Distorting the facts to chase the homeless out of Venice won’t solve anything

By Sylvia Aroth

I’m a businessperson who’s lived and owned property in Venice for several decades, so I’m someone who came here for its distinctiveness and diversity, stayed because I found what I was looking for, and now enjoy the benefit of increased property values. I pride myself on not allowing property ownership to obscure my other values. As one community colleague recently put it, “People come to Venice to be changed by Venice, not to change Venice.” That certainly includes me.

But as we’ve seen in recent years amid debate and rancor over the homeless, permit parking, beach curfews, development regulations and other often divisive subject matters, maybe that’s not as much the case anymore. Some people who appear to view the community primarily through the prism of their investment (and who might feel just as at home in a community such as Woodland Hills) seem eager to make Venice a “cleaner” investment despite all the gains they’ve seen over time. A recent column in The Argonaut by the head of the Venice Stakeholders Association (“Venice Beach is not a campground,” Dec. 18) revisited some of the complaints and positions of people generally holding these attitudes. A few of its assertions are useful for discussion.

First, the article stated that there’s a “permanent homeless encampment” along Ocean Front Walk. That’s a mischaracterization worthy of Fox News. An encampment is inherently temporary. For years the homeless have slept on the sand, on sidewalks, in alleys, in vehicles, in door fronts, on Ocean Front Walk and, now, on the grass adjacent to Ocean Front Walk. The so-called encampment moves around, sometimes because of enforcement, other times because of convenience. In other words, it’s not permanent in any one location. And sometimes some of the things certain people find most objectionable about the presence of the homeless have come about as unintended consequences of enforcement actions.

This tendency to overstate a phenomenon has been dubbed a “frequency illusion” by scientists. Seeing something that’s annoying, pleasing or surprising can trigger our brains to be on the lookout for repeated occurrences and inflate our perceptions of how much of it there really is — like hipsters wearing fedoras or ski caps.

A couple of years back we repeatedly heard alarms about hundreds of sleepers blighting Ocean Front Walk. Then some reliable folks went out on three separate nights spread over a six-week period and were never able to count more than 70 such sleepers. Thus, in the hands of those with an agenda, a frequency illusion can be a tool for stirring up opposition over something that is nowhere near as commonplace as we’re being led to believe. Once upon a time this was called the “Big Lie Technique.”

During an earlier economic downturn, then-L.A. City Attorney Jim Hahn boldly pledged not to prosecute and punish homeless persons for the non-crime of being homeless. He invoked the “defense of necessity,” a doctrine that accommodates certain behavior from people who are offered no alternative.

That concept relates strongly to the outcome of a couple of recent court decisions decried by the Venice Stakeholders Association as making it more difficult for the police to shoo the homeless from one place to the other and to confiscate and discard their personal possessions. They’ve filed a lawsuit trying to make it easier again. Didn’t Einstein say that doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome defines insanity?

Another questionable assertion made by the column, citing a tragic 2009 murder committed on Electric Avenue by someone based in Culver City, is that allowing transients to remain in the community will inevitably lead to assaults on residents. Here’s another perspective: Yes, a few transients commit crimes and, hopefully, good police work (including cooperation from victims and witnesses) will help apprehend them. But, if someone were to honestly review the data instead of trying to create a frequency illusion, it would be obvious that many more crimes are committed by people with roofs over their heads. So is the possibility that a few housed people might do something bad justification for making all housed people go “somewhere else”?

The notion that we can solve many of Venice’s problems by chasing the homeless to adjacent communities is, frankly, nonsensical.  I’m surprised that certain community activists and political leaders have clung to it for so long.

The Venice Stakeholders column at least in the end comes around to acknowledge that a concerted and likely expensive multi-community, multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional effort will be required to achieve constructive solutions. That’s probably the first time I’ve agreed with the Venice Stakeholders about much of anything. I hope it’s not the last.

The late Venice activist Carol Berman once opined that nobody really is homeless, but some people are “houseless” and the community is home to them as much as it is to the rest of us. If we can start dealing with it that way perhaps we’ll eventually get a handle on these issues.

Sylvia Aroth is a community and political activist who first moved to Venice in 1972.