As skyrocketing property prices have led to an explosion of economic inequality, California has been struggling with a burgeoning homelessness crisis as the rate of newly-minted homeless has doubled since the financial crisis. And while not every homeless person lives in an encampment on Skid Row, the growing scourge of these encampments led the city of LA late last year to double its appropriations for services to meet the needs of the homeless population, as the rate of crimes and public nuisances like discarded syringes and human feces has stoked a quality of life crisis in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like Venice Beach.
A story published in the latest edition of the Hollywood Reporter delves into the growing fallout in Venice Beach over a city proposal to build a new homeless shelter on top of an old metro station. Increasingly, the battle over three shelters proposed to be built in the area - which, unsurprisingly, no city resident who lives near the station supports - has thrown into stark relief the gulf between the politics of liberal Californians and their concerns for their economic interests and personal safety.
Because when a homeless shelter is going up next door, everybody in the neighborhood suddenly becomes a conservative.
Some are even pushing for police to crack down on homeless encampments in the area, as incidences of violent crime and petty theft occur with more frequency.
Residents who live near the encampments say mail regularly goes missing. Break-ins have jumped. Hypodermic needles and human waste are appearing on sidewalks and at local playgrounds. Residents have complained to police about harassment and even physical assaults. "This is more of a criminal problem than a homeless problem," says one resident, who lives next to the so-called Frederick camp adjacent to the Penmar Golf Course.
Residents have even turned against a local Democratic legislator who supports construction of the shelter and who rejects the notion that there's some kind of link between the homeless encampments and the spike in crime.
"There are crime problems in Venice," concedes Mike Bonin, whose Council District 11 includes Venice Beach. Bonin has come under intense criticism for his handling of the homeless crisis by Venice residents displeased with his support of a measure to introduce a massive, $5 million transitional housing project in their city. At the same time, Bonin says, "I can't accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong, it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy."
Increasingly, the residents of Venice Beach are being split by the homelessness issue and how to respond as the homeless encampments grow.
Disagreements over the potential causes of the crimes have begun to factionalize Venice's neighborhoods. "It was six months of terror, absolute terror," says radiologist Maria Altavilla, who lives in east Venice. She says that the period of increased health and safety concerns coincided with the expansion of the homeless encampments the past year. She recently arrived home with her two children to find a woman shooting up in her yard. Lately, her husband has expressed a desire to move because of his frustration with the encampments. Several residents shared an unconfirmed theory - suggested to them by a local patrolman - that certain assailants were using the social media app NextDoor to monitor which residents are most vocal about their opposition to encampments and then targeting those individuals for retribution.
One resident described how the tires on his Range Rover were slashed six times in the span of several months, forcing him to rig a contraption to protect them.
Every time he leaves his home with his family, in a neighborhood that's home to Hollywood stars, he's becoming increasingly paranoid about being robbed.
"It may have been random, but it sure felt targeted and concentrated," says Osborn, who now protects his tires each night with a jury-rigged plywood-and-chain contraption that has so far deterred the assailants. Every time he takes his family out of town, he worries about his house being robbed. "It's not a very fun way to live," he says. A lot of residents within Osborn's 15-block area just east of Lincoln Boulevard - where actor Viggo Mortensen owns a home and director Jon Favreau is opening a production office - have similar stories. And though they can't say for sure, Osborn and others suspect the crime is tied to several homeless encampments that have sprung up nearby in the past 15 months."
In some areas, residents are even banding together to reclaim patches of sidewalk from the homeless encampments.
As the problem worsens, homeowners are banding together to try to reclaim patches of sidewalk in an effort to deter future encampments. At the corner of Millwood Avenue and Lincoln, bulky wood planters now hog much of the sidewalk. Those planters emerged mysteriously two months ago outside a Staples office supply store that was once a popular resting spot for a handful of tent dwellers. The same pattern can be seen on another block, further south on Palms Boulevard, where similar metallic planters have recently appeared.
One resident opined that sometimes it feels like the neighborhood is "one step away from" Guardian Angels-style vigilantism.
On Venice Boulevard in front of Vice Media's offices, a chain-link fence was erected to prohibit tents from going up. Residents around Penmar Golf Course have started a GoFundMe page and have hit their goal of raising $80,000 to fill a pedestrian pathway with native plants and landscaping — a project being called the Frederick Avenue Pass-Through but whose real objective is to deter the large encampment that has ballooned there.
"Honestly, I think we are a step and half away from vigilantism," says a talent manager who has lived in the area for two decades. "I feel like this is heading toward a Guardian Angels type situation that you saw in 1970s New York. Someone is going to go out there with a lead pipe and give someone a serious beatdown. It's awful to say, but I don't see what prevents that from happening."
And since a recent court decision required the LAPD to stop enforcing a ban against sleeping on sidewalks until a sufficient amount of low-income and shelter-focused housing could be built, residents say the tension with the homeless community has only escalated.
"It's worse than it's ever been," says Tami Pardee, Venice's top real estate broker, who moved to the area in 1993. "But sometimes it has to get like this for a real movement to start." Compass' Mark Kitching says that in the past year, four buyers he worked with opted out of purchasing after unpleasant encounters with homeless residents when touring the area. "The Palisades is looking way more attractive when you are thinking about schools and cleanliness," he says.
Tension came to a head during a town hall meeting with LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and Bonin where residents hurled angry chants and questioned whether the three housing projects for the homeless currently underway in Venice Beach are tantamount to forcing the area to shoulder an unfair share of the homeless burden.
Things reached a boiling point at a packed town hall meeting in October, when residents got a chance to address the city's plans to open a 154-bed transitional ("bridge") housing shelter set to be built on a former Metro bus yard at Sunset and Pacific avenues (the plan was approved by the City Council in December). At the four-hour meeting, Bonin and Mayor Eric Garcetti were targets of angry chants and tirades that effectively centered on whether Venice was being asked to unfairly shoulder the burden for the entire Westside's homeless population. Bonin says he had an obligation to place the bridge housing for his district in Venice because that is "where the problem is most acute" (each council district is required to open a bridge-housing shelter under a City Hall directive). Those opposed to the shelter contend that the site is too close to schools and residences.
"We have a homeless problem that needs to be addressed," says screenwriter and Venice resident Michael Lerner. "But the solutions being proposed are these pie-in-the-sky ideas that don't make economic sense. If you're talking about providing shelter for tens of thousands of homeless people but your solutions are costing $475,000 per unit, you're not going to shelter a lot of people."
The upshot of this is that as the city allocates more resources to solve the issue of rising homelessness, the problems seem to become increasingly intractable.
And more compassionate California liberals are increasingly resorting to the refrain: Not in my back yard!