Homeless man on hunger strike pressures Google to provide food and toilets for people sleeping behind its Venice headquarters

Homeless activist David Busch continues his fast
outside Google HQ after Monday’s press conference
Photo by Mia Duncans

By John Seeley

A homeless man who has been sleeping on the sidewalk behind Google’s headquarters in Venice has gone on a hunger strike to call for the delivery of basic necessities to Venice’s homeless population, and he wants Google to help pay for it.

During a Monday press conference in front of the company’s office on Main Street, longtime homeless rights activist David Busch said Venice-based tech giants such as Google and Snapchat need to “step up and do their share” for their destitute neighbors.

Busch’s asks — he rejects calling them “demands” — include two safety-monitored portable toilets to serve the perennial homeless encampments on Third Avenue and Hampton Drive as well as a commercial food preparation facility that non-profits could use to prepare and distribute meals.

A Sunday evening meal program run by Occupy Venice activists has recently downsized due to Los Angeles County Health Department food safety requirements and lack of access to a commercial-grade kitchen.

Bathroom access has long been an issue near the beach, where public bathrooms are shuttered for nighttime curfews. L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who could not be reached for comment, said last year that he will pursue funding to keep beach bathrooms open at night and monitored by city staff.

Back in November, a mobile bathing trailer operated by San Francisco nonprofit Lava Mae began providing local homeless people with hygiene kits and weekly access to showers on Third and Rose avenues.

Google’s charitable arm, Google.org, funded Lava Mae’s expansion into Venice and downtown Los Angeles. The company also provides funding and volunteers for Venice-based homeless services nonprofit Safe Place for Youth, and local Google personnel regularly participate in committee meetings for Venice Forward — a social services collaborative convened by Bonin with the goal of ending homeless in Venice.

Snapchat, among other charitable efforts, is currently bankrolling Safe Place for Youth’s volunteer program as well as a web development training program for low-income or homeless women at St. Joseph Center, where a Snapchat employee sits on the board of directors.

So why are Busch and his supporters calling for Google and Snapchat to do more? For one, because they can afford it. Google parent company Alphabet reported $19.5 billion in earnings this year, and Snapchat broke Westside tech startup records with a successful New York Stock Exchange IPO two weeks ago.

“What’s being asked here is just a rounding error for them,” said Robin Rudisill, a Venice neighborhood activist who unsuccessfully challenged Bonin for his council seat in the March 7 city election. She adds that Google has already given big to help the homeless in San Francisco, including $2 million in funding to reduce the wait list for supportive family housing and roll out a career prep program for homeless youth.

Then there’s the Biblical mandate to “love thy neighbor,” invoked at the press conference as applicable to corporations by Rabbi Gabriel Botnick of Temple Mishkon Tephilo, a conservative synagogue just two blocks from the Google offices.

Busch was arrested two years ago for blocking a city sanitation truck from seizing homeless people’s possessions on Venice Beach. He began his water-only fast on Feb. 28, the day after witnessing a confrontation between a homeless man and a security guard employed by a Google subcontractor. A Google employee speaking on background said that in addition to calling the LAPD, the company asked the security vendor to conduct a full and thorough investigation of the incident.

Some of Busch’s friends worry that his fast may put his own life at risk; he spent several months in the hospital in 2015, much of it in critical care.

Busch’s local backers also hold tech companies indirectly responsible for economic conditions — namely increased housing costs— that fuel homelessness. Since tech’s arrival, “a huge number of low-cost housing units have been lost,” says Judy Branfman of the Venice Justice Committee. “They’ve been a prime mover in gentrification,” adds David Ewing of the Venice Action Alliance.

At Snapchat’s invitation, three members of a group that has protested Snapchat have been invited to sit down with company officials to share their concerns. At top of mind are some of the same things Busch is asking for — food and hygiene resources.

“We aren’t going in with demands,” said the group’s  Andy Rovins, who has lived in Venice for decades. “But if we’re asked for suggestions, we think that should be on the table.”