Compassion for others and tolerance for economic diversity, not public safety concerns, are what separate us on the biggest local issue of our time

By Steve Clare

In response to “Transient-related crime is no exaggeration,” Power to Speak, Feb. 18

In a recent column in The Argonaut the claim was made that Venice suffers a disproportionate amount of what the writer called “home invasions” and that Venice is “fundamentally unsafe and under-policed.” In support he described five very frightening break-ins that occurred in his neighborhood over a ten month period — all, according to the columnist, perpetrated by “transients” and offered as proof that he is not exaggerating the threat posed by a large transient population in Venice.

What started as a plea for more policing then morphed into an attack on those of us who value the economic, racial and cultural diversity of our community, which has for decades been a hallmark of Venice and has always included a sizable homeless population. He says the line is now drawn between those who want a safe community (the “newcomers”) and those who don’t (longtime residents who “dream of the Venice of 1970”).

But is public safety really the issue that divides us? No, it is not. Most everyone in Venice, including and especially homeless people, want a safe and secure community. The homeless are the people most often victimized by theft and violence.

I think most of us would like more police patrolling our neighborhoods. We want foot patrols on Ocean Front Walk 24/7, and we want responsive police and fire protection. And based upon the number of people who live in or visit Venice every year, Venice deserves more police protection. The reason that we have fewer cops than we believe we deserve is that the LAPD distributes its force based upon analysis of where crimes are actually occurring. And the fact of the matter is that crime is much higher in other parts of Los Angeles than it is in Venice.

What most of us don’t want is selective enforcement of laws against homeless people or to criminalize behaviors that the 60,000 homeless people living in the city and county of Los Angeles must engage in just to stay alive. It is a sad fact that two prominent national organizations working to end poverty and homelessness in our country have identified the city of Los Angeles as “the meanest big city in America” because of its anti-homeless laws and practices.

In Los Angeles, it is against the law to sleep at night in any public space, on a sidewalk, in a park, on the beach, anywhere. Though the courts recently blocked its enforcement, a city law makes it illegal to sleep in a car (if you are fortunate enough to have one) on any public street or parking lot.

This is important because, unlike other big cities where most of the homeless are sheltered at night, 75% of the homeless in Los Angeles are left out in the streets to fend for themselves. The winter shelter program, which only operates for three months a year (from December to March), has only 1,521 beds for the entire county!

The 2015 homeless count was recently completed and we will soon know whether homelessness has increased or decreased over the past two years. One thing we do know already is that in 2013, 190,000 people in Los Angeles experienced homelessness at some point during that year.

We also know that the city and the county have not come to grips with this huge social problem and have not committed — and do not plan to commit — sufficient resources to eliminate this condition any time soon.

It has taken the city of Los Angeles all of eight years to create 1,250 units of housing for homeless people. That’s the number the city (in a 2007 court settlement) agreed to create before it once again starts enforcing its ordinance that forbids people “to sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or public way.”

Last year the city of Los Angeles did not spend a single dime of its multi-billion-dollar general fund budget to create or preserve housing that’s affordable to low-income people.  And there is not a penny of general fund money proposed to be spent on affordable housing in this year’s budget, either. Even the money that the now-abolished Community Redevelopment Agency used to spend on housing, which now flows into the city’s general fund, has been allocated elsewhere.

The General Plan for the City of Los Angeles, which establishes the city’s framework for development over the next eight years, sets a goal of creating only 500 affordable rental housing units per year. That’s only 4,000 units citywide over the next eight years, of which only 1,200 are earmarked for the homeless.

The reality is that homeless people will be part of our community for decades to come. Many of them are veterans, many have serious mental health issues, some are physically disabled. Many suffer from drug or alcohol addiction. It has been estimated that 7,500 are living in families with minor children.

Yes, a few of them are criminals, and we need an active and responsible police presence to keep us safe and secure from criminals whether they live indoors or on the street. But we also need to provide services and support to help our unhoused neighbors survive where they are forced to live.

Until we can provide housing, we need to provide the homeless with at least the simple dignity of a safe and legal resting place, 24/7 access to toilet facilities and a personal property storage option to help them protect their few possessions from theft and confiscation.

Yes, as the columnist reminded us, Venice has changed over the years. Rising rents and property values have forced many people to move elsewhere. Old bungalows have been torn down to make way for new people and a new aesthetic. The Venice canals have been upgraded, and Google has moved in. But the welcoming spirit of Venice, the wonderful diversity of cultures and classes and the inclusive and tolerant vibe that people all over the world come to Venice to experience — that hasn’t changed.

The few who hope to change Venice into Redondo Beach by scrubbing it clean have misread history and are victims of their own wishful thinking.

But do I want them to go elsewhere? No, not really. There is room for all of us in Venice. I just hope that eventually they will someday come to appreciate this wonderful community they are a part of.

Steve Clare is executive director of the Venice Community Housing Corporation, a nonprofit affordable housing and social services organization.