Some fault gentrification, others blame government inaction for community tensions underlying the fatal police shooting of a homeless man

By Joe Piasecki

L.A. Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez speaks about displacement  of the poor during Thursday’s rally (Photo by Mia Duncans)

L.A. Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez speaks about displacement
of the poor during Thursday’s rally (Photo by Mia Duncans)

The march through Venice’s posh Abbot Kinney Boulevard last Thursday to protest the officer-involved shooting death of Brendon Glenn was supposed to be about gentrification.

The pivot to address the killing of an unarmed homeless man by police took organizers less than 24 hours and required very few changes to the program.

“Gentrification is linked to displacement and homelessness and police killings,” said co-organizer Luis Rodriguez, the poet laureate of Los Angeles. “There’s a lot of money coming into Venice, and they’re squeezing out poor communities. The pressure is on to get rid of the people who don’t have the means the newcomers do.”

In the wake of Glenn’s death, many community activists say a migration of wealthy transplants to Venice has escalated tensions between these so-called gentrifiers and Venice’s poor and homeless, as exemplified by a shooting that began as a spat between a panhandler and a bouncer for one of Venice’s most popular bars.

“You hear some people say that the homeless population used to be quieter — that they weren’t as threatening or as violent — but I think what’s happened is the tolerance for aberrant behavior has gotten much lower,” said Steve Clare, executive director of the nonprofit Venice Community Housing Corporation, a nonprofit homelessness resources agency.

Retired television news anchor Bree Walker, who would chat with Glenn while out walking her dog, said even longtime property owners in Venice are under pressure.

“As money comes into any community, those who don’t have money get edged out. Even those of us trying to hang onto old homes are feeling the squeeze. I live in a 1953 cottage and have two big houses going up on each side of me,” Walker said.

Venice’s real estate boom has been particularly destabilizing for the homeless, said software engineer and Occupy Venice organizer Vlad Popescu. He believes frequent beach cleanups, beach curfew enforcement and citations for petty infractions are being used to harass the homeless and push them out.

“This shooting is the culmination of a long-term strategy to push poor people out of Venice,” he said.

“We criminalize the homeless and don’t give them the resources they need, then people say they don’t believe something like this could happen. It happened because homeless people are not treated like human beings,” said Deborah Lashever, a Venice activist fighting to increase the number of free storage units where homeless people can keep their belongings.

Others fault strained relations between the police and poor or minority communities.

Naomi Nightingale, a longtime activist in Venice’s historically black Oakwood neighborhood, said the LAPD broke its promise to improve community outreach after the videotaped 2012 police beating of skateboarder Ronald Weekly Jr. in Oakwood.

A court rejected Weekley’s civil rights lawsuit against the police, but leaders of the LAPD’s Pacific Division promised afterward to form a community relations board.

So far, that hasn’t happened. But in August another videotaped beating did — this time of a homeless man on the boardwalk who refused to sign a citation for illegal vending and an unsecured beach umbrella.

“The idea [of a community outreach board] didn’t go very far. Nothing has really happened to create a consistent dialogue with police,” Nightingale said. “What’s really important to ask is: What now?”

Mark Ryavec , whose Venice Stakeholder’s Association is suing the city for allowing the homeless to camp on Venice Beach in violation of its own ordinances, blames city inaction for the social dynamic underlying Glenn’s shooting and several home break-
ins committed by transients in recent years.

“Some want to read this shooting as part of the larger national picture of police violence toward black men. I see it
within the continuum of violent incidents stemming from the violent, “Lord of the Flies” atmosphere along the boardwalk,” Ryavec said.

“This is a citywide park and it needs citywide resources,” Ryavec said. “Here in our beachside community, a supposedly civilized society allows 741 homeless people — the unofficial count [by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority] earlier this year — to live in the town’s parks, streets and alleys and does almost nothing about it.”

Ryavec and Clare often find themselves on opposite sides of the homelessness debate. When Ryavec penned a column for The Argonaut urging increased enforcement of city laws to curb transient-related violence, Clare wrote a response calling for a more compassionate approach.

Both, however, say the city has failed to put resources into addressing homelessness — Clare complaining that spending to create permanent supportive housing has been almost nonexistent.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice and is vice chair of the council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness, would appear to agree.

“The blame for society’s poor response to homelessness falls on all of us,” Bonin said during Thursday’s LAPD community meeting about Glenn’s shooting death. “We fail when we argue over the right to sleep on the street and forget the battle for the right to live in housing. We fail when we demand that people who are homeless be swept from our communities or thrown in jail. We fail equally when we focus our efforts on making life on the streets more comfortable at the expense of creating a continuum of care that gives people a place to live. We fail when we make LAPD the homeless first responder.”

Reporter Gary Walker contributed to this story.