in close proximity to the larger encampments along the boardwalk. Toward the end of Speedway I found a spot that felt safe (in that way) to myself and my partner. We were respectful of neighbors and relatively tidy, removing ourselves and our belongings each morning. But those efforts didn’t stop local residents from harassing us in some surprising ways.

One man impersonated a police officer — his fake uniform shirt obviously purchased from a costume store — and woke us up at 6 a.m. with the buzzing of a Taser being brandished at us as he demanded we leave the area. This stranger said he “wouldn’t want [us] to come to any harm” if we continued to stay on that part of the beach, which to us felt like a thinly veiled threat. When I asked him if he was a police officer, he walked away and spoke to a woman standing nearby in her front yard. He showed her the Taser, buzzing it again, apparently to let her know what he had done to take care of the situation.

Later someone left a note threatening to throw away our things if we didn’t move them that day, and after we did move ourselves to a different spot residents approached us again and threatened to call the police if we didn’t leave their side of the pier altogether, saying police would confiscate our belongings (which include my work clothes) and arrest us if we had any weapons. We don’t have any weapons or carry anything illegal of any sort.

My partner and I know it’s a ticket-able offense to be caught sleeping on the beach, but we sleep there because of the proximity to public bathrooms, especially considering my pregnancy. Because my partner is black, we are afraid of any interaction with police that could lead to use of force or arrest, which is why we finally did move.

I have noticed that signs posting the law against sleeping on the beach also state that it is illegal to have dogs on the beach, but none of the many residents who take their dogs to the beach will ever be held accountable for that — or anything they do, up to and including impersonating a police officer to threaten a pregnant woman with a Taser. Meanwhile, the homeless can be harassed and threatened with arrest simply for existing. This is our terrifying reality.

My partner and I were never a threat to anyone, but others are a threat to us. Many of the wealthy people who gentrified this area and made rental costs impossible for any currently homeless person to afford would simply throw us in jail if it means we are no longer an eyesore for them.

If homeless people should be arrested for sleeping outside, are we supposed to never sleep? We know the number of shelter beds is a fraction of the number of homeless. To indiscriminately punish and incarcerate some 44,000 unsheltered homeless is insane.

It isn’t so far-fetched to think local residents and President Donald Trump will soon succeed in moving the homeless into prison camps. Immigration enforcement agents and the prison industrial complex already implement such Holocaust-like tactics against immigrants and communities of color. It’s just a case of “othering” a group of people in a weaker position than themselves — rich white people using their privilege to pick on anyone who isn’t one of them or subservient to them. Instead of “look how much the homeless are suffering” it’s “ew, I shouldn’t have to see that.”

Homeless people who are mentally ill or have addictions deserve harm reduction and treatment. But no one is advocating for these people, and their quality of life is heartbreaking in so many cases. Those of us who are working to earn money to get ourselves out of this situation deserve help to do just that — and I mean comprehensive help, as many such services exist here only for people age 25 or younger.

I don’t have a car and can’t afford to sleep inside, so should I be arrested? I just obtained health insurance and have access to a doctor here, so should I be forced to quit my job and start all over again someplace where there are even fewer resources available? Should I be forced into a government facility and have my child and partner taken away from me because I had the audacity
to be poor?

Is that what you really want?

I see the hygiene and safety problems that exist among the homeless, and I share a lot of residents’ concerns about these same issues. But I’ve also seen so much cruelty from people who have so much to give.

I cry every day out of fear. Not just the fear of other people on the street, but fear of the police and fear of you — the “residents” who don’t even see me as a person, and would harm me and my family even though we’ve never done
you harm.

To contact the writer, email managing editor Joe Piasecki at jpiasecki@timespublications.com.

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